It’s the time of year for gathering with friends and family, so I invited my good friend and fellow author, David Lee Summers, and his wife, over for dinner. David writes steampunk, science fiction, and horror, so naturally the conversation turned to fiction writing, and famous fictional characters. We got to talking about Star Wars.
I love Star Wars. I saw the first one on the big screen a few weeks after it premiered, and it was amazing. To me, it was sort of like a sci-fi version of Camelot, complete with knights, a princess, and an evil wizard. What made the story work was the characters. We talked about how well all the characters were thought out and developed. Then came the prequels. (Not bad. Not great, but not bad.) After that came Disney. Ugh! Suffice to say the rest of the conversation was about the importance of character arcs and consistency in storytelling.
So, what can I say? Some people get together and discuss sports, current events, or politics. Get storytellers together, and we’ll sit around and analyze famous, iconic characters, and talk about what makes them work. Our inspiration often comes from other storytellers.
Writing novels is an interesting profession, to say the least. I’m often asked how I come up with my ideas. Typically, it happens when I’m busy doing something else.
So here I am, busy doing something else
Let’s say I’m busy baking cookies. My mind wanders as I’m mixing the dough. I may be reminiscing about something from my past. Or maybe I’m recalling an interesting story a friend once told me. Whatever it is, my mind is relaxed. Then, all of a sudden, aha! The light comes on and I’m thinking, “Dang, this could be a really good idea for a book.”
Next stop–the back burner
So an idea just came to me out of the blue. Now I have to figure out if it’s a good idea, or a bad idea. I’ll spend days, maybe longer, mulling it around. I’ll play out a few scenes in my head and come up with some ideas for characters. In other words, I’m playing a grown up version of Let’s Pretend. Then, once I have something I think will work, I start putting pen to paper.
Writing the treatment
I wrote detailed treatments for my first few contemporary romance novels, such as The Reunion. It’s a common practice in the writing profession. A treatment is a summary of the story we plan to write. I used mine to describe how I would begin, and end my story and summarize my idea for the middle. Typically, my treatments were about a page and a half long. Once it was finished I set it aside and didn’t look at it again. I knew my beginning and my ending. It was time for me to start working on the story itself.
My adventures with my imaginary friends
Every fiction writer I know experiences this phenomenon. Our characters turn into real people. Or at least they do to us. Each has his or her own unique personality. That is, unless you write science fiction of fantasy. Then your characters may become real aliens or dragons in your head. However, I write contemporary romance. My characters are mostly human with the exception of a few dogs or horses, and the dogs and horses also have distinct personalities.
It’s an interesting symbiotic relationship. Not only are the characters living, breathing people, at least to me, they also come and talk to me. Not verbally. I don’t hear voices in my head. Instead, they define themselves as I get deeper into the story. A good example would be Jeremy Palmer, a supporting character in The Reunion. Jeremy was intended to be a rogue character who would do his dirty deed and disappear from the story. However, he was also a lead character’s son, and as Ian came to life I realized he could never have such an evil offspring. So Jeremy went from rouge villain to a rival who competes with his father to win Gillian’s affections.
Once the story is complete
Once my story was complete I’d go back and reread my treatment. I was always surprised at how much the final story differed from the original treatment. It was like night and day, and it always came out better than originally planned.
Nowadays I do things a little differently. I may write down my beginning and ending, with a sentence or two describing what may or may not happen in the middle. In others words, I’m doing less preplanning and more flying by the seat of my pants writing. (Many authors do the latter.) Even so, I’ll still have scenes in mind that never come to fruition. They may have played out nicely in my head, but they just didn’t work on paper. Other times a character never appears because another character came out better than expected and took over the role. It happens all the time. My writing process is fluid. If something different works better than expected I’ll go with it.
I really love my job. I get to go on adventures with my imaginary friends, and once my story is published, you get to come along too.
Everyone who writes fiction understands how our characters seem to come to life as we’re writing. We start out with an idea of who we want them be, but before long, they’re telling us who they really are. It’s what makes novel writing fun. For me, it usually happens with antagonists. Some, like Craig in The Stalker, come out much darker than planned. Others, like Cal in The Scandal, love their bad boy image. Deep down, however, they have good hearts.
