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

How to Outline Your Book Effectively

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I hate outlining. When I outline, I have a very hard time getting my creative juices flowing. I want to be knocking out pages, writing dialogue, creating colorful descriptions. It’s like cleaning my house before a party when I really want to be drinking wine and laughing with my friends.

Is outlining even necessary? I have a writer friend who doesn’t believe in it. He has a theme in mind, a main character, and a few other elements. Then he just starts writing and sees where it leads. That method seems to work for him. His books are good.

But it doesn’t work for me. While the writing initially feels good, I inevitably run into brick walls where I feel lost without a map. I have no idea which way to go.

So it’s back to the outline for me.

After outlining many screenplays and three books, I’ve come up with a few tips I’d like to share. Hopefully, they’ll help you write a better outline, and in turn, a better book.

  1. Drill down into your story. Start with the big picture. Where does the story start? Where will it end? What are the three or four major turning points? Write those first before you get into the details.
  2. Stay focused on your theme. It should resonate in ever chapter and every scene. If it doesn’t, consider cutting or changing that section.
  3. Break your outline down on paper, on your computer screen, or even on PostIt Notes. I usually break mine down by chapters and scenes. These change over the course of writing. The outline helps me to keep track.
  4. Make sure each section connects with the one before it and after it. Sometimes I write a favorite scene, but when I look at the outline, I realize it interrupts the flow of the story. I either have to cut it or move it elsewhere.
  5. As you write each section, give it some “juice.” Especially when you’re on your second or third draft of your book, add a little dialogue and spruce up the descriptions in your outline. It will help connect you with the magic of your story.
  6. Read over your outline many times. Look for the holes in it. Look for strained connections from one scene to the next. Do important characters disappear for lengthy periods? Does the story get bogged down? This is where number 5 will help.
  7. Have other people read it too.
  8. Whenever you feel stuck in your book, go back and write a new outline.
  9. When you’re finished with your first draft, read it and write yet another outline from it.
  10. When you’ve finished the second and third draft, outline again.
  11. And again, and again. Your book should, must, will evolve as you discover the characters and the story. If you keep re-outlining, you’ll have a better sense of the story arc.

Outlines are the annoying friend you can’t live without. Treat them with kindness and respect and they’ll pay you back many times over.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Wading into the Cultural Appropriation Minefield

In case you haven’t been keeping up on news in the literary world, novelist Lionel Shriver was raked over the coals last week for defending cultural appropriation in her address to a Australian writers conference.

I can’t judge what she said. I wasn’t there and her speech hasn’t been posted by the conference. I only know what I read in the New York Times. I do think cultural appropriation should be taken seriously. Throughout history, minorities have been mostly powerless to stop the dominate culture from using their images and culture for art and entertainment. We have become more sensitive about the practice, but we still have a long way to go. While very few white people would show up at a party in black face, we still have a football team called the Redskins that fans fiercely defend in the name of “tradition.”

But those are relatively simple examples. When we look at how white writers use minority characters and cultures in their books, it becomes much more complicated.

I remember reading the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, to my daughter. I was curious to also read the original 1930 edition. The caretaker in that version is a drunken, comical African American. Readers back then were so familiar with the stereotype they probably didn’t think twice about it. The 1959 version changes the caretaker to a white man. There’s no more ethnic stereotype, but on the other hand, there’s no longer a minority character in the novel.

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Some cultural appropriation activists believe writers from the dominate culture should never portray people of color in their books. Their argument is that we can’t understand their experience and the nuances of their culture. We end up creating a dishonest or superficial portrait of them. There’s truth in this. We as writers need to thoroughly understand our characters’ worlds. Those worlds become more authentic when we “write what we know.” But it also means we turn our novels into a bland, safe paste that literally lacks color.

Even writing positive minority characters can be disrespectful. When I was a screenwriter, I don’t know how many scripts I read featuring a “Magical Negro” as Spike Lee dubbed the character — a wise black man or woman, sometimes with supernatural powers, who advises the main white character and helps him overcome his emotional obstacles. Morgan Freeman has practically made a career out of playing these characters!

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There are other issues to consider. Even someone from a minority culture doesn’t understand all aspects of it. Should there never be another Holocaust novel because how can any writer who hasn’t lived through that experience write about it authentically? Should an African American writer who grew up in an affluent community write about the inner city experience? It becomes very complicated!

