Linda Castillo recently said at an RWA chapter meeting that yes there is a formula to writing romance. It’s not like that’s really a secret. But what isn’t there a formula to? Romance novels, thrillers, poetry, screenplays, non-fiction, dictionaries, business plans, baking, cleaning, booting up a computer. All of them have a basic formula.
But every formula can be altered.
The formula for writing is quite similar to the formula for gardening. All gardens share similarities. The gardener surveys the space available, considers the assorted genres of flowers and plants, if you will, and then comes to a decision–to create a garden. A more free-spirited gardener will head straight to a gardening center armed with the decision to buy plants, rocks, and soil. At the gardening center, they’ll browse the options of plants and grab whatever suits their mood and then head home to create their garden.
A more controlled gardener will lay out a full design of the space they have to work with. This person will likely be able to enjoy the process more if they know the kind of plants and how many they’re going to need from the gardening center. Will they need soil, rocks, bark chips? How much? And then there’s the weed barrier to put beneath it all to keep the unwanted intrusions from finding their way in.
Regardless of the approach taken, different arrangements resulting from the time, energy, and love put into bringing them to life evoke different responses from people stepping into the garden.
Once the hard work of designing the garden is done, gardeners tend their creation to make it flourish. Isn’t that what we do as writers? In fact, it’s often harder for writers to share their creations. Our work is extremely personal to us, an extension of who we are, how we define ourselves.
We decide to write, but have to figure out what to write. Assuming the choice is romance, we must choose a sub-genre and bury our hands into the job of creating the story. Like the gardener planning the garden, there are two basic approaches to get the initial story told. We pants our way through it, making things up as we go along based on what feels right. Or we plot and plan the story before writing it. In the end, the product is the same–a complete story.
Oh, if only it ended there.
No matter how we approach the actual writing of the story, pantsers and plotters alike have to revise. Some of our stories, like gardens, are choked with more issues and weeds than others. Approaching revisions, like a gardener approaching the task of pruning a rose bush, could help make the task less painful. It’s another basic formula.
Revisions can be riddled with thorns, but we all know they are a painful necessity. First drafts of a story will naturally include dead branches, bare branches, thorns, early buds, and full blooms.
The dead branches are excess scenes or lines of dialogue that serve no purpose in moving the story along. Clip those babies and get them out of the way.
Bare branches are neither dead branches nor necessarily sporting obvious growth. Instead, they’re the skeleton that support the flurry of growth. Or the backbone, that if you pulled it out would cause everything else to fall. An editor of Shelley Bradley once asked her to remove one seemingly small part of a plot before the book went to print. During their conversation about the change, Shelley pointed out that if she took out that one aspect a necessary chain of events would not occur. That one paragraph affected the way each character in the story reacted. Without their reactions to that one moment on the page the back half of the book would have fallen apart. Bare branches are sometimes the most difficult to identify, but never underestimate their importance.
Thorns are painful little devils that go a long way in tormenting your characters. In the competitive market today, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out if there is little or no conflict in a story. There is a place for fun, light-hearted reads, but if the only thing keeping the hero and heroine apart can be settled with a conversation then a few more thorns are needed. That said, if the hero and heroine are constantly bickering and no one likes them, and it’s entirely unbelievable that they could ever survive a happily-ever-after, then a few less thorns might be called for.
Scenes, story elements, and the ever-important characters that are in need of deeper meaning or development are buds. Give them a little time, work, and nourishment and they will grow into a spectacular thing of beauty that will be sold.
Following formulas, approaching writing methodically, or just winging your way through a story can all pay off. As writers, we’re naturally creative people. It’s too easy for us to get bogged down with the mechanics of writing and honing our craft to be as unique and special as we can. The trick, like nurturing a flourishing garden or rose bush, is in finding the ideal balance between craft and innate skill. Too much revising or pruning and something beautiful can lose its power, just as your writing can lose your voice.
We’ve heard it said before that as PROs we’ve proven ourselves serious about the business of writing and the intent to become published. But many times, many of us still find ourselves wondering if we’ve got the balance we need to survive. Are we missing a key element? How can we learn to identify it for ourselves?
Studying the craft of writing by reading books, educating yourself by visiting the blogs and websites of other writers and industry professionals, joining critique groups, building relationships with like-minded people, or finding a published author to mentor you and share what they’ve learned are only a few ways that will help set you apart. Make writing a priority in your life, let go of excuses and unnecessary distractions, and you’ll be amazed and what you can accomplish.
Nikki’s been a member of North Texas Romance Writers of America for close to two years, and has been recognized as an RWA PRO. She’s completed three novels and one novella. While seeking representation for her first romantic suspense, Nikki keeps herself busy by creating the stories living vividly in her imagination and helping other authors with promotional materials including things like book videos, bookmark designs, and website design and maintenance. For more articles written be Nikki, visit www.nikkiduncan.com.