Sunday, February 13, 2005

Making a long story short

My entire romance career has been based on novellas. If you look at the 20 or so published works on my website,, all but about four or five of them are novellas or short stories.

Now, you'd think writing 25,000 words would be a lot easier than writing 100,000 words. Like, a fourth the work, right? Wellllll... it ain't necessarily so, particularly when it comes to romance. Getting a man and a woman from "hello" to "I love you" in 100 pages is a tricky bit of business.

But I do have some suggestions, if you're tackling a novella.

Everything I know about romance I learned from writing comic books.

My first published work back in the late 1980s were actually comics. Now, before you sneer, I think that there is no better way to learn how to write than writing comics.

Oh, I'd taken college courses on writing, and I'd been trying to write fiction from the time I was nine. Yet I only really learned how to tell a story from my comic book editor, Dwight Zimmerman. He taught me more about the nuts and bolts of storytelling in six months than I'd learned in all the previous years from everybody else. I still use the concepts Dwight taught me in my novels.

That's because the underlying principals of telling a good story are the same, no matter what genre you're working in.

Writing comics also taught me how to write tight, clean copy. Before that, I tended toward purple prose, but in comics, I found out I had to cut the deadwood. There's only room for about 22 words in a good-sized word balloon, and you can only fit one or two big balloons in a panel. Probably less.

So when the artwork would come from the artist, and I'd sit down to figure out where to place the balloons, I would quickly discover that much of my artsy dialogue wouldn't fit. I'd have to cut the daylights out of it. I soon learned not to use six long words where one or two short ones would do, and I learned to GET TO THE POINT.

Later, as a fiction writer, I discovered that my short, punchy comic book dialogue was much stronger than my long, flabby prose dialogue. Even now I rarely let one of my characters talk more than a couple of lines before another one cuts in. Fact is, bright, bouncy ping-pong dialogue is a lot more lively and interesting. That's particularly true in short fiction, where you don't have room for characters that drone.

First rule of writing short: PLAN.

The second major thing I learned from comics is the importance of planning ahead.

Okay, I know that lots of people are pantsers -- they start on page one, and they write until they hit page 400. And somehow, a plot grows out of that. I admire people like that. Lots of really good novelists work that way.

But I've gotta tell you -- DON'T try to write a novella that way. You'll make yourself crazy, and you'll end up with something that has a very good chance of being dreck.

I strongly suspect that some of the really bad novellas I've read are the product of people who tried to write them by the seat of the pants. They might do a good set up, but then they start wandering around like they would in a novel, and they never address the major plot point they established up front. So the reader is left growling in frustration.

Here's a good rule of thumb: the shorter the piece of fiction you're writing, the more tightly you have to plot it. A comic book is 22 pages long. Period. You have to know what goes on every single page, and you CANNOT run over, because the presses are set up for 22 pages. You create a longer book, and it will cost your publisher money in additional paper, ink and setup.

So as a comic book writer, I would sit down with a piece of paper, and I'd write something like this:

Page 1 -- Hero and villain square off to fight a duel as a hundred people look on.

Page 2-4-- Duel.

Page 6 -- hero's friends confront him about the woman he fought the duel over.

Page 7 -8 -- Commanding officer interrupts to tell them they have to go hunt an assassin...

Note, I don't have the major details of exactly what happens yet, but I need to know what major scenes I need and how long I can let each scene run. (Though for a novel or short story, each scene will run for 3 to 10 pages rather than a page or two. I'm told you just don't get enough emotional punch with a scene less than two pages long, and I believe it.)

This is a kind of plot skeleton -- the equivalent of the rough sketch an artist does before he puts down the detailed lines. I do that in all my fiction, including novels. Because I plan this way, I usually don't have a problem with a book running really long or really short.

In novels and prose fiction, I leave it a little looser than I do in comics, because it gives my characters more room to develop and change as the story goes without seriously screwing up my plans. I may not know exactly HOW the hero defeats the villain, but I need to know the approximate steps leading up to that event. This technique -- which isn't as detailed as the outline some plotters do, but isn't as loose as a pantser's approach -- seems to work very well for me.

By the way, in novellas, as opposed to novels, I go with short, 10-page chapters, because they seem to break the action better. Gives the reader the feeling the book really flies. For novels, I write 20 page chapters.

Keep it Simple, Stupid.

The KISS rule is one a novella writer can never afford to forget. You don't have room in 100 pages to get too complicated.

Keep your external and internal conflict simple -- something you can actually solve in 100 pages. Don't try to bring international terrorism to an end, for example. You can, however, finish off one particular group of terrorists.

Keep your cast of characters small. Hero, heroine, and villain. The smaller the cast, the better the novella seems to work. I've done big casts in a novella, but the focus must remain primarily on the hero and heroine. They need to be on stage and interacting with one another almost continuously. If you can figure out a plot event that puts them in the same place and keeps them there to bounce off one another, that's good too.