So what do we as writers do? First of all, I think we need to look long and hard at all our characters and why they’re in our novel. Did we make a character black or Latino or Asian just to add diversity? That’s not enough. Characters need to be fully realized in the context of the story and their culture, whether they’re white, black, brown, or any color in-between.

I think it’s also important if you’re portraying aspects of a culture you’re not part of, whether it’s a Native American ritual or an inner city barrio, to talk to people who know it well. Have them read and react to your book. Listen to them.

We as writers need to push boundaries in our lives and writing. We need to write unafraid that we might provoke negative reactions. But we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to consider the impact of what we write, and how it affects readers of all backgrounds.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

How to Fake it Till You Make it as a Writer

I was listening to an interesting story on NPR not long ago. In it, a schlubby nobody wanted to find out what it feels like to be famous. He got some friends and strangers to pose as bodyguards, an assistant, and paparazzi. They walked through midtown Manhattan, treating him like the star he wasn’t, and guess what? People believed it. Gawkers gawked, girls swarmed. They imagined he was someone famous they had seen on TV or in a movie. For a short time, he faked his way into celebrity.

Most writers suffer from self-doubt. Voices scream in our heads, You’re a fake, a loser, a hack. You’ll never be a success, and if you are, the next book will bomb. I firmly believe that’s why Harper Lee never wrote a second book and why many writers turn to drink.

But we can change those negative messages and turn our writing, and our lives around.

I was recently struggling through a period when everything I wrote was terrible. The story, the characters, and the dialogue in my new book felt like bile I was throwing up on the page. I started avoiding writing, distracting myself with unpleasant household chores.

But after hearing the NPR story, I decided that if I couldn’t be a good writer, I could at least pretend to be one. Every morning I woke up, looked in the mirror, and repeated a phrase I had learned from author Julia Cameron: “You are a brilliant and prolific writer.”

It was so simple, but it worked. After giving myself a positive message, I more eager to sit down at my laptop, and the pages started to flow. I felt like Popeye after gulping down a can of spinach. The negative voices were subdued, and I became a “brilliant and prolific writer,” at least for the day.

Faking it till you make it can work in social situations too. Suppose you heard that an agent you thought would be perfect to represent you was going to be at a writing conference. You sign up. Now imagine two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by other wannabe authors. You tell yourself, Why would she be interested in me? My stuff isn’t good. I’ve already been rejected by 50 agents. Even if she agreed to read my manuscript, it would probably end up in the trash.

I’m sure you can imagine what you might do after all those negative messages. You’d probably end up at the cash bar, hiding your face in shame.

But what if, instead, you decided to fake it.

Scenario 2: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by wannabe authors. But that’s not you. You’re already successful. You’ve had 10 books on the best seller list. You already have an agent, but perhaps would be in the market for a new one if she was right for you.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to lie to the agent. You’d be found out pretty quickly. I’m telling you to lie to yourself. Play the role of the successful author. Approach the agent with confidence. Introduce yourself and make firm eye contact. Invite her to read your latest manuscript. You might just end up at the cash bar sharing a drink with her.

I know this sounds fake. It is. You’re playing a part for yourself. Remember the guy who pretended to be a celebrity? He never told anyone he was famous. He just played the part and they came to their own conclusions.

Many years ago, I read about another way to fake it till you make. I don’t recall the title of the self-help book, but its premise was, Act like it was impossible to fail.

We all know failure is a fact of life for writers. I have the rejection letters to prove it. Again, this isn’t about telling yourself that you can’t fail. You’ll know you’re lying. It means to act like you can’t fail. What would you do if you acted like the novel you were planning couldn’t fail? What if you acted like it was destined to be a Harry Potter-like hit and buy you a French chateau? Would you put it off, or would  you get down to some serious writing?

Try this for a day, a week, a month. Try it the next time you write a query letter or go to a conference. Try it the next time you meet a hot guy at a party.

“What do you do?” he asks.

“I’m a writer,” you reply without apology or hesitation.

Best wishes,

Kelee

 

Taking a Vacation from Writing

It’s summer, in case you haven’t noticed. Time changes in many ways. The days get longer. Sometimes they’re lazy, sometimes harried, but they have a very different feel than the rest of the year. For families, the regularity of the school year is on hold. Instead, there are camps, playdates, trips to the beach, and too much time watching Netflix. (At least for my kids.)

