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I actually don’t have any pompous writing tips or savories for this week. Rather, I have been contemplating a conundrum regarding genres and I’m just going to throw it out there to see if any of you fellow novelists will pick it up and get it rolling:
How important are trending subgenres in selecting the premise for the stories you write?
Allow me to explain a bit more on why this question has been niggling me. I have noticed more and more publishers these days send out CTA for romance novel submissions in very specific subgenres such as:
“Big high concept contemporary romance”
“Sexy alpha-alien science fiction romance”
“HEA or HFN erotic romances without major focus on character development, extreme conflict or drawn-out plots”
Not to sound like a genre snob or anything but I don’t actually know what the first submission call is asking for, haven’t ever read anything from the second one, and regarding the third, well, really? But whatever these subgenres are, they seem to be selling like hotcakes. Somewhere along the lines of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, my commune with the genre of romance picked up a crossed connection.
Of course, because I write romances, I searched out CTAs for romance novel submissions but I get the feeling that authors from other genres must face similar dilemmas: to succumb to the trend or write what holds meaning for me as a storyteller?
Any advice, authors?
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In my twentieth installation of WRITING CHRONICLES, I went into great details about the various types of narrators and POVs that may be used in storytelling. A perusal will tell you that jumping POVs in the middle of scenes is one of my pet peeves. Of course, a scene may be told from the perspective of different characters but there are proper etiquettes to these things. When you are having a conversation with someone, how much would you enjoy being interrupted by the other person while talking? Or worse, if a third party straggler just decided to insert themselves into your discussion midway? The narrator and the reader develop a bond over the course of a story that requires similar decorum. Each character must wait their turn to have their say. Read the rest of this entry »
Title Deep Dish
Author Mary Kay Andrews
Genre Contemporary Romance, Chick-Lit, Southern American
Publication Date February 26, 2008
Setting Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Synopsis: Everything in Regina Foxton’s life is not peachy but she can make do. Sure the kitchen from which she tapes her television cooking program is held together by scotch tape and she wished she had better wardrobe to host in and she wished her new car would run without failures, but at least she finally has her own cooking show and a car and a house and a sweet boyfriend who also happens to be her producer. But then she finds out that she is out of a job because her sponsor has canceled the show because her boyfriend did the sponsor’s child bride. Now she faces a prospect of moving back to her hometown in with her parents and has to tag along her baby sister who is already a handful with her cutting college classes to play on Xbox and party-hardy. Regina Foxton is what one would call has paddled “out of her depth”. But then The Cooking Channel is scouting her show and she really has a shot at landing the major leagues, except there is another cooking show that has rolled into town to vie for the position. Tate Moody is ruggedly gorgeous and his cooking style (kill and cook your dinner) is the polar opposite of Regina’s (Southern meals with a healthy twist) and so are their attitudes toward life. Tate is as popular in the south as Regina and often their viewers’ demographics overlap but the two become enemies on sight. She thinks he’s a brute and he thinks she’s a princess. Sparks fly and the producers at The Cooking Channel ride on the heat wave to host a reality cook-off challenge for the position for their new network chef. What no one, including Regina and Tate, is prepared for though is that some of those sparks are caused by mutual attractions.
Experience: Deep Dish is something that I would refer to as a pretty good read. It’s not what I’d call award-winning literature but far as romance novel goes, it hits the spot and you can polish off and devour (pardon the food-pun) the whole thing in one sitting. Having said that, there are a couple of noteworthy positive things about the way Mary Kay Andrews went about writing the novel, starting with the setting and world-building.
There are some great contemporary romances out there with chefs as the main characters but rarely do they remain as true to the premise of the character’s career as Deep Dish did. In most cases, novels about chefs draw on the sexiness of heating it up in the kitchen with a passive-aggressive chemistry between the hero-heroine and leave it at that. Andrews did not take the shortcut. Instead, she thoroughly researched cooking show productions and sifted through her minefield of knowledge in Southern cooking (she has her own cookbook published) before sitting down to write the novel, allowing the reader to enjoy a very hands-on experience of the stresses of producing a TV program. We even get to pick up on a few recipes of wholesome Southern meals along the way. I loved the quirky addition at the end of the novel where a few choice Southern recipes were shared, apparently created by Regina and Tate themselves.
