Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writer's Wednesday - answering questions

This week Kate Walker takes a letter (well several actually) from her email inbox and answers a question that has been bugging many writers it seems.

With the Mills and Boon writing competition in full flow and the closing date coming up in a few weeks, I've been getting lots of emails with questions about writing romance from people who want to make their entries as good as possible before pressing 'send'.

So today as my slot is the Writers' Wednesday slot I thought I'd do a craft post and answer one of those questions that seems to me to have deeper, more important question at the heart of it.

What do you do if your heroine wants to veer off in a different direction to the one you have planned for her? Do you ever, 'go with the flow', or do you stick rigidly to your outline?

So here's one of those times when I need to preface my answer by emphasising the point that TANR There are no rules - and IAITE - It's all in the execution. I'm going to talk about the way I write - there are others who write differently, but neither of us is right - we're only writing right for ourselves. So some people are careful, deliberate plotters, some are total ‘pantsers’ – people who set of hopefully into the mist and ‘write by the seat of their pants.’ I’m one of those.So when I start out on a book, I usually don’t have a complete idea of where I’m going. I have a hero, and a heroine, and I have an idea of the conflict between them – or at least the way that conflict starts off because a conflict must have many layers. And then I write the opening scene, bring the hero and heroine together and off we go on a voyage of discovery.

So if I had a heroine who determinedly went off in one particular direction, then that possibly wouldn’t worry me as much as it might a plotter, because I am, in a way, waiting for the characters to tell me their story and sometimes when I do that I’m grateful for any input they give me at all! So I would probably go with the flow.

But if you are a plotter and have planned out your story carefully, knowing that this happens and then that happens and that . . . then a heroine setting off determinedly in what you might think is the wrong direction can be very worrying and set all sorts of panic bells ringing.

And now here I have to add something really, really important – and that is that at this point both the plotter and the pantser, and everyone, no matter which way they write - has to pause, think, and ask themselves . . .


Because what I missed out – or skimmed over – in the way that I work is that before I set out hopefully into the mist, I know my characters as people so I know what makes them tick, how they feel about what has happened, who they are – and so, when something happens that in my rational mind I wasn’t expecting, I know that somehow it has come from my subconscious because I know these people better than even I realise.

That’s why I never plot out a book, or create anything by the most sketchy of outlines – nothing that I’d need to stick to too rigidly. I set out hopefully 'into the fog'. Because for me when I’m writing romance I don’t think too hard about plot but I do think very hard about characters. Because in a romance, the characters and their emotional journey, the development of the relationship between them is the plot. And as long as I am portraying the development of that relationship then the scenes my characters and I create together are fine by me.

I do worry that if writers ‘stick rigidly to the outline’ then they are going to push their characters through hoops and into scenes that are there because they think they will have dramatic impact, that they are ‘great scenes’ that the author can just imagine inside their head. But are these ‘great scenes’ ones that the characters have given you or that you are trying to mould your characters into?

Only you can answer that. In the same way that only you can answer whether what your heroine is doing as she veers off in that different direction is telling you something that you need to know about her – revealing a vital part of her real personality – or if she’s simply being self-indulgent and wandering all round the houses, trying on scenes for size, because you’re letting her – because you don’t know her well enough to know if she’s messing about or giving you some really good stuff.

So you come back to Kate’s Favourite word – you ask WHY? Why is she doing this? Why is she going this way instead of the nice neat plan you though you had. Why is this what she’s telling you rather than what you thought she was. And why is this the truth about her – or not?

If the answers you get tell you a lot about your character, go deeper into her personality, her reasons for behaving in this way – and what the effect will be on her hero and how it will change his actions and feelings too- then you’re on the right path. But if you can’t imagine why on earth she’s doing any such thing – and what the effect will be on her hero and how it will change his actions and feelings too- then you need to haul her back into line.

But you’ll also need to look at the point at which she set off on that new direction. The bit just before she did it. Because it’s very likely that in that section you wrote something that just didn’t fit, something that didn’t set right with her character and that meant she baulked at going the way you were taking her.

It’s all about knowing your characters well enough to let them take you the way that grows from inside their true selves, the way that makes the plot grow from who they are and what they are, not what you’ve decided will make a good plot.

That’s why the 12 Point Guide has a l-o-n-g section on creating both a hero and a heroine – and a lengthy Character Questionnaire that asks so many questions, some that might seem at all relevant to the book you’re creating – but which help you dig deep into your characters and their motivations and then when you need to ask the question WHY – you’ll also know the way to answer it.

Kate's latest book - Kept for Her Baby - is on the bookshop shelves right now in the UK. It will be published in Presents EXTRA in October (on the 13th) when it's also out in Australia.

The USA edition of the 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance is now available and - important point! - it has a new, reduced price of $19.99 - not the nearly $25 some on line bookshops are charging so see my web site for details of how to order it with this saving.

(I'll be in London for the Association of Mills & Boon Authors lunch when this post is published but if anyone has any extra questions or comments, I'll answer them when I get back.)


  1. Hi Kate

    Great post... I had several questions like this when I was at the Mills and Boon book club recently (at which your 12 Point Guide was mentioned a lot!!) along the lines of 'How do you come up with the plot.' I'm also a pantser but either way I agree that plot comes from character and not the other way around, or you have puppets instead of characters and then you're really stuffed!!

  2. Excellent advice - as always Kate! Thanks very much. Now all I need to do is apply it to my current wip and my HM&B Writing Comp.entry. Take care. Caroline x