Our current theme here at the Bad Girlz blog is an element of writing that we habitually screw up. In that spirit, I have a confession to make: Hello, my name is Tanya Michaels and I can’t plot worth a damn.
Plot is a verb (planning out your story) and a noun (the events that drive your story). I suck at both of them. When it comes to “planning,” I’m not so much linear as reactive.
Tanya vs. Plotting:
Part of my problem is that I have never written a book where events truly drive the story , although they may be a catalyst. What drives my stories are the characters and their relationships with each other. My books are not full of plot twists no one saw coming or fast-paced action sequences. A definition on my daughter’s recent homework called plot “the interrelated events that make up the backbone of a story.” Interrelated sounds so much more purposeful than “this scene seemed like a good idea at three in the morning, so I went with it.”
Now the good news is, after forty-plus books I am getting better, but plotting is still my vulnerable spot. There comes a point in the middle of every single book where I think, “There’s no way I can possibly meet the publisher’s word count because this book has no plot.” I am working to improve the plot element. But in the meantime, I also have interesting characters, relatable situations, great dialogue, a sense of humor and, in my Harlequin Blazes/Lila Bell novellas, very hot love scenes. (Weirdly, Lila is a better plotter than Tanya, with stories including assassins and magic and vengeance, but she cheats because writing in a paranormal world gives a writer so many more options. Plus, Lila’s stories are shorter.)
On the bright side, I think many romance readers are specifically looking for stories of emotional journey (and, often, sexual chemistry). But plenty of talented romance authors balance both relationship and plot. My favorite Jennifer Crusie novel Faking It has secret identities, art forgery and at least two romantic subplots besides the main characters. Arson! Murder! Con jobs! A drag show! In contrast, the plot of my Harlequin American Romance novel Her Cowboy Hero is: widowed man with bad people skills is hired by a single mom to make an inherited ranch habitable. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. (You don’t even want to know about my book Mother To Be, in which the entire story is a forty-year-old woman discovers she’s pregnant and spends nine months trying to adjust to the idea of motherhood. Riveting, isn’t it? And, yet, both my critique partner and my agent say that it was one of my best books. Go figure.)
In the twelve years since my first book was released, I’ve learned a few things, which I now share with you in the hopes that they help you with plot or whatever other writing demon you’re wrestling.
First, make friends with your skillset. This does not mean settle or stop trying to improve. But why shoot yourself in the foot? I am not a natural-born plotter, which hasn’t hindered me from selling more than forty books…but it might have if I’d spent all these years trying to write romantic suspense with complicated storylines. Try to find a market/audience that suits your natural voice and talents. If, for instance, you’re uncomfortable writing love scenes, don’t target an erotic romance imprint. If you struggle to finish any manuscript over 50,000 words without losing momentum, maybe don’t try to sell a 120,000 epic fantasy. (This might sound intuitive, but you’d be surprised. Some people will attempt a certain type of story because they have a misconception of what they should be writing or because they’ve heard that type of story will sell faster.)
The inverse of acknowledging your writing weaknesses is, exploit the hell of your strengths. I love creating characters, so my plan of attack is to shape plots that emerge from who the hero and heroine are. In my October Blaze If She Dares (:cough: available for pre-order now! :cough:), there’s a totally logical sequence of escalating events that resemble a plot. Go, me! The heroine, who was held at gunpoint in her own home months before the story started, has become a nervous, fearful person and she hates feeling that way. She wants to rediscover the bold, free-spirited person she used to be…and her sexy next door neighbor wants to help. They start an ongoing game of double-dare that starts off innocently enough but progresses to nude portraits and semi-public sexual encounters. It was great fun to write and the momentum of their dares (and their escalating relationship) kept the story moving forward. In addition to characters, I usually do a good job with dialogue, so while the events that take place in my books are rarely gasp-inducing, the characters’ observations about said events are usually pretty entertaining.
In addition to understanding your strengths and weaknesses, one of the most important things you can do to hone your craft is read. Read, read, read. Then go write some stuff, then read some more. I don’t think all the how-to writing books in the world can take the place of reading authors who handle an element really well (be it plot, sexual tension, pacing, etc.) I particularly advocate re-reading a book you loved so that you can analyze what worked. (The first time I read a Kresley Cole romance novel, for instance, I am 100% swept up in the awesomeness of the story. It’s not until I read it a second or third time that I can start to deconstruct why it’s so awesome. And she’s a great study in balancing emotion with action sequences. Her paranormal beings are often falling in love while escaping prisons, traveling through dimensions, and battling ghouls. )
Maybe one day I’ll get so good at plot that I’ll write an epic action sequence worthy of starring a Chris.
What? No, you’re just posting gratuitous pics.
ANYWAY. For now, I’m going to keep writing the best quiet action scenes I can—a physical therapist helping a patient relearn how to walk, a man who lost his son building a treehouse for a little boy who’s worked his way into the grieving father’s heart, a woman looking at a pregnancy test and trying to balance joyful awe and sheer terror. Maybe I can’t plot worth a damn, but I can still do my best to write damn good books.