"That's it," my novel writing student said. (We'll call her Katie.) "I quit. No more red herrings. No more convoluted plot twists. Cozies are too hard to write. I'm going to write a Romantic Suspense."
Uh-oh, I thought. Katie was struggling to overcome one of the biggest hurdles that an aspiring author can face: a plot with a sagging middle.
"Switching fiction genres is a big step," I told her cautiously. "Haven’t you written about half of your Mystery?"
"More than half -- 285 pages," she added irritably. "But NOTHING'S working in this stupid plot. My (protagonist's) starting to sound like a B-movie version of Miss Marple, and I'm totally sick of all the slimy characters in this town. Besides. I've got this really great idea for a Woman-in-Jeopardy story. I could base the hero on the security chief in my Cozy. Nick's already pretty sexy, don't you think? You know how much I like writing Nick. I figure I'm meant to write a love story and put Nick in it. Romantic Suspense sells really well, doesn't it?"
Hmm . . .
A Hard-Earned Lesson
As I listened to Katie, I was reminded of another novel, another fiction genre, and another hard-earned lesson in novel writing, taught to me by one of my fabulous mentors.
That lesson was delivered shortly after I was contracted to write my second novel for Bantam Fanfare. Things weren't going well for me in critique group that day: my writing pals were picking apart a chapter that I'd struggled for two weeks to write.
After spending 10 years learning how to write historical Romance novels and (finally) getting Texas Outlaw published, I figured I’d achieved proficiency at novel writing. Texas Outlaw had been easy to write. It was being nominated for prestigious awards. Therefore, I assumed that ALL my novels would be easy to write.
Then had come Book #2 in my Bantam contract. What a nightmare! (And not just because carpal tunnel syndrome forced me to dictate 90% of the book.) Subplots were the bane in Texas Lover. At first, I didn’t have enough story to round out a 400-page manuscript. So I got creative. (Not good.) The next thing I knew, I had a 550-page manuscript. I’d run way over the page limit for a Bantam Fanfare book, and I didn’t know what to cut or how to fix the holes that would result.
What had happened to cause me all these novel writing problems? I was still the same writer that I'd been for Texas Outlaw!
Wisdom from a Published Pro
Sensing my frustration, one of my writing mentors, Harlequin Author Cara West, closed my manuscript, folded her eye glasses into their case, and delivered one of the most profound pieces of writing advice that I have ever been privileged to receive.
“Adrienne,” Cara said, “writing novels is like raising children. As they grow up, they have different problems.”
I didn't understand, of course -- I'd only raised cats.
Cara had to explain:
When a new idea is rattling around in an author's head, that book becomes the ideal. New authors imagine that all the characters will behave, and all the subplots will work. They can’t wait to write the new idea. That book has become their baby.
Thrilled to be released -- finally -- from all the toil of the last book, an author will eagerly sit down to write her shiny, new story. After pounding out a couple of chapters, however, the harsh reality begins to sink in: that beautiful, bouncing baby book has grown into a surly, pimply-faced adolescent. NONE of the characters behave. NONE of the subplots work.
At this point, a new author wants to scrap the adolescent. She'll start to dream about the next novel, telling herself that writing the baby will be easier.
But novel writing doesn't get easier, Cara insisted. No matter how many books an author has written before, there's always some insidious "thing" that trips up the story: a bullish secondary character that wants to steal the story; a subplot that fizzles when you desperately need it to work; a factual detail that proves inaccurate and blows up the climax of your story . . .
The Courage to Write
I think about Cara’s advice a lot as I coach Katie through her sagging-middle crisis. I wish I could tell you that Cara was wrong, but after nine published novels, I know better.
"Katie," I said to my student, "it takes courage to write past the middle. More courage than you'll EVER need to start writing a Romance novel."
I should know. I’ve started my Urban Fantasy three times. And scraped 200 pages.
The moral of this story?
Published writers finish books.
Katie, are you reading this post?
I believe in you.