Writing a Different Kind of Romance: The Sibling Relationship

I recently attended a class by Sarah M. Eden because I’ve taken courses from her before and she’s a brilliant teacher. I went in knowing I’d learn something, but I didn’t have super high hopes as she was teaching about the plot structures of romance novels, and while mine have subplots that are romantic, I knew I wasn’t completely the target student for the course.

A New Kind of Romance-.png

Sarah was teaching about how to merge a popular plotting strategy (originally presented by Dan Wells) into a romantic genre. Because of the character driven nature of what Sarah writes, I was curious to see how she’d merge the strategy into romance. She details it brilliantly here (and is sharing everything about the presentation for free!).

The tricky thing is the story I’m working on now isn’t romantic – I’m not even sure yet if there is a romantic plot line. But as I was working through the worksheet (again, free at Sarah’s site), it hit me:

WAS writing a romance.

Each plot point that Sarah described, each conflict she mentioned as essential fit with the story I am outlining — a story between sisters.

Now, this isn’t some weird incestuous book. It is, however, a story about two girls who drifted apart as they were growing up and have something that brings them back together. They do have to decide if they want to work through what life will throw at them alone or together. They do have setbacks and uniting experiences, the markers that make chick flicks so popular, the things that have been markers of some of the best stories the world has known.

If you have had the opportunity to be anything but an only child, chances are decent that you are already familiar with some of these elements, but I’d like to hit on a three key points.

Hook:

Whether you are sharing a story about siblings from one or multiple points of view, it is essential that the reader has the opportunity to really understand who the characters are at the beginning: what were they like as children, how was their nurturing experience similar or different, both at home and in social settings. Do they consider themselves a replica of an older sibling, the person who is supposed to be the example to the younger, etc. As a former high school teacher, I understand the real struggle of trying to not call the second or third child in a family by the oldest child’s name, and how easy it is to assume that because one or two children from the same family were one way, they must all be.

Midpoint:

Where the midpoint for a romantic couple has them deciding whether or not to be in each others lives, working through feelings they may have, not want to have, wish they had differently, etc., sibling relationships are unique in that they can’t separate, not all the way, not really, and not with a total resolution. And if they are a truly developed character, they also can’t go back to things as they had been “when they were kids”. Generally speaking, in a sibling driven story, the midpoint is where each siblings starts to understand how the other experienced things growing up, how the siblings were each changed because of the role the other had in his/her life.

Resolution:

The expected resolution for a romance is happily ever after (word on the street is that if you don’t do that, readers will come for you like Gaston went after Beast). Because of the emotional situations surrounding sibling relationships and the complications they can contain, the goal tends to be satisfactorally ever after. Yes, there are those who would like the siblings to be BFFs who share secrets and ice cream forever and ever, but realistically, that may not be true to the story. But I’d like to think that most of us, having taken a journey with some people with as much connectivity as siblings can have would prefer to see something where both people end up happy, even if that happiness doesn’t evoke the same kind of feeling as wedding bells in a romance.

In the end, I learned several things from attending that one class:

  1. No matter how many plots you’ve examined, or how many classes you’ve taken or books you’ve read, a writer can ALWAYS learn more about plot, character development, etc.
  2. The things that work for one genre can often have very valuable crossover appeal, especially when taught by someone who takes the study of craft seriously.
  3. Sarah confessed to taking YEARS to solidify the ideas about how to make this work. Doing so has resulted in her winning multiple prizes for her writing. Studying and learning pays off.

Do you have a favorite sibling story that could be characterized by a romantic plot line? Have you ever made an unexpected discovery while taking a writing class? 

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tasha short hair picTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Losing Your Voice and Finding It Again

I recently started an MFA in writing for children and young adults. It’s expensive, and I knew if I was going to commit the time and money to it that I wanted to get the most out of it. And so I thought hard about how to do that.

The first thing I decided was that it didn’t make a lot of sense to go into the program doing the same old things I’ve always done with my writing. It seems like if that was super working for me, I’d have met all my publishing goals by now. But I haven’t, and so I wanted to challenge everything about my process to see what I learned.

Challenge #1: Write a different genre. I’ve only tried YA before so I thought I’d give middle grade a shot and see what I learned.

