So, I had my assignment, 50,000 words by December 3. But they couldn’t be just any words; they couldn’t be just a first draft. They had to be final, ready for an editor. I don’t normally write perfect first drafts; generally, I write an extended outline so that I know how the plot works out and then layer in the sights, sounds, and emotions. This can take five or six or ten iterations. I know where I want to get but I take my time traveling there. I have some books I’ve worked on for years, coming back and dusting them off when I’ve finally learned how to solve whatever problem was stopping me from completing the book in the first place.
This was going to have to be different. I didn’t want to paralyze myself by saying the first draft had to be perfect, but I also knew I didn’t have a lot of time to fix it if the manuscript went wrong. So I had to write fast, but I couldn’t prize speed above good writing.
I almost always know where a story is going before I start writing it, and I knew I had to have that roadmap for this story, too, or I would end up in dark places and not enough time to find my way back to the light. The problem was that for other novels, the idea percolates quietly in my subconscious for weeks, months, even years, and then when it’s ready, it presents itself.
A Certain Kind of Magic revealed itself to me that way. I had a conversation with a friend years ago about what would happen if you freed the djinn from the bottle, instead of asking it for wishes. At the time I squirreled the concept away in my head and then years later, I figured out what was stopping me. I didn’t really want to write about the djinn, I wanted to write about the woman who freed the djinn, and why she would do it, and what it meant. It meant that she could see the world of fairy. Which meant … and I sorted the plot out and wrote the book and now it is one of my favorites under the Jessica Starre pen name.
Other times, I get my plots from dreams. I have very vivid dreams, and they are so emotionally captivating that I am inspired to write them down when I get a good one. (So much so that when my yoga teacher proudly announced that once she started doing intensive yoga, she no longer had dreams, I stopped doing yoga.) When I have a dream that I have to write, I go at in a frenzy, writing for twelve and fifteen hours at a time, not sleeping, barely showering, cramming my other work into spare minutes. Once the frenzy abates, I polish the manuscript and wonder when the dreams will come calling again. Children of the Wolves and The Achilles Project, both by Jessica Starre, are novels I wrote this way.
But I can’t count on this for the new novel. The new novel didn’t come to me in a dream and I don’t feel the frenzied need to get it out of me and on to paper. This is where all those plodding years of writing nonfiction saves me. I know that I can get the words on the page even if I don’t feel particularly inspired. And I know no one has ever been able to tell the difference, not even me.
So I had to plot this book at a cognitive level, not relying on dreams or my subconscious to do the work. I couldn’t let the plot get too complex, because 50,000 words is not, in the end, that many, and also a complicated plot is likely to develop holes that take a lot of time and revising to patch. So, I had to put the emotional payoff into how the characters interacted with each other instead of dazzling people with a gripping story – that is to say, the conflict between the characters had to be emotionally compelling since the storyline was going to have to be fairly straightforward.
One of the most emotionally compelling conflicts is the kind where people are at odds with each other but no one is the bad guy. The reader wants everyone to win – but how can they? So, emotionally compelling but also very easy to screw up.
That meant I had to scrap the “wicked” stepsister. She’s not going to be wicked, she’s just going to be different, and a little all-too-human, and not the person the hero thinks he needs. He thinks he needs the beautiful princess, until he realizes he’s wrong. But the beautiful princess can’t be revealed to be a nasty bitch; she has to be a really nice person. That makes the conflict more heartbreaking.
Let’s give them some names before we go further, to prevent confusion. (I didn’t know their names until I started writing, they were just “older sister,” “younger sister,” and “prince.” None of them wanted to be named until I had the pen* in my hand and started writing them into the story, and then they told me their names. Sometimes they don’t and I use “TK” for forty pages. Very annoying, characters.)
So, Brianna is the older sister, the “wicked” stepsister; Natalie the younger “princess” character; and Matthias the prince.
Those are our main characters. There are also two dogs, because my daughter insisted on putting them in. They are Dakota and Jasmine, but they don’t have much to do with the plot; they serve a mostly decorative purpose.
The next step was to figure out how to bring these characters together. Brianna, I decided, would work for an organization that had a gala affair – a “ball” – and she would send Natalie to it, because Natalie would want to go, and there Natalie would meet Matthias. But Brianna would already be in love Matthias, so there you go, drama. I figured Matthias would be someone Brianna knows but has never dared tell about her feelings.
In romance, the relationship between the hero and heroine has to be center stage, so I had to figure out how Brianna and Matthias would spend time together while he thinks Natalie is the one for him. Then it came to me: since he and Brianna must know each other and be friendly, he would ask Brianna to help him figure out how to woo Natalie. Poor Brianna!
Now, if Natalie immediately fell into Matthias’s arms, then there would be no need for Brianna to get involved, so there has to be a reason Natalie feels aloof and yet willing to be wooed. So, what if Natalie isn’t that attracted to Matthias, but thinks by marrying Matthias, she can save her family? Brianna, I decided, would have given up all her dreams to support Natalie, and now Natalie is trying to return the favor. Maybe, Natalie thinks, she can learn to love Matthias. After all, love at first sight is kind of a silly idea.
So that was the basis of the conflict. But I knew I needed to up the stakes. I wasn’t quite sure how, but I figured it would come to me as I started writing. Because tick-tock, the clock is winding down toward deadline.
*Yes, I write first drafts in pen, long hand, in cardboard composition books. Try it.