A few weeks ago, I told you about the steady progress I’ve been making on my WIPs by working to a 20-page-per-week commitment with my writing coach. That’s approximately 6,000 new words per week. At that pace, I’d be able to write a 25K story in 4-5 weeks.
So now let me tell you about the 25K story it took me 2 years to write.
OK, I’m being a bit melodramatic. I didn’t take me 2 years to get through the new pages of the first draft. That took a few months, then the story went to critique readers who (rightfully) had some problems with the story. Then there were the inevitable months of compiling critique comments, formulating a revision plan, going back to the story drawing board, drinking before 4 PM, and reconsidering my poor life choices. And then I walked away from the story for a year.
Not to worry! I was not defeated, and the story wasn’t abandoned. I just needed to take a break. See other stories. Decide what I really wanted out of that novella. The answer was, a lot, and that’s why my time away from it was so important for fixing the story. My critique readers could give you lots of details about what was wrong with this book, like a heroine who was rather selfish, an out-of-the-blue physical encounter that would be a tough sell in a contemporary, let alone an historical, and that perennial first-draft favorite – wishy-washy goals.
But pulling back from all of that to take an big-picture view of my novella, I realized I’d written it too soon. It was under-proofed, under-baked, and just not ready for prime (or even critique) time. So how did I make such a mess of it? Oh, let us count the ways.
Story Problem #1: You better get this party started. This novella, at a mere 25k words, has a lot of work to do. While every story needs to stand alone, if you’re going to write a series and market it as such, readers are going to expect to see, you know, related stories. That means this story is set in the same world as the next five full-length novels and final novella, with many of the same characters and settings. It has the burden of setting all that up for the first time, not only for readers who might read the story in order, but also for me as the author.
It also has to set the tone of the series. In this case, that means taking on some serious topics (the 1870s in London were a crazy time and women’s lives and place in society were changing), but also keeping a light and sometimes fun/funny tone. Because I’m a masochist, that’s why. It also should give some indication of the heat level so there are no surprises for readers who thought they were getting one kind of story and find out in the next book they are getting a different one. Full disclosure here: the kickoff novella is ‘sweeter’ than the other books, because I didn’t have time to develop the h/h relationship, send them through a character arc, and get them into bed in 25k words. Future books in the series do have ‘open-door’ sex scenes.
Like the little engine that could, this little book has a lot of weight to pull up a steep hill. By taking a break, writing big chunks of a few other books in the series, and giving the lead characters of this novella time to gel in my own mind, I hope I’ve gotten it right with the current version. It’s certainly a lot closer that it was a couple of years ago.
Story Problem #2: Whose party is this, anyway? My answer is, this party (story) belongs to both leads. That’s the way I like my romance – with both partners learning, growing, and changing because of the choices they make as individuals and as an emerging couple. Sadly, draft #1 didn’t read that way, and while both main characters were lacking in goals and stakes, the hero’s were especially anemic. His goal, if you boiled it down to its essence, was keep the status quo. (Somewhere in NJ, Jenny Crusie is crying, because she taught us better than that!). And his stakes were…I’m not sure. If he didn’t accomplish his goal, things would change, sure, and as we’ve established, he didn’t want change. But then what? He’d have the sad feels, or something. Yeah, it was weak.
The heroine’s goal was problematic and wasn’t getting worse (another must for fiction), but at least there were meaningful stakes for her. And the thing is, I opened in the hero’s POV, which sends a subconscious signal to the reader that this is the character to watch most closely, because this is the one who will grow and change and arc the most. After the revisions, they both have clearer goals and real stakes if they don’t get those goals, so at least there’s that. I still open the book from the hero’s POV, with apologies to readers who like to see ‘their girl’ on the page first, but at least now it makes sense.
Story Problem #3: Who are these weird people and how did they get invited? There
are a lot of people in this short book. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the first draft, because this book is laying the foundation for a series that will include a big cast. Each book will include recurring characters and introduce new ones. The full-length
novels will have 75k – 80k words to introduce and flesh out and get readers comfortable with so many faces, old and new. This one has fewer words, and therefore less time to do it. I did, at least, try to streamline the first scene. Although there are still a LOT of important characters in the first two-scene sequence. Now, though, I think (hope) they each earn their keep better.
Last month, this novel went to my editor for her final review. Soon I’ll be sending it off for proofreading, then formatting. And you know what that means – publication is just around the corner. Stay tuned in the next couple of months for the reveals of the Too Clever By Half cover, first chapter links, and release date!