Now just so you know, they don’t communicate verbally. There are no voices in my head. I think the best way to describe it would be to say they take control of my fingers as I type. Especially when I’m writing dialog. The conversation just flows out of my keyboard as I watch their personalities come through. It feels almost as if I’m channeling a real person from a different dimension. Of course, that’s not literally happening. I’m tapping into the part of my psyche where imagination lies, and what fascinates me the most is how the characters evolve into people who are entirely different than what my conscience mind had envisioned.
The other day I read an article about the classic John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Along with a synopsis of the story, it went on to describe the various symbolic meanings throughout about the book. Some authors like to use fiction as a metaphor, and there were certainly political undertones in Steinbeck’s work. However, not all fiction writers do this. What I find amusing, however, is when people think there is a hidden meaning in a story when, in fact, there isn’t.
Sometimes blue simply means blue
I recall a meme on social media poking fun at how people assume authors always include hidden meanings in their work. It talked about an author mentioning blue curtains because blue symbolized blah, blah, blah. The punchline, however, was that the author simply liked blue. There was no hidden meaning.
I don’t include a lot of symbolism in my work. My genre, contemporary romance, is pretty straightforward. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but they have obstacles to overcome before they can get to happily ever after. However, there are no political undertones or hidden messages in my stories. My sole purpose is to entertain the reader. That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a little fun from time to time.
Okay, maybe just a little, but not too often
In The Deception, Scott is a married man who presents himself as a single man to unsuspecting single women. Early in the story he takes Carrie out for a drive, so I made his car a Chevy. No hidden meaning there. Chevrolet is a popular make of car. But then, just for laughs, I described it as being bright red, to represent Scott’s infidelity. Yes, it was a veiled reference to The Scarlet Letter, and yes, it was a little corny. Sometimes I can’t resist having a little fun.
On a more serious note, those who know me in real life know I’m a very spiritual person. I also happen to know people who’ve had what they believe to be angelic encounters. My father was one of them. So, in two of my novels, a character has what some might interpret as an angelic encounter. The reason I’m emphasizing the word might is because not everyone believes in a higher power. Therefore, I wrote those scenes in such a way that readers could also interpret them as a character interacting with a compassionate stranger. I’ve left it to the readers to decide for themselves. The above mentioned is all the symbolism I’ve used so far. I guess I’m more of a what you see is what you get kind of storyteller.
We’re all unique individuals. No two people see the same thing the exact same way. It’s all subject to our own life’s experiences. However, before jumping to conclusions about hidden meanings in a story, particularly if it’s something negative, remember what I said before. Maybe the author brought up the blue curtains simply because it’s the author’s favorite color.
The Scandal is the story of soap opera star Lauren McAllen. For the past ten years Lauren has been playing Hayley Lancaster on The Seas of Destiny. Hayley is the woman fans love to hate, and the role made Lauren famous. Now she’s ready to take her career to the next level and try to break into films or prime time television.
Luck appears to be on Lauren’s side. She’s soon cast in a supporting role in a major motion picture. However, before the camera starts rolling, studio head Calvin Michaelson is accused of a serious wrongdoing, and an unwitting Lauren finds herself in the middle of a scandal which rocks Hollywood.
a sample read from The Scandal
Lauren McAllen wrapped her hands around the steering wheel and held on tight. Raindrops splattered the windshield while the wipers furiously knocked them away.
“You may think you’re getting him back, Ashely,” she said through clenched teeth, “but trust me, it’ll never happen because he’s all mine now.” A defiant smiled broke out across her face, but it instantly turned into a look of sheer panic and terror as she frantically yanked the steering wheel back and forth. Unable to regain control of the car, she threw her arms across her face and braced herself for impact.
“Cut!” shouted a man’s voice. “And that’s a wrap.”
As Lauren relaxed, she turned her head and smiled. “So, we got it?”
“Perfectly,” he said, “but if you wouldn’t mind waiting here, the director would like to speak with you for a moment.”
Lauren patiently waited for the rain machine to shut down. A moment later a production assistant walked up to the car and extended his hand. A serious look came over her face as she took his hand and allowed him to pull her out. Before walking away, she turned and looked back at the prop car, placed in front of a green screen.
“And so it ends for Hayley Ann Lancaster Wright Sweeney Mason, as her car crashes off the bridge and plunges deep into the bay, but at least she went out with a bang.”