Challenge #2: I only work on one project at a time. So I started a second simultaneous project. And in the spirit of Challenge 1, since I only do contemporary, I decided to also try a YA historical. Um, fantasy. Just for good measure.

Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. Because I always outline.

Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I use beta readers pretty exhaustively before my stuff goes to my editor, so I decided to still revise my work but send it straight to my advisor with no outside input.

Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. I always think of who my audience is. For me, I’ve learned that I can’t get anything into the hands of kids unless I get it through my agent first, and then past an editor. And so I’ve thought about what they might be looking for, how they want to hear things. So I resolved to quit thinking about the pub pros and think only about the story and what it was telling me I needed.

So the semester has finished and I have much to think about.

Did becoming my opposite author-self lead to a growth stunt or a growth spurt?

Challenge #1: Writing a different genre. The middle grade story was a fun experiment. It was cool to think about how the problems confronting a twelve-year-old are significantly different than those confronting the sixteen-year-old protagonists I usually craft. It forced me to think about character motivation and why kids do what they do.

The real eye-opener was the YA historical fantasy. Playing in a different era meant following a new set of social rules, and having to consider how every choice I made as author closed or opened paths in the rest of the story. I’m used to the rhythm of romantic comedies. It’s become almost second nature to me to know what each of my character’s words or actions signal. I know what it sets up for later, and I understand the consequences of everything. But that’s the thing: It really is second nature. I lost that luxury by writing a totally different genre. As a result, the story was far more thoughtfully constructed, and it became a delicious sort of brain exercise to chase down different imaginary trails before choosing the right one.

Challenge #2: Work on simultaneous projects. I already knew that I loved switching between genres. If I finished an adult romantic comedy, then I tackled a YA novel next. It makes my brain happy. But I felt this even more intensely as I worked on these two projects. It’s like alternating cardio with strength-training instead of doing stupid kickboxing aerobics all the time. And switching back and forth kept them both fresh and interesting to me.

Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. I started out as a discovery writer or “pantser”—someone who writes by the seat of their pants with no clear plan. And I loved it, but I learned for my own mental health that I had to outline if I had a prayer of hitting my publishing deadlines. To go back to my original state, to the discovery—it was magic. It was really fun to just show up to work and see what would happen, and it reinvigorated my creativity. I don’t think I could do it for my regular deadlines, but that renewal of creativity and rediscovering the fun of writing was possibly worth the price of admission.

Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I did it. I revised and then let it appear, wart-riddled and everything, in front of my advisor. Who is Kind of a Big Deal. That allowed him to see a little bit more inside my process, to see where my ideas came from and what they turned into, and to figure out exactly where to step in a coach me. I don’t necessarily see this as something that I would do in my professional writing life, but it was great in terms of the school process. I still think when working toward publication that putting your polished work in front of beta readers is best.

Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. This is where I was least successful. I couldn’t quite silence the voice in my head that would say, “If it’s good enough, maybe I can sell it and THAT will help pay for school.” But I tried to shut that voice up. I tried not to think of what my agent would like, or what kind of submissions editors want to see. I even tried to ignore what a current twelve- or sixteen-year-old might find interesting. Instead, I focused on what I would have loved at twelve and sixteen, what I would have found interesting, not what adults think is interesting for kids. And to some extent, that allowed me to think less about literary conventions and just what’s purely cool. And once again, I felt that surge in creativity, that sense of looking forward to going back to work on a manuscript each new day.

I don’t know if I’m going to finish either of these stories. And I guess that’s Challenge #6: I’ve never written something just to write it, never churned out 100 pages only to walk away from it. So maybe it’s time to do that too, to go find a new story to tell, see what it teaches me, and then when I’ve experimented and had a few failures purely for the sake of learning, I can sit down to craft a winner again. But I suspect what I’ve learned more than anything is that it must be a story that satisfies my soul to write, whether it’s booger jokes or Antebellum New Orleans. As long as I care, as long as there’s joy in the work even when it’s not always fun in the day-to-day, I might catch lightning by the tail some day.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Who’s Your Hero?

