Those of you who read The Truth of Things and are probably wondering when the second book The Way Things Are will be released.
I wrote most of it last year during #NaNoWriMo--I even won! But when I when I opened the book to revise what I had written, I realized that more than half of it was hot garbage and I needed to begin again. At the beginning of the year, I announced that it would be delayed and since then I’ve been trying everything I know to fix it. I think I've finally figured it out… or rather, I pieced together stuff I know and did some research and that has brought me closer to finishing this book sometime in this millennia.
I ended up with a combination of the critique questions I use as a guide when I’m working with my author-frands, and some random things I’ve gleaned from woo-writing books like Tarot For Writers and Astrology for Writers. Most of this post covers the critique questions and those are the ones that I feel must have an answer to and if I can't answer them, my story has a serious problem. And lemme tell ya, The Way Things Are has serious problems, but these questions made them feel less impossible to fix!
1. What’s your hero’s goal?
Everybody wants or needs something and in a work of fiction, you character must want or need something so desperately that what they want/need will propel the plot. This is want/need is a goal. The story doesn’t start until they state their goal so that you can IMMEDIATELY insert some conflict to keep him from attaining it.
What’s their motivation? Your readers have to know and understand your character’s motivation in order to make their reactions believable.
What are the stakes? Does he stand to lose love, his life, his health, or his career? Are his friends or loved ones in danger? If none of these things are in danger of being lost, you need to fix that asaptually. Up the stakes. Increase the tension.
2. Who is their opponent?
Every hero has an opponent. I'm not talking about a Vader level nemesis—which would be welcomed if you don't write him as a textbook villain. But what I'm really talking about here is a something or someone that stands between your Hero and his goal.
Opponents can be an enemy, ally or lover; animal (think Moby Dick or The Revenant), monster or alien (I already made a Star Wars reference) force of nature like a flood or a fire (GODDAMN YOU, THIS IS US!) a company or organization or society.
Always think of ways to make your characters hurt more; ways to make them MORE uncomfortable. Whenever you feel like things are getting to sweet and easy kill their cat, their mom, their ambition, their libido, their houseplant. Torture them emotionally, physically, and mentally, and then give them a happy ending. Make them earn it!
Character is revealed in your hero's response to adversity. The worse things get, the more relatable they become.
Make sure your characters reactions to these trials and tribulations are based on their inner and external conflicts. This is when that character sketch comes in handy.
3. How does your hero react?
Listen. I'm writing a romance here. Yes, I know he's a cop and yes, he's trying to do the right thing for his city, but he loves his girl and wants the potential life they could make together more than anything so that has to be central. He will do anything to protect that! Your hero has to be the same. He or she must do everything possible to defend and defeat the opponent and achieve their goal. Giving in is not an option. *Cues There's No Easy Way Out from Rocky IV* (uh… let's circle back around to why this video is so bizarre in the comments😂).
Your character’s struggle needs to be on the page. I’ve been accused of making people cry, but I count that as a job well done. Words are meant to make you feel things and I’m proud that I have inspired that in my readers. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without showing my character’s struggle on the page in vivid and dramatic clarity with ever increasing tension and conflict until the book’s climax.
Any scene that does not highlight that struggle in some way, whether it’s through conflict or mirror moments that are quiet and highlight what the character could have, you need to be acknowledging and writing around your character’s struggle. If a scene doesn’t achieve that end, you need to cut it.
Dialogue is tool. Your characters should only speak when they have something to say. If you feel like they never have anything to say this might be a clue that you’re telling instead of showing. Every move they make is toward their goal. Every exchange they have should be intentional.
4. What is the outcome?
I've said this in a Facebook group before and I got reamed for it, but I'm going to say it here and y'all can come for me if you want. Every scene must advance the plot. Every word on the page, every bit of dialogue, every sex scene—ALL OF IT—needs to move the plot forward. If it doesn't? You need to cut it. Also, every scene should end with an answer to a question or ask another question that keeps the pages turning.
Even if something good happens in the scene, it must ultimately put the hero in deeper trouble somewhere in your plot. The moments he feels comfortable and happy must always feel like a “shoe waiting to drop” moment for the reader.
When we reach the climax (heh!) the hero should be tested and taxed to the max of his strength and convictions. It’s the ultimate challenge of his “central problem.” He needs to be forced to make the impossible choice.