It’s difficult for me to make the transition to summer. I feel guilty that I’m not writing more. I’ll allocate a few hours to write, but I’ve forgotten I have to take a kid to an appointment, or I have to run a forgotten lunch over to camp. The day gets away. I’ve lost my rhythm. My writing suffers.

Then it’s time to head out of town for an extended family trip. I leave writing completely behind. After a day or two, I don’t miss it. Instead, I focus on scenery and family time. I allow my brain to recharge. The chapter I’ve been struggling with will still be there when I return, but perhaps I’ll have a new perspective on it. I keep faith with the idea of process, not results. Taking time off is part of the process. I’m still a writer even if I don’t churn out several thousand words per day. I give myself permission to take a break, to recharge, to live life outside the page.

Happy summer, everyone. I’ll see you when I get back!

Kelee

The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Killing Your Babies

I loved the opening scene of the new romance novel I’m working on, Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It was funny, with great dialogue, intriguing characters, and page-turning thrills. Best of all, I’d given it what I thought was an interesting twist. We first see our heroine, Julina Trevers, through the eyes of her caddish ex-boyfriend. I was so proud of myself.

There was just one problem.

My first-round readers hated the scene.

If this was a Kindle sample, one wrote, I would never download itI was confused, wrote another. Who’s the protagonist? They went on: Too long. The boyfriend never reappears. Why focus so much on a dislikable character?

I wanted to rail, to tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about. They couldn’t see clever writing if it hit them over the head. But these were all experienced writers and readers, and it wasn’t just two or three of them who didn’t like the scene, as is usually the case. They all hated it equally.

I had invested so much time and energy into this opening. I couldn’t bare to throw it out. Instead, I put aside the manuscript and spent several weeks working on my other book-in-progress. Now I’ve returned to it, and it’s still painful to change, but I’m doing it.

Killing your babies (or darlings for the more sensitive among you) is such an apt metaphor for what a writer has to go through. We’ve birthed these characters, scenes, plot lines, and sometimes, whole books. It’s agony to have to take a butcher knife to them, to slash them apart and resemble them. Sometimes they end up in the compost heap like yesterday’s dinner.

But as writers, we have to remember, compost isn’t trash. It breaks down and becomes something lovely and new that will eventually nourish our creative garden. Those lines of dialogue or the great character we created may someday end up in another book, right where they belonged all the time.

Writers, feel the pain and agony of killing your babies, but remember, they will live again.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Every Writer Needs an Editor

I haven’t seen the new movie Genius starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. I’m not sure I will see it; it’s received mostly poor reviews. But I love that it focuses on the important relationship between writer and editor.

Genius is about the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and the larger-than-life literary giant Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe is in love with words. Lots of words. The book he’s submitted to Perkins – O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life – is nearly 100,000 words too long, at least in Perkins’s opinion. Wolfe feels a bit differently.

Perkins and Wolfe engage in a protracted battle to cut the manuscript to what Perkins considered a manageable size. Perkins was finally able to convince the author to cut 60,000 words. Some critics still see the published version, which was retitled Look Homeward, Angel, as too long and undisciplined at 544 pages. (The original O Lost was published in 2000 if you’re interested in comparing the two.) I haven’t read O Lost, but as a writer, I would object to some of Perkins’s cuts that were based on fear of offending people. (For example, according to the New York Times, “Another passage was cut because Perkins thought it would be interpreted as a criticism of sportsmanship, which in 1929 was equated with patriotism.) But many of the cuts were for sound reasons, to make the book better and, ultimately, more successful.

A good editor is invaluable to a writer. Even the most seasoned writer has a difficult time seeing the flaws in her own work. We’re too close to it, too in love with our characters and words. Or, just as likely, we know our manuscript is far from perfect, but we don’t know how to fix it, and it’s torture even to try.

Self-published writers are at a big disadvantage in the literary world. Most of us can’t afford to hire a good editor, let alone a great one. Instead, we cobble together friends, family, and strangers to read our work. I was very fortunate to find a good editor to help me with my first romance novel, Goddess. I advise all writers to take their time and diligently search for the right person who can turn a mediocre manuscript into a good or even great published work.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

Writing in the First Person

When I was a screenwriter, I had no choice but to write in the third person. It’s hard to imagine how one would do anything else. Movies almost always work best as third person experiences.  (Watch the 1947 Robert Montgomery movie Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point-of-view, and you’ll see why.)