It’s finally feeling like spring in my hometown, and that means all kinds of new life. Right now, that even extends to my writing life, where I’m starting to cultivate new story ideas and figure out what to write next. An exciting stage, yes, but also kind of a perilous one. And so, of course, I turn to my books.
One of my go-to books on craft is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Truby does a fantastic (and extremely thorough) job of helping writers develop not only their main character, but their secondary characters and the web of relationships that exists between characters.
Character is, of course, essential to story. For many of us, it’s the very first thing we know about a story, the very seed that starts it all. But even those of us who fall into this category would do well to double-check that we’ve picked the right hero for our story. We often figure out just the right narrator and consider carefully whether we’ll tell the story in first or third person, past or present tense. But do we always double-check to make sure we’ve actually chosen the right main character?
Truby uses the term “hero” in place of “main character”, and if we temporarily set aside the implied gender restrictions of that term, I think it’s apt. By one definition, a hero is “a person who…is regarded as a model.” This is what we hope in our stories: that the reader will consider our main character as a model for their own life and emotions, and thereby invest themselves in the hero’s journey and put themselves in the hero’s proverbial shoes.
In Truby’s words, the hero should be “the most fascinating, challenging, and complex.” He suggests asking yourself the following questions to determine whether you’ve truly chosen the right hero for your story:
  • Who do I love?
  • Do I want to see him/her act?
  • Do I care about the challenges s/he has to overcome?

Often, the choice of main character is obvious. Think Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Elizabeth Bennet. But sometimes truly interesting main characters come about when they’re somewhat unexpected.
Scout Finch instead of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joel Espen from Emily Wing Smith’s haunting and powerful The Way He Lived, who has died before the story starts and is only seen in others’ recollections.
John Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany. You’d expect Owen Meany here, right? Yet Johnny is not only the narrator but the main character as well.
Even the very unexpected facet of James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
For me, these stories are all memorable in part because the main character wasn’t quite who I expected them to be—but was exactly who they needed to be. That makes me wonder if it might be time for a little main character shake-up of my own.

What about you? How do you make sure you’ve chosen the right main character? Any great unexpected main characters to add to the list?
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Elaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, October 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂

Moments that Matter

I recently had my high school students do an activity where they had to list moments that mattered. This is an idea courtesy of Kelly Gallagher created to help people understand a little bit more of who they are, and to provide a topic which they can then develop into a longer writing piece. I modeled several key points in my own life:

  • Becoming a big sister four times
  • Almost quitting the piano
  • Winning a local pageant
  • Marrying my friend since age 7
  • Becoming a mom three times
  • Praise from mentor professor
  • Moving to current house
  • Joining a writers group
But, as tends to be the case more often than not in my life, I started thinking about how this could relate to writing. And, as I’m in the drafting/getting to know you phase of my current WIP, I got thinking about my characters. About what their moments that mattered might be.

For one of my lead males, it would be discovering/gaining interest in the stars, getting his PhD, marrying his wife, repeated loss, possible redemption. 
For his wife, it would be developing a love for libraries, falling in love/marriage, the similar losses that her husband had and more, a glimmer of hope. 
Yes, these are vague *avoiding spoilers* but the idea is that marking out the moments that matter will allow them to become the real and tangible people I need them to be. 
Please note: we all have moments that have mattered to us but not everyone needs to know them. When I introduce myself to people, I don’t breakdown the progression of becoming the oldest of five kids, I don’t detail every element of my 30 year relationship with my husband, I don’t explain the various decisions that went into the decision to move to a different house. 
Forcing ourselves to work through our character’s moments that matter is valuable, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of that characterization needs to show up in our novels. It doesn’t even need to be alluded to. It will, however, have an impact on who they are. It will determine when they try something or don’t. If they trust people naturally. If they stay in a comfortable box or explore crazy ideas, adventures, relationships. 
And while you may be thinking about your main characters, about their moments that matter, don’t forget that we have side people in our lives who we rely on because of one thing or another that was probably determined by a moment that mattered in their life. Let the side characters be fully developed even if not fully seen, so that the role they play in your MC’s life make sense and is consistent. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Self-editing Tips for Writers: 5 Tips for Fast Drafters

I need to preface this post by saying that I like to blast through my first drafts, and then I do what most people do before they start – just so you know where my advice is coming from.