“Not necessarily.” The director had returned to set. His deep-set brown eyes matched the color of his wavy hair, but they turned sad as he presented her with a bouquet of pink roses. “Her car will be fished out of the water, but she won’t be in it, because we’re all hoping you’ll be back someday.”
Lauren’s face lit up as she accepted the bouquet. “It all remains to be seen. I’ve been doing this gig for ten years. It’s time for me to move on.” She stopped to take in the sweet scent. “Chuck, really, you shouldn’t have. These are beautiful. Thank you for thinking of me.”
He gave her a warm embrace. “You’ve been an absolute joy to work with. I’ll be the first to admit you’re overdue for a long hiatus, but we’re still going to miss you. If your future plans don’t work out, you know you’ll always have a home here.” He kissed her on the cheek and gave her a final squeeze.
I began writing contemporary romance novels out of a desire to write books I would enjoy reading. I wasn’t concerned about how many books I would sell. My goal wasn’t to become rich and famous. (Not that I would mind becoming rich and famous.) I simply wanted to write stories that I could lose myself in. For me, it’s about the joy of storytelling. I write out of my own love of reading. I also thought if I wrote books I would enjoy reading, others would enjoy reading them too. It turns out, I was right. I’m getting some wonderful feedback from my readers. It happy to know that people are enjoying my books.
How it all began
I consider myself lucky. I grew up in a house full of readers. Both of my parents enjoyed reading. Dinner table conversations were oftentimes about the books they were currently reading. They liked spy novels. They read the entire Ian Fleming James Bond series, but they also read mainstream fiction.
I loved horses when I was a kid. I must have read the entire black stallion series. Marguerite Henry, however, was my favorite author. I read Brighty of the Grand Canyonfrom cover to cover many times over. I also loved her Mistyseries. Beverly Cleary was another favorite. Beezus and Ramona are timeless.
As I became an adult
I took English lit courses throughout high school. This introduced me to many different genres. Of course, some were more interesting than others. Oftentimes, however, my biggest challenge was putting the book down. Sometimes I wanted to keep going to the end, but I couldn’t get too far ahead of the rest of class.
As an adult, if you’ll pardon the pun, I fell in love with the romance genre. Like my parents, I also enjoyed mainstream fiction. So, from time to time, I borrowed one of their favorite novels. Like Jaws. Great read. I think this is why my romance novels are somewhat similar to mainstream fiction. Authors such as Arthur Hailey and Peter Benchley most certainly have influenced my writing.
I was an avid reader long before I ever dreamed of becoming an author. In fact, I came from a family of readers. I’ll always remember my mother loaning me one of her books and telling me I had to read it. She said it was one of the best novels she had ever read. The book was The Shell Seekers. The author was Rosamunde Pilcher.
As soon as I started reading I was instantly pulled into the story and I couldn’t put it down. Such amazing, unforgettable characters. And even though it was a long book, I was sorry when the story finally came to its end. Since that time I’ve read other Rosamunde Pilcher novels, and all were amazing. Not only was she a gifted storyteller, her work inspired me to become a contemporary romance writer.
Sadly, I just heard the news that Ms. Pilcher has passed away. She will most certainly be missed.
I’ve been busy putting the final touches on the first draft for my upcoming contemporary romance novel, The Letter, and I’m now entering what I call, the cleanup phase.
Something about traditionally published romance novels has always bothered me. The author would reach the big climax scene, and then, once it was over, shazam! Everything magically falls back into place right then and there. It’s almost as if nothing bad ever happened. Then, one or two pages later, everyone rides off into the sunset and lives happily ever after. The end.
Wouldn’t it be great if real life was as simple?
The problem with traditional publishers
Traditional book publishers rely on formulas, and their authors must adhere to said set formula. In contemporary romance, it can mean that the characters have to meet by page ten. The first kiss happens on page twenty-two. The villain must appear by page thirty-nine, and it concludes with the aforementioned happy ending where everything falls neatly back into place.
