If the word “theme” gives you flashbacks to high school lit class and your withered soul is croaking “Kiiiiill meeeee,” relax. This is not about guessing the intention of some writer who’s been dead for 400 years (or, more accurately, guessing what the teacher’s guide guesses was the intention of some writer who’s been dead for 400 years). There will not be a test. Theme is but a tool in the writer’s toolbox, as a hammer is in a carpenter’s. The person reading the book or sitting in the chair can sense the stability of the structure without ever thinking about the tools used to achieve it. Only the craftsman needs to know how it was accomplished.
From the mailbag:
Q1: Did you learn anything while writing this book?
A1: It’s too soon to call it “learned,” but I did have a realization in the postproduction period (too late to apply to this book, but maybe next time).
In real life, I over-explain as much as possible, hoping to be thorough and eliminate followup questions. I’m an anxious introvert, so I script and rehearse that explanation until I think I’ve got every angle covered, and then I blank and panic if asked something off-script (including challenging questions like “What’s your name?”). Therefore, my goal is to answer every question before there’s a need to ask it.
My last two books have been between 130,000 and 140,000 words. For comparison purposes, average length for standalone romance used to be 100,000, and it seems to be trending down toward 80,000 recently as production speed gets prioritized. So 130,000 is quite lengthy, and that’s after cutting a whole subplot and leaving out 20 scenes I loved but couldn’t squeeze into the story’s timeline. Keeping it to a mere 130,000 was restraint—I could easily have gone an extra 50,000.
I’ve always known much over 100,000 words is too long, but my realization (which I will tell you now that I’ve OVER-EXPLAINED!) is that I overwrite because of that real-life tendency. If there’s a tangent in a story, I am compelled to go down it and explore every nook and cranny so you know I didn’t overlook anything and I WAS THOROUGH, so there’s no need to question me about what lies down that path.
The problem is that most of those tangents don’t serve the story, only my neuroses. A better use of my time would be finding ways to eliminate those tangents so there’s nothing about which to say “Hey, you overlooked this and weren’t THOROUGH,” thus freeing us all to concentrate on the important parts of the story.
I’ve already gotten myself into a “Gah! This is 50 pounds of plot in a 5-pound bag!” situation with my current plot-storming, but I have to remind myself this is the exploratory phase, when tangents are possibilities, not pitfalls. The point of plotting is to arrive at focus for the writing portion of the program, and until the map is drawn with nice, clean lines connecting the milestones along the best route, I’m allowed to roam far and wide in search of hidden treasure.
Q2: Whatcha writing next?
A2: I’m still deep in the “maybe this is a stupid idea and I shouldn’t pursue it” woods, so I don’t want to tell you something that might no longer be true by tomorrow.
While banging ideas together, a major character-defining event in the heroine’s backstory (which was the entire reason she popped into my mind) has broken off and gotten tossed, and without that backstory event, a subplot I’d already mapped all the way through no longer applies and has to go, and a family relationship affected by that event and the theme I planned to use based on that relationship no longer apply, which makes the story I thought I would be writing yesterday unrecognizable today. Something better will come from the changes (ideas that break the first time you handle them are too flimsy to see the light of day and need to be replaced with stronger material), but at this stage, the story could turn into almost anything. It would be misleading to tell you much before I even arrive at an outline that makes sense.
This is why I advocate outlining/plotting/whatever you want to call forethought in the writing process. Every idea seems great in isolation, but the instant you start putting them together, they don’t fit in the designated spots, they break, they’re ugly, and you’ve got a huge mess. Nobody likes abandoning a story they’ve put tens of thousands of words into, but forging ahead with that mess like nobody’s going to notice it’s a mess is doing a disservice to all parties involved. Forethought tells you up front, before you put weeks or months of writing into a doomed project, what’s absolutely not going to work so you can replace the weak parts with sturdy ones.
You’re unlikely to foresee every little stumbling block that will come up during the writing process, but they’ll be little stumbling blocks you can cope with rather than huge, story-breaking problems, all of which were slain during the planning phase.
Q3: Do you do anything to celebrate finishing a book?
