Don’t turn your characters into contortionists! That’s my big writing lesson this week.
I had what I thought was a good idea. I had two interesting and complex characters, with deep emotional conflict. I had a setting I like, London at Christmas.
What I didn’t have was a story that worked.
My mission is to write a 10 to 15 K romantic novella, based on the song Santa Baby, ready to submit by July 10. It took doing this week’s course homework for the writing course I’m enrolled in to figure out what wasn’t working. A key part of the homework is to write a sentence summarising the story in 30 words or less.
I couldn’t do it! The characters sounded hopelessly unsympathetic for a light Christmas novella, even to me who created them. I needed to explain too much. There was too much in the plot that was dark and heavy (death of a key secondary character). Sheesh, I don’t know that the secondary characters should even have names in a 10K novella, let alone a crucial role to play in the character arc for the hero or heroine!
The other thing that gave me a big clue was that I really couldn’t fill in the main pre-writing tools I use for these characters as I had them. If I can’t do that, I know there’s something wrong!
I’d spent all week doing story development. Started writing the story, but I knew I just didn’t have it right after one chapter. The characters didn’t fit the story, or the story didn’t fit the characters. I’d had to make the characters do things that were too out of character. I’d turned them into contortionists. No way was this a story that met the brief. I still think I have the seeds of a good story in there, but not for this Call for Submissions.
In the past, this is where I would have given up on having anything to sub for this Call for Submissions, and grabbed at the next new bright shiny story idea.
This time, I kept playing with it. I’ve promised myself to see through a story once I start it, as I’m a serial non-finisher. Ideas for how to change things kept coming. But I had way too much going on for a short novella. The characters had to change too much to get from where they began to a resolution in fifteen thousand words. The plot was so convoluted I needed contortionists as hero and heroine.
I wrote in the last entry how I realised I had the heroine all wrong. I’d made her relate to the words of the song way too literally. Once I had that, and slept on it, the rest fell into place like dominoes. The hero. The conflict. The resolution.
It felt almost miraculous how I woke up yesterday knowing just what the story needed. A classic opposites attract romance. Pared right down to the bare minimum, the essence of who the characters are. Yesterday, I did the Save the Cat beatsheet, and the Identity to Essence chart. It worked!
Today, I did an outline, and just finished a very rough draft of chapter one on the Alphasmart so I wouldn’t stop to edit as I went. I feel happy with what I have. It seems to me this is the best story I’ve done, in terms of having the conflict and structure in place, but I’ve thought that before! I’m too close to it to see what I’ve missed or what I have put in that really doesn’t work.
The chapter is too long, at 1800 words, but that’s good because I’ll have lots to play with when the time comes to edit. I’m going to resist the temptation to start tidying it up now. It can stay as it is, gross typos and all, until I have a complete first draft. It should come in at around 18,000, then I’ll need to edit it down to under 15. It I have something that looks a total mess that I HAVE to cut, I won’t be so in love with my own words I miss what need to come out.
That’s the theory anyway!
How much pre-writing planning do you do? Is it different for each story? Any tools you use and recommend?