The world-building was also rather vivid and something I enjoyed a lot. It may be due to my personal preference for geography and maps but halfway through, the story takes you to this island in Georgia called Eutaw Island. Now I looked for it and there is a geological formation in Georgia of this name and a city as well though no island fit for human habitation. But Andrews beautifully illustrated this exotic location with beautiful wild and marine life and delicious local palate. I totally believed it might be a real place until Google told me she made it all up. As a writer, I can always appreciate such in-depth dive into the author’s imagination.
With regards to character development, obviously, it being a chick-lit, Regina’s character received more attention than Tate’s. I thought their passions and insecurities nicely complemented each other. She has a one-track mind about getting her canceled show onto The Cooking Channel; her adversary-and-romantic-interest is a gorgeous man-of-the-wilds who likes to catch what he cooks and does not have the same sophisticated taste as she. You can’t do much wrong with that; in fact, it’s great recipe for romance (sorry, I can’t seem to help myself here).
The rest of the characters equally complement the two MCs and plot. Her ex-boyfriend is a self-serving jerk with enough good looks to get away with it in most circles is using her to get the show running again; her sister is a college student with badass fashion sense who studies less and parties more; her close friend and makeup artist is a bald gay black man; the production people from The Cooking Channel have all the single ruthless attitude as her boyfriend but are at different stages of life; except the assistant producer who is a shoe-in for the secondary romantic plot opposite the sister is a man with a conscious that balances his boss’s lack of one. It was actually all very smoothly written in and I could appreciate the relatability. Although I would have to say none of the major or minor characters stepped too far out of their stereotype – except maybe the hero but this was not fully explored or explained.
Which brings me to the part of the novel that I could not completely see eye-to-eye on. I found it interesting that he was a single red-blooded heterosexual man with natural sex appeal had he would turn down a voluntary booty call from a hot female celebrity and I wanted an explanation. Especially when he showed the same prudence when another hot minor league celebrity (read heroine) offered the same. If Tate was turning down women up and down the southern states despite his hot celebrity status, there must have been a reason. Being one of the MCs, he deserved a little more backstory. And the thing is there was plenty of opportunities to build up the reader’s understanding of the character since Andrew used an omniscient POV in the novel. There are quite a number of times when Tate’s POV was tapped into and that could have been more productively utilized.
But the use of POV, in general, was another thing that I had difficulty aligning with an author of Andrew’s caliber. There were a number of scenes where the POV kept jumping from major to minor to major characters and I did not understand why that was necessary. If an alternate POV was absolutely necessary for a scene, it could have been broken down and presented in separate sections or reflected by the character in question on hindsight. The use of frequent POV-switching in these scenes, though were not haphazard enough to cause distractions or confuse the reader, created a sort of comic book effect – you know, where you have the dialogues in the speech bubbles followed by the fuzzy thought bubbles and then the off-panel comments about the actions? Like the narrator took the most advantage of his/her freedom to source the characters’ thoughts. I guess it was a technique Andrews used to speed up the plot and thankfully it did not injure the reading experience too much for me other than make me conscious of the flaw as a writer.
Recommendation: It was an enjoyable read. There were a few plot elements that reminded me of Welcome to Temptation (an absolute favorite re-read of mine) by Jennifer Crusie, such as the relationship between the sisters and the visit to a new location and video production crew, etc. so obviously I felt right at home with it. And it warms the heart as a straight cut contemporary romance novel. For another, it had great food culture and I have mentioned in a previous blog Books and Cravings They Inspire how much I love it when writers explore characters’ dietary dynamics. Personally, I’m looking forward to reading Andrew’s Homemade Sin.
