Where to Begin?By Jordan Dane
Picking a Genre
So you want to become an author - what now? Before I began to write, I did research on the publishing industry to see what was selling. Romance is always a big seller—and still is—because women are avid readers and romance novels are a big part of what they read, in general. If you look at the stats on romance books posted on the Romance Writers of America website (stats obtained through a third party), you’ll see that romance is a significant genre as compared to others.
And even within the larger umbrella of romance, there are subgenres that provide a lot of options for a writer. Once I looked into this, I knew I didn’t have many romance books on my bookshelves. And if I wanted to write it, I had to read it. Reading is a great way to discover what you want to write. Read, read, read then read some more. But just because you might want to write romance, doesn’t mean it will come easy. The emotional storytelling of romance is far from simple. And if you choose to write a love scene, expect a challenge.
So after reading some books, I tried my hand at straight romance, but it wasn’t until I found romantic suspense that I uncovered my voice. It made me realize that I should have paid more attention to what was on my bookshelves from the start. I’m an avid crime fiction reader (and all its subgenres). And romantic suspense is very similar. (With the intense pacing of my stories, my novels are considered thrillers, with mainstream cross-over appeal.) So I would encourage you to look at what you are currently reading and enjoy the most. In the end, I think the most successful first book is one you write from your heart. You’ll write the novel you want most to read.
The Cross Genre Story
I’d like to make a point about the cross genre book. The publishing industry works hard at categorizing types of books to make it easier for booksellers to classify the book and shelve it for the reading public. And as authors keeping up with trends, we learn the subgenre lingo, but some books defy a strict definition because they have so many elements to them. And it’s been my experience that most readers don’t make a distinction when it comes to the various subgenres.
Given what I’ve experienced, the vast majority of the reading public is eclectic in its reading preferences and that’s good. They also don’t seem to be picky on subgenres, but I believe they know a good story when they read one—the bottom line. And there are enough readers to go around, enabling an author to cut a healthy slice of readership pie when his or her books are in print. So I like the idea that my books may fit into a number of slots. It makes me feel less guilty when I ask for a second helping of pie. I believe my cross genre stories give my publishing house greater flexibility to market my work. In today’s competitive marketplace, versatility has value. For the same promo budget, they can pitch my books as romantic suspense, romantic thriller, and/or straight up mainstream mystery, or suspense, or thrillers.
And if an established mystery or crime fiction author has been thinking of revitalizing their story ideas to better fit today’s market and improve their sales, it may not be necessary to overhaul their entire way of thinking. Perhaps they should consider broadening their appeal to suit a larger segment of the book buying public—women. Compelling romantic elements add emotional depth. And a cross genre story infused with romance could broaden their book’s appeal. After all, romance is the new black. It goes with everything.
Where Can I get Ideas for Characters or a Plot?
First of all, let’s talk about being prepared for lightning to strike. Since book ideas usually come piecemeal, I maintain a file of potential story ideas or characters that is fully stuffed. I also keep pads of paper and pens stashed everywhere in my house, in my car, and definitely in my purse. My husband also got me a digital recorder so I can make quick verbal notes as I drive. As many of you probably already know firsthand, an author’s mind never stops working.
I often thought it would be fun to set up a dart board with various types of characters, traits, and key plot ideas, then toss a dart to see what challenge I could devise for myself. Unfortunately, I can't hit the side of a barn with a Bazooka, but I haven't given up on the notion. Guess you could say I like painting myself into a corner, just to see how I get out.
I'm sure there are many other ways to conjure ideas, but the following (in no particular order) are where I get most of mine:
Most of my book ideas have come from the headlines or news stories. And sometimes I combine more than one crime story to add depth to the plot and make my characters’ lives more complicated. For my debut book, NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM, the Natalee Holloway abduction case in Aruba was the big inspiration. It was theorized online that Natalee may have been kidnapped by a human trafficking ring and I thought that was intriguing. Plus I wanted my woman cop to know what it was like to be a victim too. Instead of her working the case, the case works her. And in my latest release, THE ECHO OF VIOLENCE, one news story grabbed my attention. Click here for more details on my blog, The Kill Zone Blog. Missionaries were hijacked by terrorists in the Philippines and their story was broadcast on Locked Up Abroad, a TV show on the National Geographic Channel. You never know when a story will grab hold of you. Just take notes and let it linger in your mind until it comes together. Once something starts to gel, you make it your own and conjure up characters worthy of a starring role.
- Classic stories or fables
- Real life people that we know personally or see in the news that capture our imagination
- Newspapers & magazines
- TV & movies
- Any teenager within arm's reach
- Song lyrics
- Commercials (Marcia Preston got her idea for Piano Man from a sad heart transplant commercial. A beautiful book.)
