Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hope, Faith, and the Rules of Romance

by Joanne Kennedy

Hope is at the heart of every romance novel. The heroine hopes for love and a better life. The hero hopes he can be the one who helps her realize her dreams. The reader hopes for a happy ending. And the author hopes the whole thing works out, too.

Hope is a big part of my writing process. When I begin a book, I have an idea of how my story's going to go -- but so much depends on something beyond myself. Maybe it's inspiration, maybe it's a muse, but I think it's a kind of magic contained in stories themselves, something that brings them alive and makes all the pieces fit together like blocks in a Rubik's Cube sliding into place.

When I start a story, I hope the magic works. I hope my characters grow and develop in my mind until they become fully real. I hope my plot works as well in practice as it does in theory, with all those pieces sliding together to make a cohesive whole. I hope the themes I'm dealing with come to mean more and more to me as I'm writing, so they'll mean something to the reader when I'm done.

I once tried to write a novel without hope. I decided that leaving anything to chance was just too risky, so I created a massive, detailed outline before I started. I calculated every character's goal, motivation and conflict, and wrote little biographies for every single person who appeared in the story. I put each plot point on a sticky note, using different colors for the different types of scenes. I organized the notes on the wall of my little office in the attic, putting high-tension scenes toward the top, less exciting ones lower down (see picture). I used every technique I'd ever read about or learned in a workshop to make darn sure my novel would work.

It sounded like a sensible, productive way to work. If I had the story all worked out in every detail, I wouldn't have to count on inspiration or muses or magic, right? I'd know exactly what scene I had to write and what elements needed to be included.

But all that planning took the spontaneity out of the process, and it felt like I'd killed the poor story before it even started. The characters were boring. The plot felt flat and dull. Everything was pre-ordained, and there was nothing left to hope for.

So I tossed the outline along with what I'd written, set my characters loose to do what they wanted, and hoped for the best. It turned out the characters weren't the people I'd planned on, and the plot didn't go where I expected -- but the book, which turned out to be One Fine Cowboy, was just nominated for a RITA Award (yeah, I had to mention that somehow!). I've received lots of e-mails from readers saying they felt like I was telling their personal story in the book, so who knows where the magic came from?

Not that outlining is a bad thing. Doing it in that detailed way was still an education, and the various methods helped me understand the skeleton that lies under a story. And of course, different things work for different writers. I know a guy who writes an eighty-page outline for his novels, and he consistently makes the bestseller lists. So obviously, it works for some people!

But what works for me is outlining just enough to write a proposal and synopsis that bear some resemblance to the finished book. Then I let the story unfold as I go, and I love the way characters create themselves and determine their destinies as various parts of the story weave together in unexpected ways. In the end, hope is a big part of my writing process -- hope, and a little faith in magic.

Casababes, how does your writing process work? Do you outline, or set off on your adventure without much planning? Readers, are you planners or pantsers? Do you plan every moment of your day, or just fly by the seat of your pants?

18 comments:

  1. I once tried writing the synopsis first. It made for a much more cohesive book, but writing it wasn't much fun. I'd rather have the fun!

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  2. I'm glad you tossed all those colored notes in the trash and turned your characters loose out of their pens. I've always felt like if I got things too organized my characters would be like you said, flat! You must have done a fine job when you took the chains off them because it netted you a RITA nomination. YAY, Joanne!

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  3. As someone who's just starting their third manuscript, my process is still evolving, but one thing I've learned is that I need to put in a fair amount of character development time up front before the plot becomes apparent, and that I don't like to start writing scenes until I have a vague idea where I'm going loot-wise. I guess I'm a pantsalotter!

    I start the process 'thinking out loud' with my favorite pen on blank white paper, doodling, gestating, free-associating, just seeing where my brain takes me, not pushing it - which can be hard to do if I can't push the deadline out of my mind first. I doodle heat maps, flow charts, affinity diagrams, fishbone charts, and I sometimes even pseudocode the sequencing of scenes as they come to me. As a technologist, I find it kinda hilarious that I've adapted the tools of my day job trade to writing, but...they work for me. I'm a visual thinker, and the connections I see when I doodle this way helps expose the possible structure of my story. Once I have a pretty good idea of what happens in the first couple of chapters, I can start to write the manuscript.

    For me, a key part of the process is ignoring the calendar for awhile - which feels scary, knowing I have a deadline.

    Congratulations on the RITA nomination! I'll be there in NYC cheering you on.

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  4. --> I don't like to start writing scenes until I have a vague idea where I'm going loot-wise.

    Um, that would be "plot-wise."

