Friday, November 30, 2012

4 Lessons I Learned While Writing My First Romantic Suspense Novel

The Seven Year Itch: A J.J. McCall Novel (Book 1) is my first romantic suspense, espionage, mystery effort.I'm usually a romantic comedy writer. So when I deigned to step out of my usual genre and write the first book in this series, I had no idea what I was in for. No idea. My eyes were full of Disney wonder as I contemplated writing my very first spy novel. I had written some good stuff that got published before...I had "experience."

Should've been a piece of cake, right?


Had I any clue whatsoever what I was getting into, I would have asked for the appropriate medication a month in advance. I also may have postponed this book for a time when I wasn't so pressed to get one finished and move onto the next one. No, this book would not be shaken. It lingered on for months, over twelve of them, like year old fish odor.

The plot was more complex than any story I've ever written. Dare I say, more complex than any plot should've been for someone attempting this for the first time. But with me, it's always story first. I'm always about what's going to give the reader the best experience. So I went with the highly complex plot told from multiple points of view with my giant "Goose Egg" of experience.

Every time I thought I was finished I had more to fix. More loose strings to tie up. More plot holes to fill. I suspect it was much much much harder than it really had to be. These are the lessons I picked up, the mistakes I won't repeat in my sophomore effort...the second and later books in the J.J. McCall Series.

1. Outline, Outline, Outline 

Okay. So, I don't outline. I'm a pantser. A decided, determined, diehard one. In none of the books I've written have I ever outlined a single word. So, I thought I had this all sowed up. Sit down, let my characters do stuff and talk, transcribe as necessary. And poof!! It would all work out just grand.

You hear that? Ahhh, yes, that would be the muffled sound of my stupidity. It's dying a slow, painful death.

Here's the thing. When your plot is complex, told from multiple points-of-view, with a string of characters (Russian ones at that), and you have several subplot, if you don't outline your major plot points, at a minimum, prepare for long nights, a gazillion drafts, and suicidal thoughts. You will have more loose ends than a Las Vegas brothel. And let's not even talk about the plot holes.

I don't care how utterly painful it is, I'm going to do brief chapter outlines that cover the major plot points from now on...or else!

2. Foretell versus Foreshadow

Seems like an easy enough rule, right? If you want to create suspense for the reader, then you probably shouldn't tell them what to expect before it actually happens. Because if you do that, then what's the point of writing the rest? I can't even tell you how many times I broke this rule in an effort to make my character seem exceptionally clever. She anticipated what would happen...and then whadaya know? That's EXACTLY what happened. She is soooo smart! If only the writer weren't so stupid.

I realized it is better to let the character be totally brilliant in her reaction to sticky situations rather tell the reader in advance what was going to happen. But it's also okay to let the reader know that "something" is coming...I just don't need to tell them exactly what that is.

3. Head-Hopping Ho-Down

The Seven Year Itch is my first third-person effort. All of my romantic comedies are in first person. Due to the complexity of the plot, I realized that first person simply would not work. I thought about doing a first-third thing but that was complicating the complexity of the already complex complexity. So I decided on third person to be kind to the reader.

Well, didn't take long for me to realize I hadn't been as kind as I thought because I was in everybody's in the same scene. It was a mistake I wouldn't have caught had it not been for another brilliant writer (Marissa M.) posting a third-person learning exercise on her Facebook page. I got that awkward feeling you get when the lesson applies to everything you've written over the past year. 

Yeah...that was another round of edits.

There were many.

4. Up with Scrivener

MS Word is for the birds...well when it comes to complexly plotted writing efforts.

Somewhere around the 90K-word mark on the 97th draft I forgot what the heck I was writing about. The book was like this heaping mass of words and I was delirious with editing. I started to forget character names, places. J.J. who? So I spent hours scrolling up and down looking for names and places, trying to switch scenes around and it was just a hot mess...until I read about another recent author in the genre singing the praises of Scrivener--a writing software that is truly built for complex efforts like this one.

It allows you to write in scenes and then move those scenes around with ease. You can make a character diary to keep track of all the names. You can move and shift words around with the click of a button. And the research...all those little websites you visit for research can be entered as part of the book's research. So when you do I will do...then you have all of your research in one place. It's awesome and was a lifesaver. Even if you're mid project it is really worth taking a couple of hours to set up you current WIP. The benefit you get will far outweigh the headaches.

The great thing is you can still compile it in Word when you need to print a draft for reading and automatically puts it in manuscript format for submissions to agents, editors, or what have you. 

Also it has a project meter so you can see when your word count is exceeding the bounds of human comprehension.

There were a many other tiny lessons here and there but these were the big'uns. Take heed to these and they will make your freshman efforts much more author-friendly.


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Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday Morning MUGshot #4

C'mon,  you didn't think I was out of mugs yet, did ya? Of course, this requires no explanation. It's my favorite mug from my favorite agency--The FB-ONE. I spent 12 years there in the Hoover Building working on cases and doing things I never IMAGINED I'd do. And I entered the Counterintelligence business just around the break up of the Soviet Union. I remember my colleagues spinning around asking the question, "Does this mean the end of the KGB?"  Then we got our answer over the next decade--in the form of Aldrich Ames, Earl Pitts, Harold Nicholson, Robert Hanssen and some other cases a little lower on the radar.


You can only imagine what it must've been like during that time period. 

I'm amazed at the extent which people don't seem to believe spies operate in the U.S. anymore. Yes, the cold war is over. But what we must realize is that the more global our economies and societies become, and the more interdependent we become, the more you need to know in advance what other countries are doing and how their decisions will impact you. Couple that with shrinking budgets and the increasing need to do more with less and you have a hotbed of intelligence operations and collections in the United States and around the world. Intelligence has been and will always be a force multiplier and I don't expect to see less spying over the coming years, rather I'd expect agencies to be beefing up their stations/residencies. This includes those operating in the United States. Including Russia.

Don't sleep.

The FBI has a big job on its hands and does so much more than the ordinary citizen will ever see. A lot goes on in the shadows, but that's where they do the most to keep us safe.

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Check out my new release: The Seven Year Itch (A J.J. McCall Novel).

The Seven Year Itch - Kindle ($2.99)
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