author, book, Book Review, Character Development, contemporary romance, Creative Writing, daily post, Daily Prompt, food culture, Mary Kay Andrews, point of view, Romance Novel, Romance Writing, Writing
Title The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide
Author Debby Holt
Genre Women’s Fiction, Chick-Lit
Publisher Pocket Books
Publication Date February 1, 2006
Synopsis: With her twin sons’ yearlong pre-college trip to India coming up, Sarah Stagg is finally ready to put up her feet and spend a little quality time with her actor-husband Andrew, star of their local theater. But Andrew has other ideas. He has been having an affair with his new co-star and soon moves out. Now, with the kids gone and the house empty, Sarah is experiencing an existential crisis. She spends her days waiting for her husband to realize his mistake and come home or wondering how she will spend the rest of her life alone if he doesn’t. Her best friend Miriam suggests she spends her time more productively by doing everything to prove she’s enjoying the independence – especially if Andrew is to find her desirable again – and pushes Sarah to join their town’s upcoming play, placing her at the scene of her husband’s crime. Suddenly Sarah finds herself cast as the female lead and the male lead Martin Chamberlain – an already divorcé with a cheating former spouse – becomes her closest confidante and comrade, and real-life savior too. Sarah’s life turns into a whirlwind of misadventures, between starring in the theater, adopting a psycho-dog bent on killing everything in the neighborhood, helping her neighbors spy on their husbands, and being whisked away to Majorca by her best friend where she enjoys a little fling with her college crush with a potential to relocate. The only problem is Sarah’s still too busy wavering between trying to reclaim her husband and finding solutions at an off-shore island to realize true love may be found in the most unexpected of person living closer to home than she realized.
Experience: It’s been a while but I really enjoyed reading this novel. Ever since I took up full-time writing, it has been really difficult for me appreciate works for the sheer pleasure of the entertainment but The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide brought me home. It reminded me why I love reading and writing stories so much – for the sheer joy of living many lives. I could totally put myself in Sarah Stagg’s shoes and it was a pretty nice pair to boogie in.
It wasn’t so much that the characters were deeply explored. In fact, everything that took place was only observed from Sarah’s POV, and she is the type of character for whom the other shoe drops only in the distant future. But this aspect of her personality was so consistently pursued that I have to raise my hat to Holt for her patient custody of not revealing the plot to Sarah too soon. Rather, Sarah’s oblivious observations of her surrounding while keen perception into the characters of those with whom she is detached but taking close one’s for granted, all the while wincing and tiptoeing for things to only get worse, was hilariously adorable.
Moreover, Holt isn’t afraid to introduce a host of funny characters. As writers, we are always told to keep the character count limited to those absolutely necessary. Well, since Sarah is a neighborhood sort of gal, her many wacky neighbors are necessary. It is perhaps one of the reasons why no one’s but Sarah’s character is explored in depth. When you have the main character accidentally molesting priests, her maniac dog chewing up the town gossip’s guinea pig, your closest local pal trying to project her need to cheat onto her husband, and your best friend planning romantic getaways without her husband, it is difficult to dedicate much of the text to anyone but the main character. But on the whole, it worked out fine because they each helped to build up or reinforce Sarah’s own flaws and fitness.
However, there was one character I wish who deserved a little more than Sarah’s self-absorption. Martin was such a swell guy, I couldn’t but feel sorry for him. He was dependable and sweet and all things that would make most girls take him for granted, which is exactly what Sarah does throughout the book. But there were a few moments when his dependability and sweetness came out very masculine and I wish there was more of that. As far as the potential hero goes, I wish he stepped out of the shadows a little more and asserted himself. He was fully capable of it. For the sake of the plot, however, he was much sacrificed.
For the most part, the book shows that Sarah is a character to whom things happen rather than one who makes things happen. It wasn’t only being cheated on, but also all the mishaps that followed that were just a great way of preserving that Sarah Stagg had no control over her life. There was such a Bridget Jones appeal to her that made the reading fluent. Of course, as the story progresses, we see her attempting to take a bit more charge and stand up to – or at least try to stand up to – what is right, but she is essentially a pushover. Thankfully, not forever, which was hinted upon somewhere in the middle to keep the reader’s hope alive.
Recommendation: An excellent chick-lit that deserves to be read if you enjoy rom-com and women reclaiming girl power.
When writing fiction with the intention of reaping glory or sale, it is very important not to become overly simplistic about one’s passion for the act of writing. So you have a great story to tell, so it’s all you can think about, so the high will not be tamped until you have flushed the words onto some surface for later reading. But if you want others to feel even nearly as passionately about your work as you do, it is important to keep your eye on some of these following rules:
- Write a story that your audience wants to read not just the one you want to tell. A little compromise can take you a long way. You have built up your writing voice by reading up on a particular genre and know what you enjoy. Well, since the books you are reading sell, there are others with similar needs as yours. Invest in a little research to see what this audience is actually looking for when they pick up the same books as you do instead of relying on guesswork, imagining that your customers are just more of you. Hard data is a trouble worth the results they will get you.
