Writers: Story is a Ride
I mentioned a few posts back I’d been stuck on a story. In fact, I’ve been stuck on stories all year. Marie and I joke because she says I “saved” her by coming in midway through Second Hand and helping her finish; I tell her she saved me, because I got to follow the lines someone else had put in place instead of tearing myself apart following my own into the wall. What really got me was when I finished one–finished–and knew it wasn’t right. Usually by the last third the thing comes into place. This one? Well the last third wasn’t so bad, but it just never gelled. And it seemed to happen to everything I touched.
When this happens, it starts to make you feel crazy, and the great enemy of an author sets in: doubt. You begin to think you can’t write anymore, that everything up until now has been a fluke, and if you let yourself go into Deep Doubt, you go back and look at all the success you’ve had and start thinking it wasn’t really good either, that everyone lied to you. You can end up fetal in a corner if you’re not careful, once you start down this road.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s stories. I’ve been beta-ing and reading contest entries, pubbed and unpubbed. I’ve beat my head against one of the stories I ran aground on earlier this year. In short, I’ve looked at a lot of stories in the last few weeks, and one thing over and over again keeps jumping out at me.
Story goes off the rails when it forgets to be a ride, a journey a reader would want to embark on.
It became clearest when I looked at other peoples’ work, but I could see it in my own too. As a reader, when I pick up a book, I want to figure out right away what ride I’m riding. I figured out what kind it was by the cover and the blurb–though be careful those don’t advertise a roller coaster when it’s a ferris wheel–but once I get to page one on my kindle, I want to ride.
A reader wants to know what’s going on, and it had better be good. Why this is such a tough concept for writers to grasp, I don’t know, but I fall for it too. Here’s a hard truth: as soon as I start reading, I want to know what’s going on in the story, what central question I’m following the answer to, and I want it very very fast. In unpubbed, self-pubbed, and very, very small press entries I’ve read, over and over again the author didn’t give me a question. They flailed. The masterbated over prose or concepts. What do I do as a reader in these books? If I’m reading for pleasure, I stop. If I’m reading for a contest or a beta? I start skimming. I read faster and faster and faster until I find the central question.
You would be amazed how many times in my contest entry reading and beta reading I never found it.
The problem of course is that every author thought they had one. “It’s the story of George the panda as he wades through bamboo.” Except that’s not a central question. That’s a setting. “It’s the story of George the panda, wading through bamboo looking for the holy grail” is a little closer. Even that, though, isn’t quite right. Why? It’s the other thing authors always forget, and it’s so elementary it’s embarrassing that we do, but we always, always do.
A reader wants a story to have conflict. George the panda can’t just wade through bamboo to look for the grail. Someone has to get in his way. Or something does. “George the panda is wading through bamboo, looking for the holy grail, but the grail is invisible, and George is allergic to bamboo.” Well, in my example the book will last until George dies of starvation, but you get the idea. What a reader wants more than anything is to see that the protagonist in the story has to do something IMPOSSIBLE, and when we write romance especially, we know it’s going to work out, so the more impossible the better.
When authors get lost in the weeds is when we get caught up in concept. “It’s about the struggle of human existence.” “It’s about how hard it is to live in a small town.” “It’s about how limiting a bamboo-only diet is.” Great. Theme, concept–wonderful stuff.
What. Is. The. Story. That’s the only damn thing that matters.
I don’t know a single author who isn’t a reader too, and every one of us when we get stuck should back up and ask what we’d want as a reader. Not in the story that has us stuck, because we’d be hugging those weeds so fast it’d be pathetic, but in general. What ride do we like best? What is it we’re looking for when we read? Then we need to go back to the elementary school principles of protagonist and antagonist and conflict. Then we have to go to our story, fuck the theme, and say, “Is it a ride?” Usually if you’re in the weeds, the answer is no.
Sometimes in works that have gone aground, my own and others, I can see the justification on the page. We get this idea in our head of what we want the book to be, and when it won’t go there we construct words around the idea as if trapping it or shouting at it will make things happen. I went through a phase about seven years ago where I would write and write and write, thinking eventually I’d find my way through, and more often than not I simply ended up at two hundred thousand words. That’s two goddamned novels, folks. Two long novels. The way ebooks go these days? That’s four. Worse, I usually felt like I was at the midpoint when I finally gave up.
My personal issue is that I can’t nail my story down too hard without wrecking it. The only two I’ve written that just came out and worked full-stop were Nowhere Ranch and Double Blind. Well, and Dirty Laundry, but you haven’t read that yet. Everything else I’ve written, if you read it and liked it? I bled. I wandered off into the wilderness and then into the mountains and the valleys until finally I figured out where the story spine was. I try to make spines, to give out plans, but it doesn’t always work. They always shift on me, and I swear a lot of it is my own fault. If I’m not discovering as I write, I get bored. D0uble Blind worked in one go because it had so many ways it could fail that I think the terror alone kept me on edge. Plus I was so busy double checking the poker hands I couldn’t get bored. Nowhere Ranch worked because it was first person, which I hate, and I can’t usually write, so I kept fearing it all sucked ass and what would I do then? Dirty Laundry was tied down by the Tucker Springs series, its original short story setup, and the whole we’re-at-a-new-publisher-is-this-okay thing. It was also the first thing I’d written alone since Cowboy Eagle turned itself inside out, and I thought, holy shit, what if I’m really done? What if I can’t write anymore? Terror. It’s a powerful motivator.