And even considering all of that, the end must still be happy! This is a romance after all. The hero has to win in some way. Even if it’s not in the way that he thinks he should win. Death of one conviction might equal the life he wants.
Your hero MUST be changed at the end. Okay, yes. I know that some characters never change, but if your character isn’t Double 007 or a Messiah, the reader expects the central characters to be altered by the events that take place in the book. Make sure there is some noticeable shift from who they are in chapter one to who they become in the last chapter. And it’s a cumulative response. They can’t keep forgetting what happened to them in the scene before and starting from scratch. GROWTH. WE WANT GROWTH.
5. What’s the Premise?
A premise is an elevator pitch for your book. I’m the sort of writer who establishes premise before my fingers ever meet the keyboard to type chapter one. My close friends know that as a file in my Evernote titled What if?… AND IT’S A ROMANCE. This is my idea generator of sorts. I recognize that some folks have a hard time generating ideas, but this is how I usually arrive at a premise:
A dynamic character with a fatal flaw “must battle opponents and overcome (external conflicts)” and (internal conflicts) in order to reach (goal/want/need). Try that formula to find your premise. It’s really hard to miss it when you use this formula.
This was my premise for my novel The Truth of Things: Ava Marie Greene must challenge her cynicism and bitterness born from the abandonment by her drug addicted mother and learn to accept romantic love and the promise of the family she’s always longed for.
Knowing the premise before you begin allows you to hint and foreshadow with knowledge of your ending. When you open the story, hint at the premise early on—in the hook is preferable—but don’t answer it until the end.
This is just a side note: I usually develop these little premises about secondary and tertiary characters as I write just in case I want to write something about them later. I didn’t do that for this book because the overall theme and premise felt so weighty that I thought it would blot out any other characters. I was wrong. DO THIS, AUTHOR-FRANDS!
6. What is your theme?
Memorable stories are about something the character believes in passionately and if you’re the fearless sort, it’s your author brand as well. I talked about this before, but in case you didn’t know, my “brand” is romance novels that feature people of color who tackle social justice issues like police brutality, gentrification, poverty, being othered, and feminism smashed in with intense intimacy and hot sex scenes. Part of my process is making sure that I’m staying true to that overall theme. It may change in the future (I HIGHLY doubt it) but I’m really married to it right now and I want any and all readers of my book to understand and know what they are getting from me. As an author, it would benefit you to know what that theme is for you.
Themes can and should develop directly from the premise. In The Truth Duet, the central theme is justice. My character Levi is struggling with how to make sure justice is served for everyone involved and that goal feels insurmountable. It’s a well-known fact that most police shooting and brutality cases go unpunished. Levi and Ava are attempting the impossible and not even EYE believe it’s a goal they can achieve. In a brainstorming session with my writing buddy Kate, we came to the conclusion that Levi may have to reevaluate how justice looks to him.
A theme needs to weave through the story in subtle ways, using the thoughts, feelings, dialogue, action, story events, settings and symbols of your characters. It’s important to know what your theme is to make sure that you stay true to that for yourself and your readers.
7. Are you showing or telling?
I don’t fall into this often, but a lot of newbie writers do. Telling is when the author gets in the way of the story. Instead of showing what happens to the characters, they tell us what happened, skimming over key scenes that should happen on the page. This doesn’t mean that you need to be all show and no tell. It’s perfectly fine to tell when it comes to mundane things like a character moving from one location to another or other minutiae that happens in their day. But if the scene or plot point is meant to convey intense emotion or conflict, you need to show it to the reader so that it resonates with them. A good barometer is if it doesn’t create a clear mental picture, you’re telling, not showing.
Stay away from vagaries and generalities—especially when it comes to character and setting descriptions. Give the reader specific, unique details that make your people and spaces memorable.
Constantly look for new ways to stand character archetypes on their head. Is your hero an alpha male, give him a non-traditional job like a nanny or nurse. Is your heroine a flighty, earthy, mystical sort of human being? Make her a serial killer. Always look for ways to flip clichéd characters, settings, dialogue, and action scenes in a way that feels fresh and original.
I spent some time doing this yesterday evening and I’m set to have a really amazing weekend of writing. I hope your writing goes as well as mine did!
P.S. Have you read The Truth of Things? If not, GET INTO IT!