- Be honest about what you are writing. I know, it seems to contradict the previous rule, because if you are writing to market to an audience, then how are you also writing the truth? Simple, if you don’t believe in it, don’t dish it. Writing exists on a truth-enhancement continuum. Find your place on this spectrum and go with it. One way to do this is by drafting your ideas, outlines, cluster passages/chapters before going into the research part. You have gotten the passionate bits recorded so now you may calm down and employ some cool calculation. Remember, if fiction writing was not a professional career, it wouldn’t have a whole gamut of systematic rules to getting published.
- Hit the nail with a strong opening. When readers are shopping for new books, whether at a brick-and-mortar or at a dot-com, a lot of them will flip the first few pages to see if they can connect with the content. This means they will go through the first chapter, poem, or what have you. Most online book retails also provide a “Look Inside” or similar preview tools to entice shoppers. Your opening scene can be a powerful marketing tool and you should make the most of it. I posted a blog on creating great First Impressions previously that you may wish to check out 🙂
- Add viable conflict. Interestingly, this is a point that requires mentioning because a lot of novel (as in, new) writers forget while in the throes of writing that even though the conflict must tempt the readers to turn pages, it must also match your character and plot personality. It’s all good when James Bond is flying through Bangkok in an airborne tuk-tuk but will this the way the good reverend would travel to deliver his Sunday sermons?
- Length does matter so it’s best not to prolong the conflict unnecessarily. Despite the fact that I hate when a good book comes to an end, I can appreciate that all good things must be enjoyed in moderation. Adding conflict after conflict, dishy scenes after dishy scenes might be enjoyable to you but will probably diminish the value of your book. When outlining your story, make sure you always keep the scenes and chapters you add remain true to why you are telling that particular story. Nip anything irrelevant when you edit. This is especially true with today’s readers who have endless TBRs to get to.
- Don’t info dump on your readers. Again, just because you put in all that effort into your research, doesn’t mean you keep looking for ways to pass on all that you learned while writing. The entire chronicles of Queen Mary’s rivalry with Queen Elizabeth I is probably irrelevant in a historical romance novel about a lowly girl marrying a duke just because the setting is 16th century England.
- Finally, write a good blurb. No one knows the story better than you – yet, most authors have a difficult time arranging a summary that emotively allures readers to their novels while not giving away the end. Authors, by nature, tend to bounce back and forth between a state of self-importance and diffidence. Even before reading the first chapter, your audience will judge you by the synopsis on the back of your book jacket. It doesn’t matter how epic your story is, before the word-of-mouth goes viral, you will have to rely on those first few readers. And unless you are able to convince them with a blaring announcement selling them why your story is worth spending a day of their life on, your book will probably languish on their shelves for eternity. When writing the blurb, put yourself in a book reviewer’s shoes and make sure you remember to add that very valuable conflict that makes the story important. It took me only about a hundred try to get my blurb for Bad Daughter to satisfy me, and let me tell you, it looks a lot different from the original blurb I had posted on Amazon. It currently reads like this:
What would you do if you were taught that the price of safety is silence?
At the age of six years, Obaira Osman was sexually abused by her uncle, the memory of which she manages to keep buried for a decade. At sixteen, she is a dedicated daughter, loving sister, and an ideal student. When she wins a national essay writing competition and finds herself wooed by the most handsome and intelligent boy in school, life seems like it couldn’t get any better – even if cultural constraints demand she keeps her love affair a secret. However, after a planned rendezvous, which should have been a simple rite of passage, goes awry, Obaira’s memory of a terrifying past comes crashing around her and she realizes she has been far from being the perfect daughter. Her response is to shackle herself to the rules and regulations of her home environment in order to reclaim the safety she once knew to be true.
What if you one day realized that the cost of silence is freedom?
Over the next two decades, she finds herself atoning for the burden of shame that is her legacy. She attempts to earn back her parents’ faith even while trying to find peace by lending a voice to women who have been crushed by similar forms of abuse – much to her conservative parents’ chagrin. But she is kinder to the women she helps than to herself, as she remains unwilling to accept a second chance when fate takes her across the world to the doorstep of the man who just may be the one to emancipate her tortured soul.