Characters come to me first most of the time then I put them into situations that would force them to rise to the occasion. Let a strong character dwell in your brain for awhile. And if you listen hard enough, they will talk to you and tell you their story. Sounds strange, I know, but I’ve had thoughts of characters hit me at all hours. Sometimes they tell me the end of their story and others start from the beginning, but that voice you hear in your head might just be your next book…or schizophrenia. Don’t ignore it. Write it down with your new pen and paper collection.
The “What If Question - The question `what if' is a powerful one for writers when they are devising plots and characters.
As you can see from the `what if' scenarios above, the plot is intriguing, but made even more fascinating when you add a character with a lot to lose. The well-educated doctor, who thinks his life is perfect, loses it all in one fatal instant and must become a street-savvy fugitive to find the truth and clear his name. And a relentless cop stands to lose the only woman he's ever loved unless he becomes a one-man wrecking crew against an organized villain with plenty of resources and an army of henchmen. What had mattered most to these men and what forced them into desperation mode? Then ask yourself—What if that one thing was taken away from them, what would they do? How far would they go?
- What if I was a well-respected doctor with a life worth living in an upscale neighborhood before a one armed man killed my spouse and framed me in the process? (The Fugitive)
- What if I'm a cop on vacation visiting my estranged spouse and arrive late to his/her company Christmas party at the same time a savage terrorist locks down the building and takes the party-goers hostage? (Die Hard)
And don’t just focus all your attention on the good guys in your book. Put as much effort into your villain too. If your bad guys are complex and formidable, it makes the conflict more irresistible. We’ll cover more on villains in the character building session.
Formulate an idea of the `big ticket' plot points in your story, including the black moment for the hero/heroine when all seems lost. Then devise who is best to tell that story. From your cast of characters, primary and secondary, who will reveal your plot and be your main storyteller? Generally, that would be your hero or heroine—the person with the most to lose perhaps. I say generally because I don't want to limit you from turning a plot on its ear and tell it from the perspective of the villain, for example. I’m reading a book right now—The Book Thief by Markus Zusak—where the narrator is the grim reaper, telling the story of a human girl during the time of the holocaust.
Writing Groups and Critique Partners – Are They Worth it?
After I began to write, I looked for local support in my area. I searched for author groups and found that the RWA has many local chapters, more so than any other genre. And the RWA national office has great resources for the aspiring author. I attribute my selling quickly to what they offered. Even if I didn’t write pure romance, I still love being a part of this great group of authors. (A growing number of male thriller authors recognize the potential with RWA and attend the amazing national conference.) I belong to the MWA, ITW, Sisters in Crime, and other professional organizations, but RWA is unique when it comes to offering resources for the aspiring author, in my opinion.
If you live in a big city, you might be lucky enough to join several groups. Look for an active group that offers programs in author craft, research topics, and maybe promotional support once you’ve sold. Getting exposed to craft concepts and networking with other authors can be invaluable when you are first starting out. But remember that writing is still a solitary sport. Too many people reading and critiquing your work can dilute your voice. And self-doubt can wear down your confidence if you don’t maintain a strong sense of who you are as a writer. Listen to feedback, but only make changes that seem logical to you. It’s your story. And you are the final judge of what stays and what goes.
When you first start out, it’s important to commiserate with other writers. You learn a lot and fast. I had critique groups that I’d started or participated in, but eventually I dropped out. A group can be work too. It’s great when someone reads your stories, but remember that it’s a two-way street. You have to read theirs too. If your group is too large, you can get bogged down. Invariably, some members write really fast and you can find yourself completely tied up in their careers rather than your own.
And critique partners all have things they do well, but most will line edit you. They can spell check and wordsmith you to death. After a while, I didn’t get much out of that. I wanted someone to read for the big picture of character motivation and higher level plot views. And people who can critique like this are hard to come by. If you find one, grab hold of them and ply them with liquor. They’re worth their weight in gold. I tend to like working one-on-one with writers like this.
Once I got pubbed, I found I didn’t have much time to have someone beta read for me. Deadlines got in the way. But I love the camaraderie and the friendship that a local group of authors can provide—especially when someone else picks up the bar tab. In the end, though, it’s all about you applying your butt to the seat and writing.
Please feel free to post questions on anything you’ve read in this session. I’ll respond during the week of Oct 11-17th. But for those who don’t have specific questions, please share your thoughts:
1. What genres would you love to write and why?
Copyright Material – Jordan Dane