The problem with formulas is the books become too predictable. I loved reading Danielle Steele back when I was in college. I could relate to her characters. Her stories were believable and entertaining. Over time, however, I started noticing a pattern, and I eventually stopped reading her books. They had become too predictable, and I got bored reading them. It was as if they plugged in a different set of names for the characters, placed them in a different location, pushed a button, and viola! Here’s the next book. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Why I choose to remain fiercely independent
In the real world the only things that are predictable are death and taxes. Everything else is about how we react to whatever we’ve been dealt. It’s all about the choices we make, good or bad. As a writer, it means the possibilities are endless.
I’ve always strived to make my stories as realistic and believable as possible. In real life, when things hit the proverbial fan, it leaves a lot of fallout behind. So, after the big climax, I include a cleanup phase, which is something I might not be able to do with a traditional publisher because it might not fit the formula. However, my job isn’t to follow a strict formula. My job is to tell an entertaining story that is also a believable story.
Why the cleanup phase is important
The cleanup phase gives my characters a chance to regroup and deal with the aftermath of the events that happened during the climax. It can be as short as an epilogue, or as long as several chapters. If a character is injured, readers will see his or her recovery. If a villain gets caught, the readers find out how long their prison sentence is. If a character leaves town, he or she has a chance to say goodbye. The leading characters will work out whatever unresolved conflicts they may have and be reunited for good. In other words, I take the time to tie up the loose ends before I end my story. I don’t write sequels. Therefore, each ending has to be as complete, and as satisfying as possible for the reader.
I’ve spent the past few months working in the writing tunnel. The writing tunnel is that magical place where I create my stories. It could be at home, a hotel room, or even the great outdoors. The writing tunnel is wherever I let my imagination take over.
Readers tell me it’s hard to put my contemporary romance novels down. You should see it from my end. Each morning I try to put in a little writing time. In the evenings, I’m back into my manuscript. I’m either working out the next scene. Or I’m working on the next chapter. Or I’m creating a new character. It’s so much fun. I just wish I could figure out why I’m still paying for cable. Must be for those times when I’m not writing, which isn’t very often.
Sometimes people ask me how I do my job. Do I work out a detailed outline first and then follow it verbatim? Or do I just sit down and start writing? It’s a little bit of both actually.
First, I’ll write a treatment, or short plot summary. It’s not too specific and it’s only a few paragraphs in length. It’s my idea for the basic story concept, but not much else. I use it to get the story started, and so I’ll have a rough idea of how it will end. Once I start writing the actual story, I set the treatment aside. I go where the characters take me. Then, when I’m finished, I go back and look at the original treatment. Without exception, it’s remarkably different from the finished novel. Sometimes the ending will be different as well. Someone once said life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I think the same could be said for good story writing.
Most novel writers have to kill off a character at one time or another. We don’t do this because we’re mean or deranged. We do it because it’s needed to enhance the plot.
The first time I killed a character off was in my debut contemporary romance novel, The Reunion.Jason Matthews, a minor character, was one of the villains. He meets an untimely end, but it happens off camera, meaning the readers don’t actually see it. His ex-wife, Gillian hears of his demise in a telephone conversation with a police detective. They say show, don’t tell. However, there are times when telling can be more compelling. Jason was a character who was often talked about but never actually seen. Therefore, revealing his death in the dialog kept it consistent with the story.
In my second contemporary romance novel, The Deception, I killed off another antagonist. It happens near the end of the story. The plot revolves around the character’s conflict with Carrie, one of the lead characters. Carrie has finally won battle. Her nemesis, however, soon figures out a way to get even. This left me with two options. Save it for a possible sequel, or kill the character off. In this case the second conflict was directly related to the first, making a sequel redundant. Therefore, rather than have the story repeat itself, I killed the character off, thus ending the conflict once and for all.
In my soon-to-be released contemporary romance novel, The Journey, I killed off someone who was a supporting character in The Reunion. I honestly liked her, and I really didn’t want to kill her off, so I wrote an alternate draft in which she survives. It wasn’t a bad storyline, but it lacked the drama, and the punch, of the original draft. Her sudden and unexpected death was an intrical part of the plotline. It happens early in the novel, but she still maintains a presence in the rest of the story.
I’ve heard the joke among my author friends about how there are two kinds of people who know how to kill other people. Psychopaths and novel writers. This first one definitely, although I’m not so sure about novel writers. So far most of my characters have died in accidents. Or, like Jason in The Reunion, they were their own undoing.