I’m sure there are about a thousand other rules to keep on the lookout when writing fictions to sell, but these seem to be some common mistakes authors make. I know, I am guilty of at least half of them 😐
So Friday I finally submitted my story for the Amazon UK Kindle Storytelling contest, as I had mentioned in last month’s blog. My planned 20K-word novelette turned into a 34,480-word project. You must be thinking, ooh… an editing crisis, right? Not so much, I hope. I kept everything that was relevant to get the story to the finish. I stuck to the plot outline, scripted only the scenes necessary to develop my characters, and did not embellish on the descriptive narratives. I stayed 100% flourish-free. At least, I tried.
This is how I can break down my work on this submission: Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.
Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.
Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?
Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter: Read the rest of this entry »
My life is perfect. Said no one ever. If they did, they’re lying. Human beings aren’t happy until they are bogged down by burdens and bellyaching about it something awful. Be it loud as a hungry cat or as passive-aggressive as my mother. [Hey! I love my mother but she gives me plenty of reasons to complain.]
See? We are never entirely happy and without troubles and flaws. This includes a writer with all expenses covered and the only task to accomplish is finish composing novels to publish and sell. So if the author’s life isn’t perfect, and the readers’ lives aren’t perfect, why should the hero and heroine have it easy?
No one wants to read about people who have it made. Stories are driven by characters and their challenges. Having too much sympathy for your heroes and heroines is equivalent to tying the proverbial noose around the shelf life of your book. You were too kind to your protagonist while writing? Well, get ready to have your readers write off your protagonist.
The solution? Make it hurt and make it count. In other words, make your characters believable and garner enough sympathy – even for that evil douchebag – to make them memorable. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find causes for their miseries – after all, we humans manage to complain about even the best of gift horses.
Easiest is making life difficult for the protagonist. Heroes and heroines tend to hold very deep-seated values, even the anti-heroes/heroines. Ego and integrity raise the stakes for them. Here are some great ways to drive that stake deep enough to leave your character with a gaping wound (by the way, gender-neutral usage of the terminology ‘hero’ henceforth): Read the rest of this entry »
author, character creation, Character Development, conflict, Creative Writing, daily post, Daily Prompt, imperfections, novel writing, tragic hero, Writing, writing fiction, writing novel, writing tips
I have decided that procrastination might be the primary vice of my writing career. I used to think I was too preoccupied with my corporate responsibilities but. now that I have switched to writing full-time, I realize the problem is that I can find ways to become preoccupied with just about anything. The burning question is how can a person who loves writing as much as I do be so out of sorts with the writing itself.
Well, I know how. Fear is at the root of my problem. I keep stalling because becoming a novelist is something I always wanted to excel in. Even with my multiple fallback plans, I have stored all my eggs in this basket. Honestly? I don’t want to have to resort to those fallback plans. The pressure is real. Hence, even though I can, in theory, believe in my writing capabilities, living by that faith is a whole other ballgame. Even when what I write seems to satisfy me, I keep wondering what if it’s not good enough.
Resulting in all the bottlenecking of my creative endeavors.
There are some ground rules I try to follow to jar me out of my whack. Mostly, it is to keep me from lulling myself into the fear sinkhole. They work too. Often enough to share the list of precautions with my fellow writers:
I have been very erratic about posting on the blog recently. It’s because I’m preparing for a writing contest! Amazon UK has launched a writing competition, the Kindle Storyteller literary prize, and I’ve decided to give it a go. Aside from the £20,000 cash award, it also offers the opportunity of being recognized in a well-publicized platform and a book marketing contract by the sponsors. The money is tempting but the glory would be nicer. That’s one way up the ladder, right?
Now, here’s the thing. No way am I delusional enough to believe that I’m winning. But it will ensure that the judges will read my story and who knows, I may pick up a contract anyway. The award program was announced last February but for some reason, I only received the reminder e-mail, which was sent last week. And the entry closes on May 19! It has to be a previously unpublished story of minimum 5,000 words (which is manageable). I had thought of putting in one of my short stories (we fiction writers always have a few completed works lying around) but decided I was to write a fresh one. Read the rest of this entry »
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