A3: Usually, being able to move on is its own reward (I often liken getting out of a book to getting out of a bad relationship—he’ll never get a comeuppance for doing me wrong and I’ll never get back a dime of the money he “borrowed,” so I’m only hurting myself by dwelling on it), but this book was such a grueling experience, I got a writing ring to commemorate not quitting a thousand times.
Yes, those are turtles. Because I’m slow, get it? I’m also quite comfortable in the safety of my shell, and I’m hard on the outside and squishy inside, so I am basically a turtle.
I have a question. WHEN DID MY HANDS GET SO SHRIVELLY? The one time that camera takes a half-clear photo, it has to be of my elephantine skin.
You might even say my pachy-dermis. *ba-dum-TISH*
(I’m not sorry. If I were a fairy tale princess, my heart would go to the suitor with the best terrible puns—the Kryptonite of word nerds. And turtles.)
If you want to know anything else, deposit questions in the comments.
Posting a little early because the rest of my month looks like a postapocalyptic hellscape and I’m not in the mood to read more fiction, anyway (as will become apparent below). I set my 2018 Goodreads Challenge for 24 books because 2 books a month seemed achievable even in a disaster situation. Since they count every type of “finished,” including DNF CLEANSE IT WITH HOLY FIRE, I’m already done for the year, according to them! 🎉 🎇 ✨ 💪 💃 🐙 🎆 🎊 🌟 Going by books I’ve actually read all the way through, though, I’m at 16, so I’ll hold off on my victory parade a little while longer.
Links go to Amazon and are affiliate-coded. I buy all my books and have no involvement, professional or personal, with any party named below.
(The Book is with The Editor, so I’m twiddling my thumbs and don’t know what to do with myself for the first time since 2016. What better way to pass the time than by publishing a manifesto?)
Several years ago, I had a publishing experience that was so wretched, I said, “Fuck it. I hate writing. I quit.” I did quit, but I slowly came to realize what I hate is publishing. In fact, I love writing, I’m miserable without it, and breaking up was a dreadful mistake. But before we got back together, I insisted on setting some boundaries defining who I am and who I want to be (and don’t want to be) as a writer, as well as matters on which I will never again compromise. Sometimes I add to this writing manifesto, but mostly I simply review its message to keep me focused and on course.
From the interwebs:
My book is a romance, not erotica, because you can take out the sex scenes without affecting the plot!
If you can take out any scene without the whole plot falling apart, it’s a bad scene.
In romance, sex scenes are markers of relationship development. In many books, the characters are intimately involved for a prolonged period, but not every boning session during that time warrants page time—only the ones at points of change. A few examples:
- The first time is obviously a change from a platonic status to a sexual one.
- A subsequent encounter triggers the realization in a vulnerable moment that pants feelings have changed to heart feelings.
- An encounter that’s more _______ (rough, tender, spontaneous, daring) than the usual reveals there’s another side to a character or relationship to explore further.
- Make-up sex after a fight or reconciliation sex after a split signifies new understanding and appreciation of each other.
- My favorite is always the combo of relationship-building sex and external plot events: “While you were busy screwing, A Bad Thing™ happened that you could have easily prevented if you’d been here, so I hope the orgasm was worth the guilt and angst you’ll be wallowing in for the rest of your days.”
The crucial point in all of these is SOMETHING HAS CHANGED. Every scene that follows should be about the situation post-change. Behavior should adjust accordingly. If you “just take out the sex scenes,” there should be an obvious, logic-destroying gap in how they got from point A to point C.
BECAUSE SEX SCENES HAVE THE SAME TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS AS EVERY OTHER SCENE.
With the exception of friends-to-fuckbuddies, it’s possible to show the above changes without sex. Just as when the change you want is to remove the protagonist’s Obi-Wan so he has to fend for himself, you have creative options to choose from: kill sensei, have him leave in anger, send him off on another mission. You choose based on what consequences you want to set in motion because the scene doesn’t exist in isolation. The action in the scene matters less than the change it causes. If you choose sex as the action that creates the change, the scene is no more disposable than any other chosen action would have been.
If your sex scenes don’t matter to the plot, it’s not because it’s a romance. It’s because the scenes aren’t doing their job. That’s not a romance issue—that’s a writing issue.