Here's a biggie: The first chapter or two of a novella is setup. You set up your characters and your major conflict. (In a novella, you've usually only got ONE major external conflict. There just isn't room for more.) Readers expect you to resolve that conflict with THOSE characters by the end of the book. That means, don't just forget your conflict and wander off to have sex or a romance or whatever. Resolve the conflict by the end of the book, or you're going to seriously frustrate your readers. They want closure on the external conflict.

By the way, don't introduce a studly male alpha in the first chapter unless he's damn well your hero. You'll get in trouble every time, because readers will assume he's the hero, and they're going to be ticked if he's not.

Romancing the Novella

It may be a good idea to give your heroine and hero a romantic history. It's a lot easier to get them to love in 100 pages if they're halfway there before the book starts. Now, I've done it with them as strangers, but there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved. Often a novella takes place in the span of a day or two, and it's hard to convince people the h/h fell in love that fast. You can do them as strangers, but I think it works better if at some point they acknowledge how odd it is: "I can't believe I've only known you two days, and I already love you."

I also think it works better if you throw so much at them, and they have such an intense experience running from bad guys and having sex, that it seems they've known each other longer than they actually have. It makes the reader believe a longer span of time has passed, and they know each other better. If they're just trapped in an elevator or Not gonna work. Anyway, not without a magic spell in there somewhere.

So -- Give the hero and heroine ONE concrete goal they can accomplish in 100 pages: Get rescued. Escape from the villain. Catch the villain. Find the magic whatsit.

Minimize the number of supporting characters, and maximize the amount of time the hero and heroine are together. Trapped on an alien planet running from monsters/villains? Ohhh, yeah. Done it many times. Always works.

Give them a preexisting romantic history, or else keep the romantic conflict between them simple enough that they can overcome it in 100 pages. Preferably both.

You do need a romantic conflict, by the way -- some reason these two people will fight between bouts of hot, steamy sex. Keeps things interesting.

Anyway, these are just a few techniques I use in writing novellas and short stories. Hope the ideas helped!


Monday, February 07, 2005

The Care and Writing of Alpha Males

Anybody who has ever read anything of mine knows I love Alpha Males. There's nothing like a guy with a wolfish gleam in his eyes and a confident grin to make me melt -- or maybe it's the broad shoulders and abs to die for.

Either way, he knows what's best, and he's supremely confident in himself and his abilities. He's protective, he's intelligent, and sometimes he can be more than a little ruthless in the pursuit of his goals.

The one thing he is NOT is politically correct. He can make any self-respecting feminist grind her teeth even as she gives serious thought to tripping him and beating him to the floor.

In other words, he can be a bear to write, because hot as he is, he's easy to get wrong. And no character can make you slam a book against a wall quicker than an alpha male gone bad. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, protectiveness and condescension. And woe betide the writer who gets it wrong, because readers and reviewers alike will rake her over the coals for creating a sexist pig hero.

The best clue about how to do alphas right is look at the way they were done wrong in the bad old days of bodice rippers, back in the 1970s and 80s.

Now, I will readily admit I was hooked on bodice rippers. I loved every politically incorrect word, including those OH-so-bad forcible seductions that sometimes edged into outright violence. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I was thinking.

Except that some of those guys were seriously HOT.

I've been thinking about those books lately -- about why they seemed to work then when now they make my skin crawl. I remember one hero in a book I must have read five or six times who outright beat the heroine. He threw her down the stairs, broke her ribs and locked her in a dungeon to starve when she was pregnant with his baby. In the end, of course, he realizes He Done Her Wrong, but only after the villain cut off one of his testicles and he gets beaten to a pulp and shot three or four times. The heroine, of course, saves him. At the moment, I can't imagine why. Personally, I think she should have done the shooting.

Why did I READ that thing? And who in their right mind could imagine it qualified as a romance?

Part of the reason those old heroes were such ring-tailed bastards is they were actually the book's villains. The focus of the novel had to be almost entirely on the romance, so to have any conflict at all, the hero had to supply it. (If we have a romance where the hero is a Nice Man who behaves like a total gentleman -- and there is no other major external conflict -- you'd have something like a 400-page Hallmark Card. Not only would it bore the snot out of you, it would be so sweet, it would give you cavities.)

Then you add in a lingering attitude that Good Girls Didn't, and you had a recipe for rape as a courting technique. If he took her by force, she could remain saintly and long-suffering while discretely enjoying the sex. Never mind that in real life, nobody has a good time in rape except the rapist -- and HIS real objective is violence, power and abuse, not sex.

So what does this tell us about writing an alpha hero NOW?

First off, a modern alpha male romance hero has to be a hero before he's anything else. Yes, he can also be a ruthless stone killer who can snap a man's neck with his bare hands -- but he's still got to have a heroic core. He needs a set of bedrock values he won't violate, period. He doesn't abuse those smaller and weaker than he is, especially women and kids. His sense of honor does not permit it.

That was not true of the bodice ripper alphas. They were more than happy to abuse the heroine, sometimes simply to revenge themselves on some relative or family member of hers.