ONE
(and also both my favorite and most useful)
Time away from the manuscript.
I know.
But it’s SO SHINY!
It’s going to be THE ONE!
I have to get it OUT NOW!
Stop.
Just. Breathe.
I finish a first draft, and let the project sit for AT LEAST two weeks, usually four. Then I go over it again, and then I send it to my first reader.
I never send my MS to more than one reader at a time, and I always give their notes time to percolate before I jump in and revise.
Nothing gives you fresh eyes like time away from the project.
TWO
Read out loud.
You might feel like a dork doing this, and that’s OK.
We do a lot of dorky things as writers.
I read out loud to my husband because he’s incredibly patient like that. But reading out loud to yourself also helps. Or your dog… Or your cat… You get the idea.
You should also try having someone else read your manuscript to you. It is the weirdest, but also kind of awesome.
THREE
If you’re not sure what’s amiss in your story, but you know something is…
OUTLINE AFTER YOU WRITE THE BOOK.
I know this is odd, but it has helped me SO many times.
And sometimes when you get notes back from a reader, you’re not quite sure how you feel about them, but you also agree that something isn’t quite right – outlining helps.
I do a super simple outline that reads like this (Yes, this is from a current project).
Chapter 12 – Meg
scene 1
LEARN – Crayon didn’t show
PROPEL – What could have happened, and is it connected to Jack?
scene 2
LEARN – Colt asking out Kelsey – normal relationship
PROPEL – But Meg wants different – more like French and balconies, less like bad music and greasy pizza (of course we’ll know who she wants here…)
This helps me figure out story flow… AND it helps me realize that I’ve learned the same thing for two scenes, or that similar things have moved the story forward in too many situations.
FOUR
As I’m drafting, and after I’m done, I use Blake Snyder’s BEAT SHEET from his book, Save the Cat. LIFE. SAVER.
This helps me keep the story flowing well. Totally worth buying and reading and highlighting. I could do a whole post just on his method of streamlining story flow.
FIVE
Figure out what your pet words are – mine change with the story, but recently I’ve started using push in a million scenarios. I do a control/command F for the offender, and I search and destroy.
(Sound effects are encouraged).
Every time I turn in a manuscript, I pretend this is the first my editor is going to see of my writing. Every. Time. And let’s face it, the more we can do on our own to help our manuscript shine, the more useful notes from friends, readers, and editors will be.
Any tips you want to share?

Switching Gears

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor to the blog, Darci Cole! 


I’ve heard other writers talk about how they just LOVE drafting.

Or revisions are where it’s AT.

Or outlining is their WORLD.

Me? I love it all. But I do have a hard time changing from one to the other, and I suspect this might become a problem if I’m under contract in the hopefully-not-too-distant future.

So what do I do? I force myself to work. With the exception of writing this post, I’m starting work on a revision I’ve been needing to do for a month or so. IT’s extremely hard for me to get in the mindset of a story when I haven’t worked on it in a while. But I’m a writer. This is what I do. I go from polishing one story to drafting the next, to revising a third.

It’s difficult, but worth it.

Last year, I drafted two different stories, and semi-revised one of them. Beginning of this year, I re-wrote an older one, and am now getting started fixing up the one I semi-revised last year. After this I’m hoping I’ll be able to start drafting again, but I may go back and revise the other story I drafted last year, or write some short stories.

This is a very rambly way to get to my point: no matter what part of writing is your favorite, learn to do every part well. A writer isn’t the same as an outliner, or a drafter, or a reviser, or an editor. A writer is all of those things, and more.

Good luck on whatever you’re working on!

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Darci Cole is an author, homeschooler, Mormon, and wandmaker. She is a writer of YA and MG scifi/fantasy, usually with a romantic twist. Basically, she writes stuff she wants to read. Darci has edited a number of manuscripts for clients and also served as an editorial intern for Entangled Publishing during the summer of 2013. She is formerly Thor as part of the YAvengers.

Website: darcicole.blogspot.com
Twitter: @darci_cole

Confessions of an Ex-Pantser

I’ve always been a pantser. Always. I don’t plan my stories out at ALL before writing them – I start out with a basic concept and let the characters and plot unfold as I go.  Even in elementary school, when they introduced the concept of pre-writing and story boarding, I would do the absolute minimal amount of work that I could get away with on the assignment because I hated doing it so much. Hated it with a passion.