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  5. Cheryl, I think the reader can tel when you (and your characters) are having fun! I put in the cohesiveness at the end, after the first draft plays out.

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  6. Carolyn, thanks for the YAY! I still can't believe it.
    I can tell you're having fun when I read your books, too! And your cowboys are definitely having a good time.
    But I didn't throw the colored notes in the trash. They look so pretty, I left them up there. They really impress visitors because it looks like I'm working so hard!

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  7. Tamara, I love the term "pantsalotter!" I think the process evolves for all of us, and it's different for everybody. That's why it's so much fun to talk to other writers and see how they do it.

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  8. Tamara, sorry, I didn't see the rest of your post right away and I have to comment on it! I would love to see all your visual charting methods! Heat map, affinity diagram, fishbone chart? I don't know what those are, but I'd love to learn. Sounds like a workshop in the making!

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  9. Congratulations on the Rita Nomination, Joanne!

    In 2006 (I think) I had written Romeo, Romeo and was in the process of rewriting it when I first heard Michael Hauge speak at Nationals. He'll be at Nationals again this year--Any workshop he gives is IMHO a DO NOT MISS.

    I had just come from a plotting workshop which had me questioning everything I'd ever written. This led to a disastrous agent/editor appointment, and the two terrible experiences combined had me seriously considering suicide. Then I heard Michael Hauge speak. I realized I wasn't doing everything wrong--I was doing a whole lot right, I just didn't do it using GMC charts which might work really well for some, but not me. Frankly, charts and graphs make my ass twitch. I'm a straight line girl.

    Michael Hague's Six-Stage Plot Structure spoke to me--at 10% this happens, at 25% this happens, at 50% you hit the point of no return--It has a plot arc and a character arc and I know what has to happen when. As I was leaving, I stopped Michael Hauge in the hall and thanked him for saving my life. I'm sure he thought I was a bit off then, now that he knows me, he's sure of it. Still, the man is my hero and I finally have a way of plotting that gives me just enough to keep me on track and not to much to make me feel as if I've already written the book.

    I write what I call a Storyline Synopsis--which is pretty much me telling the entire story with the stages and turning points. Then I put it away and forget about it for a while. I start writing, and when things occur to me for later in the book, I just add it to my storyline synopsis--even dialogue. When I get to that section of the book, sometimes it works and I cut and past it, sometimes it doesn't. Either way, my storyline follows Michael's structure, and is still fluid and growing. I've written the last 4 books that way and I couldn't be happier.

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  10. Thank, Robin! I saw that Michael Hauge is speaking at Nationals and he's definitely on my list. I'm a workshop junkie and that's one I've missed. It sounds great! Thanks for sharing your process with us - you know I love your books and it's great to get insight into how you work.

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  11. I always like to plan my day. Sometimes it doesn't work out the way I planned!?!?

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  12. Danielle, you must be a planner, because whenever I have a new book release, you plan my whole month! Not that I'm complaining - I don't know how I'd get it together if you weren't there helping me along.

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  13. First of all, HUGE congratulations on your RITA nomination!! That is totally awesome!!

    I actually have dome the sticky note thing - had to laugh at your picture since I've had a wall look very similar! Though I didn't use that technique until after I had written the first draft and wanted to work on my plot flow. It was helpful in that context, but I totally understand needing to let characters live and breathe for themselves and just write it down as it goes. Sometimes I try to do something with a character and they won't let me. Sometimes they do something I totally didn't expect.

    Clearly you have found what works for you and we all get to enjoy the results!

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  14. Joanne, major congrats on the RITA nomination! I'll be in the crowd cheering you on.

    Like Tamara, my process is still evolving. I've found that I like having a road map, but invariably the road curves and swerves so much the back half of the map is useless. LOL

    It's a work in progress. :)

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  15. Amanda, I agree that a lot of the plot-flow and organizational techniques work great after you've finished a first draft. That seems to be the perfect process for me. And yours obviously works for you!

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  16. Tracey, thanks for the congrats! Honestly, I wasn't fishing! I thought long and hard about mentioning the nomination in there, because honestly, I don't like to brag. But it shows that the book worked in spite of its early and untimely death and difficult resurrection.
    I know what you mean about the back half of the road, though. Sometimes I wonder if my characters screw up my plans on purpose!

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  17. So proud of you and your RITA nomination, Joanne! I can say I knew you when.

    I pants the first half of a book and then do a bit of plotting to make sure I tie up everything by the end of the book. So yeah, pantsalotter, here. I'm totally stealing that term.

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  18. I'm the same way, Joanne. There has to be surprises along the way for me, cause otherwise the story has already been told, and what's the fun in that? Great post!

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