Now, I'm not saying a modern alpha can't have some serious dark spots in his character. Everybody loves a rogue, a bad boy -- or even a plain ol' badass. For one thing, they're sexy. But you have to set them up right.

If we're setting up a really nasty alpha -- the stone killer I mentioned -- we need to establish some positive characteristics up front, along with all the lethal skills. We need to see his loyalty to his friends and comrades at arms. We need to show him dealing with somebody he cares about, so the reader can be reasonably confident This Guy Is Not A Creep. Maybe we can start out with a scene showing him with the buddies from his unit, joking and carrying on. Maybe one of them teases him about his cat. Maybe he's got pictures of his brother's kid in his locker, next to his box of ammo.

I remember years ago, there was an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in which he played a Russian agent. He had his watch set to go off to remind him to feed his parakeet. He loved that bird. You need to give your stone killer the equivalent, because it will humanize him.

Robots are not sexy.

But the single most important characteristic we must give him is respect for the heroine. It may start out slowly and grudgingly -- he may think she's a ditz at first. But over time, he must learn that she's smart and capable, and that she can take care of herself. Even though he'd much rather protect her himself.

Prime examples of this are Eve and Roarke from J.D. Robb's IN DEATH series. Both Eve and Roarke are alphas (if there is a more kickass romance heroine on the planet than Eve Dallas, I have yet to meet her). In fact, one of the reasons Roarke falls so hard for Eve from the first is because she's so smart and so capable.

Which stands to reason. Think about it: if you're brilliant, capable, and strong, are you really going to want a clinging dishrag for a lover? I don't think so. You may bang somebody like that, but you're not going to fall in love with her.

So if you're going to create an alpha hero, he needs an alpha heroine -- or at least a heroine who will fight him toe to toe when she thinks he's in the wrong. For one thing, those kinds of characters are more interesting. Good conflict comes from strong people disagreeing. And you won't have a good romance without good conflict.

I also think the reverse is true, which is something you may want to consider if you're writing a kickass heroine. If you pair an alpha heroine with a beta hero, you're going to have a very hard time getting the romance to work. I'm not sure the readers will go for it, either. They're going to feel that the heroine will walk all over the hero, and they're going to give the relationship about six months before it falls apart.

So ideally, your hero and heroine need to be equals. I'm not talking about physical equals, but equals in the sense that both play a role in solving the external conflict. They have to work together (at least as soon as they quit fighting long enough).

Which means you should never have one or the other character stand back during the final fight to the death with the villain. You used to see this all the time in movies: the heroine stands around wringing her hands while her hero fights for his life. Don't DO that. Have her grow a spine. Hit the bad guy with a lamp. Do SOMETHING, even if it fails.

And for CRYING out loud, NEVER have an alpha stand by while the heroine fights the villain. I've seen people do this, and it's just a bad idea. Forget feminism -- any self respecting alpha is NOT going to stand there while the woman he loves is in danger. Not happening. You do that to him, you've turned him into a piece of cardboard and the readers will not respect him.

If necessary, use multiple bad guys to keep both parties busy.

Now for the good part: Sex.

Sex is a big part of what alphas are all about, particularly in erotic romance. But it's in the bedroom that you really have to be most careful with your alpha.

Unless she's a werewolf or a vampire or something, he's probably going to be stronger than his heroine. And he's got to be very aware of that. He needs to be careful of his strength, and deeply concerned that he's not forcing something on her she doesn't want.

We need to establish up front that the attraction between them goes both ways -- AND HE KNOWS IT. Particularly if you're doing a captor/captive romance where consent can get a little gray. You must establish that whatever sex games they're playing, he's not a rapist and has no interest in become one.

If she says no, he stops. Period. None of this, "But you really want it." Uh uh. That's the oldest rapist line in the book, and readers know it. Nothing will creep them out faster. If your hero uses that line, HE IS NO LONGER A HERO. It's the third rail of romance, ladies.

So there must be a moment in the sexual encounter where he gives her a choice -- and she chooses to have sex with him. It needs to be really clear to the hero, the heroine and the reader.

One trick I've used is have him stop. Have him say, "I'm not hearing yes, so I'm out the door." At that point, the heroine, who REALLY wants him, says, "All right, dammit!" And we're off.

A good alpha must also, obviously, be really good in bed. His focus is not on his own pleasure: it's on hers, on making sure she's aroused and ready before he gets down to the good stuff.

In romance the heroine, like the customer, always comes first. And our hero, leader of men or not, definitely follows her lead.

Also -- and I see this all the time -- do not make your alpha a jackrabbit. Two thrusts and he's done? Please. No woman is that quick on the trigger. She's going to be lying there plotting to kill him from sheer frustration. He may be holding on to control by his fingernails, but he's got to keep going for her.

Otherwise, what kind of hero is he?

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment. If there's anything else you'd like me to discuss on this topic, feel free to drop by my website for my e-mail addy. Plus there's lots of yummy eyecandy there too.

Alpha Males can be tough to write. Posted by Hello