I. Do not. Outline.

Partly this is because, to me, outlining has always intimidated me. Somehow being able to figure out everything about a story before I’ve written a word of it seems like an impossible task. What’s plot pinch one going to be? I don’t know! I haven’t written it yet! I’ll find out when I get there! But I’m sure if I just sat down and thought about it, I could figure it out. So though intimidation is a reason, it’s not the MAIN reason. No, if I’m being truly honest with myself, the main reason I don’t outline is because I’m impatient. When I have an idea I’m excited about, I want to dive right in and make it happen. I want to see my entire story come to fruition, like, yesterday. I want to close my eyes, and think at my computer and have all the beautiful images in my head magically appear as words on the screen, instantaneously. Quick, before I forget where I was going with that plot thread that gave me such an adrenaline rush only moments ago.

Obviously, this is impractical, not to mention impossible, so the next best thing for me has always been to just start writing. And you know what? That worked with my last manuscript. There were many chapter do-overs and a whole mess of revisions to do, but it worked. Eventually. It has worked with short stories as well.

That’s not the case this time. Nope, now I sit down to write and I just . . . I don’t know where to take the characters next. I need a PLAN. So I’m doing the thing that I’ve always hated. I’m making myself take the time to outline—thoroughly—before charging ahead with my draft.  And you know what? I’m (ugh, this is hard to admit) I’m really, sort of, um, well . . . okay fine. I’m enjoying it.

You guys. I think I might not be a pantser anymore.

Wow, that was hard to say. But I get it now. I really do. It’s taken me a long time to learn, but I understand now why plotters outline. I’m not saying that it’s a better process. But it’s a DIFFERENT process and worth a try if whatever you’re doing right now isn’t working for you.

After much research (ok, skimming some articles here and there on the internet because, like I said, I’m impatient), I’ve found that there are many different ways to outline your novel. The method I’m using sort of developed organically as I combined a few different things and fiddled with them . . . I guess you could say, I pantsed it. Basically, I outlined in steps. If you want to give it a try, here’s how you do it, the main idea being that you start with broad strokes, then layer in the details.

Step 1: Identify your CCRs

That’s Character, Conflict, and Resolution. Who are your main characters? Is there a villain? Who is it? What will the protagonists have to overcome? And how do you want things to be resolved by the very end? Boom, that’s it. If that’s all you need, stop right there and go write. I needed more than that, so I moved on to . . .

Step 2: Find Your Beats

Next, download some beat sheets and fill them out. I started with Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat,” then used that to fill out the more detailed “Master Beat Sheet” that combines “Save the Cat” and Larry Brook’s “Story Engineering” beat sheets. They and several others can be found here.  Again, I started with broad strokes, then layered. I almost stopped here, but after thinking about it, I decided I still needed a bit more guidance.

Step 3: Chapter by Chapter

Once you have all your main plot points and beats figured out, start planning out your chapters. I used outlining mode in Scrivener because it lets me view multiple bits of information pertaining to each chapter at once without it feeling cluttered or overwhelming. I’ve set up columns for the POV (I have two POVs to keep track of in this one, and I want to make sure they get equal attention), chapter name, chapter summary (or the goal of the chapter if I haven’t figured out how that goal will be reached yet), my word count target, (or what range it should fall within according to the beat sheets), and the beat or section of the story each chapter falls under. You could probably do this with an Excel sheet as well. Here’s a screenshot of what mine looks like (with spoilers covered up):

That’s as far as I’ve gone at the moment. After this, I might go into each chapter and do a more detailed sequence of events. Or I might just start writing. I haven’t decided yet. But the main thing to remember, and the thing that I think was my sticking point before, is that even after all this, the outline can be changed. If something happens as I’m writing that makes me want to take the story a different direction, I’m not stuck with what I’ve already planned. I can re-adjust things. So in the end, there may still be a little bit of pantsing going on. I like to think of it as pantsing with a plan. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but it makes this pantser feel better, okay?

Have you ever had to make a dramatic change to your writing process? What did you do? Did it work?

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.