When I started writing Goddess, my first romance novel, I was excited by the chance to write in the first person. I found in liberating. It was like sitting around a campfire, sharing a story that happened to me personally. I was able to live the story moment by moment as Julia Nelson slowly but inevitably falls for the hot, enigmatic archeologist Ashland Stewart. it was almost as if I was in bed with him, experiencing every touch, every sensation. It made writing an erotic romance seem easy… and exciting.

But I also learned the pitfalls of the first person perspective.

Writing a romance novel in the first person isn’t a popular choice for a reason. A romance is about two people. (Unless it’s autoerotic, which might be interesting.) When we’re first getting to know someone romantically, there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out the other person’s intentions and nature. But in third person fiction, the reader can be inside both characters’ heads. We can know what that hot guy is thinking. Of course, that does take some of the suspense out of the narrative, but it helps us understand him more.

One of the criticisms I heard about my early drafts of Goddess was that Ashland wasn’t as well developed as Julia, my point-of-view character. This made complete sense. We knew everything Julia was feeling and thinking. We didn’t have that same luxury with Ashland. It took a lot of rewriting to make Ashland more three-dimensional. But I knew he could never be as fully developed as his lover. That’s just one of the compromises a writer has to make when writing in the first person.

My training as a screenwriter did help me avoid one of the pitfalls new writers often fall into when writing in the first person. In a script, a writer shouldn’t put information on the page that the audience watching the finished movie couldn’t possibly know. A screenwriter has to portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings through outward action and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s considered cheating and is frowned on by script readers.

Too many new writers working in the first person also try to cheat when conveying information they want the reader to know. One of the most popular (and most cliche) way is through the overheard conversation. (Or, in the age of cellphones, the stumbled upon text or voicemail message.)

The other pit writers fall into is getting stuck in their main character’s head. The story becomes a constant recitation of her thoughts and feelings. It’s enough to give the reader a splitting headache.

When writing in the first person, it’s important to remain grounded in time and space. What can your character see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? After all, while we may constantly have thoughts swirling around in our brains, we’re also are focused on the world around us. (Unless you’re a narcissist!)

If you’ve never written in the first person, I would suggest giving it a try. It may just change your own perspective on your story, and on your writing.

Best wishes,

Kelee

Raising the Stakes in Your Romance Novel

When you’re a screenwriter, “raise the stakes” is a command you hear often. Put your hero in more danger, make failure more cataclysmic, get your audience on the edge of their seats and compel them to stay there.

Raising the stakes can be difficult in a romance novel. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Girl doesn’t get boy? Most readers and publishers insist on an HEA ending, so that’s probably not going to go over well.

In GoddessI raised the stakes high by making my heroine a married mother of three daughters. She has a lot to lose by getting involved with another man, no matter how incredibly hot he is. Some readers didn’t like the premise, but other reviewers wrote that they couldn’t put the book down. Nobody said high stakes were pretty. They shouldn’t be.

I was thinking about this last weekend after watching the movie Two Days, One Night. It’s a French drama written and directed by the Dardenne brothers. Sandra, the heroine, has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so their company won’t lay her off.

There are some inherent stakes already built into this premise. We learn that Sandra and her husband have escaped public housing thanks to her job. If she gets fired, they’ll have to go back. Still, it’s not like they’ll be out on the street.

But the Dardenne brothers raise the stakes even higher. Sandra has missed a lot of work because she suffers from depression. (That’s the unspoken reason the company wants to get rid of her.) She’s recovering, but still on shaky ground. If she loses her job, it could push her over the edge.

But wait, as the telemarketers say, there’s more. Sandra now has to talk to each of her co-workers and convince them to vote on Monday to give up their bonuses. Some of them say they’re in financial situations as bad as hers. Others just won’t give up their money to help what they consider to be a lazy co-worker.

Obviously, there’s a lot of drama in this simple situation, and yet there’s one more level of stakes built into the story. Sandra has to keep depression and despair at bay while reluctantly talking to sometimes hostile people. She pops Xanax constantly to get through this ordeal. She’s on the verge of losing not just her job, but her husband, her sanity, even her life. Now those are some high stakes!

You can see how, even in premise as simple as the one in Two Days, One Night, or in a romance novel, there are many ways to raise the stakes organically, without resorting to mob hitmen, natural disasters, or terminal illnesses.

It’s something to think about when you’re outlining your next romance novel.

Happy writing!

Kelee