I’m working on a story now, and I’m at the midpoint, and it’s a good, strong story. It’s almost sweet for me–they haven’t even kissed yet. I had to get something done, because there is a damn horse to pay for now, and so I said to myself, “What is it I really want to write?” All year it’s been stuff I “should” do, stuff that I needed to finish, stuff people had been asking for. Actually it’s been that since a year ago right now, full stop. I don’t recommend writing things you have to write. Nothing quite kills the muse as that, I think.
What I wanted to write at this moment was something cute and fun and sweet. The stories I loved every time in my judging and betaing, even when they were hot messes, were the young adults. God, they just made me snuggly and happy. I wanted to write snuggly and happy and fun. Fun, goddamn it. Except I really, really can’t write YA for a lot of reasons I’m not getting into, but I thought, well, there’s college. And it was this huge light bulb, because it was perfect. It made me feel good just thinking about it.
So right now I have 33k on a light contemporary set in a fictional college, and it’s so much fun I forget to eat so I can keep writing. Why else is it working? I made myself write the synopsis first, not so much for the plot but for the conflict. Because in everything I fucked up this year, my issue was always that the damn boys fell in love too fast and had nothing in their way. Every time writing has gone right there was a huge thing in their way they had to get over before everything was HEA. So I set up the characters in total opposition: one wanted a boyfriend, one swore he’d never have one. Then I put them in the same room.
Now as I’m at the midpoint, I can see why this one worked was that I let in character, because the above isn’t enough. Walter has deep, confused reasons he doesn’t want a boyfriend. Kelly has kind of silly reasons that he does. Those are some nice arc potentials. (Walter needs to face his confused reasons, Kelly needs to figure out why he thinks he wants a connection.) The book writes itself in part because they each have so much to do inside.
But what is the key to making this book work? The ride. I’m making myself a slave to the ride this time: yes, it’s lovely that Walter could stand there and brood for fifty pages, but that’s not a ride. He has to brood while moving, and things have to keep happening to him, and he has to react. The reader isn’t tracking Walter’s subconscious. They’re tracking what he does in real time. When he goes out without Kelly, does he hook up, or is he unable to and therefore frustrated? I’ve also been militant about maintaining a spine: for the first act of the book, Walter is obsessed with getting an apartment off campus, and Kelly is trying to fit in to his first year in college while coming out. At act change they have new things they’re chasing: they’re both starting to fall for each other, and they both feel they shouldn’t. The reader, obviously, knows they should be together, so this is one of those delicious things where you KNOW they’re going to get together, and you can see what they need to do, but you just keep following that angst and hesitation, willing them to be brave enough to show what they have in their heart. I never leave the reader without a question they’re trying to answer, something that isn’t settled that they need to see resolved, and when it is, I make sure a new problem has come up for them to track. I let them see, too, the way the characters should be taking, so they feel not just safe but empowered. They know who to root for, and they do.
Ride. Maybe not everybody wants that ride, but I do, and I know romance readers enough to know a lot of them will like that ride too. I’m having a really good time twisting the boys around knowing I’ve hit a moment a reader will settle deeper into the covers for. I love knowing the pacing is so solid you could bounce a quarter off it because I never, ever let myself stop time and lecture. Could this book still fall apart? Yes. Can I talk myself into something going well only to have it fuck up later? Yes. Might this be a ride only I want to ride, despite all my plans? Yes. But there’s no point in dwelling on that because of the final key to a good story ride.
A reader wants an author to be confident, and often if the author has no business being so, the sheer presence of confidence will usually fill in whatever gaps are there. My old choir director used to tell us if you’re going to make a mistake, make it big and bold, so much so the audience assumes it belongs. It is so fucking true for writing I can’t even tell you. My weakness: I’m over the top. Yeah. I know. I love a big schmaltzy ending. I love sweeping, sappy, aching romances. I also love putting in weird realism, especially in sex scenes. That’s what I’m going to do, so I do it boldly. When I screw up, it’s usually because I was letting my apprehension show. You love head hopping? It’s your favorite thing, even though you know it’s bad? Well, own that fucker. You love gay for you? Great. Do it bigger and bolder than anyone else and make it yours. You want to write a cliche that’s so done to death people groan? Do it, and do it so hard their teeth ache.
Readers are fickle. Readers are overstimulated by life. Readers, at least this reader, don’t want to do any work. They just want a fucking story. They want to know that when they read about George the panda and his quest for the invisible grail it’s going to make them feel good. They want to plug in and forget the soup on the stove. They want to not think about how the rent is due and they have no money. They want to not think about how hard work was today or is going to be tomorrow. In romance especially? All they want is to see two people hook up, people who shouldn’t be together but are together anyway.
Readers want a ride. Romance readers want a ride that gives them hope. Erotic romance readers want a ride that gives them hope and makes them feel tingly in their underpants on occasion.
Ride, authors. Write a ride. Figure out what yours is, and then pimp the ever-living shit out of it.