Writing Panel Notes, Part 1

by syaffolee

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Romancing the Novel
Panel members: Angela Breidenbach, Janet Fox, Elizabeth Lowell, Kat Martin, Danica Winters
Moderator: Melanie Calahan
Panel description: Every four seconds, it is said, a romance novel published by Harlequin is sold somewhere in the world. And that’s just one publisher. Romance might not get the respect (or the Nobel nominations) that literary fiction receives but it’s a force to be reckoned with. Writers of a variety of “romance” novels—romantic suspense, young adult, historical paranormal, inspirational—talk about their work, their passions, and the power of romance.

Panel: They write romance novels because there’s a happy ending. Romances are “not in the box.” 50% of all books sold are romances. There’s character building in romances. People say that they don’t read romances and that romance writers are writing smut. But people who don’t write romance say that they write people falling in love but there’s also death and killing. Then again, some romance novels also have death and killing…

EL: I’ve been told that I write girly sci-fi–but they said that because I had a man and a woman in the story. At that point, I hadn’t read any romance yet and I had written mysteries with my husband. I had someone tell me that what I wrote was pornographic, but I don’t consider making love pornographic.

AB: Reminds me of the line “you complete me” from Jerry McGuire.

Mod: In the movie As Good As It Gets, the main character is an author who gets the question, “How do you write a woman as a man?” He responds that he writes a man and takes away reason and accountability. So how do you write men as women?

EL: Most people don’t consider it, but characters aren’t based on modernism or existentialism. They’re based in myth and what I value in a man. So I give my characters those values. I can’t think as a man and I can’t expect him to think like me, but there’s overlap and shared views.

AB: I observe and listen to what they say. Men have different verbiage. As an editor, I send a manuscript back if the male character sounds like a woman. Men don’t say “flee.” One guy told me, “We men are brain damaged and don’t appreciate the finer things in life.” Men in general use more vehement, strong words. If I use strong words, then my husband knows something is wrong.

JF: Having a son, having boys in your life is helpful. How boys approach life is different. I approach the story as who the people are. The characters may come from the same emotional place, but then I layer in archetypal differences to present the character fully.

KM: I prefer writing men. When I had been a real estate agent long ago, everyone in the workplace were men. I identify with them so men are the star of my books.

DW: I grew up with alpha men where they stayed in the woods, whiskey-soaked. I think putting them into books is wonderful. Readers like alpha men. And when you get to know them, they’re actually warm and caring. I have a four year old boy who once asked me for a “girl sandwich.” He actually meant “grilled cheese.”

AB: Men are all about the food.

Audience question: Do you plot out your story? Are your stories plot or character driven?

DW: They’re character driven, but you have to plot. You need to know how it ends, especially for those on the panel who write books in four months or less.

EL: I cut out the loops. I begin my stories with the place. If the character grew up in the mountains, they would have a different view of the world compared to someone in the city. They would have different views on silence, noise, and bustle. How the character grew up there is the character’s personal geography. This creates a thoughtful landscape of the mind. Then I plot.

JF: I’m an organic writer and discovered that it is hard to impose structure afterwards. So now I mix plotting and pantsing. The setting is also a character.

AB: In an anthology (Quilts of Love), the theme was, “Every quilt has a story–tell yours.” So I had a character who had a heart attack and looks at a photo and remembers past events. Then I asked, what if the character has a business to lose, etc. Then I take the plot (a short synopsis) where every page of the story is summarized by two lines. I write organically as the scenes come to me.

Audience question: In romance, many elements are similar. How do you keep things fresh?

EL: Why do you come to any genre again and again? For romances, there’s a man and a woman. In sci-fi, readers expect more about the world than the character. In mystery, the characters solve a mystery. I don’t find romance constraining just because there’s a man and a woman. All popular fiction has that core of expectation. People don’t spend money on what they don’t want. If you’re not enthralled with your story, your reader will be bored to sleep.

AB: In romance, it’s said to occur in an intimate place–the mind. Humans are born for love. There’s not a soul that doesn’t want love. Every story is unique to the author.

JF: Each author brings something fresh to the table. You have to love what is on the page and the character. I’m now working in sci-fi and young adult, but they still have romance. If two human beings are attracted to each other, then it’s romance.

KM: I have more plotting. To come up with a fresh story, it also depends on setting. For one story, I wanted to set it in Houston but didn’t know what to write about. Then my husband suggested that since Houston is an oil area, I could write about that and involve the Saudis.

EL: When I get a story idea that strangles all the other ideas, I write that one. It has to be the strongest.

DW: For me, it’s the accumulation of choices for the character. If you read most romance characters, they’re the same, but they make different choices.

EL: Each character needs individuality to come alive. If you think of your character as Joe Schmoe, then the character becomes Joe Boring.

Audience question: Do the power dynamics in your stories shift?

Panel: Yes.

EL: The power balances will depend on the people. But in a bad relationship, they’ll be always worrying about the power balance.

AB: I took a relationship test with my husband and discovered that we were the opposite. In writing, build the character out of their strengths and weaknesses.

JF: Use power words. Drop -ly, -ing. Most writers are psychologists on some level. Power dynamics are always with two people. The dynamics can change quickly depending on topic. In my case, I play the power dynamics as a backdrop. In young adult fiction, there’s not as much range, but it’s all about the psychology of the character.

KM: Power dynamics change as the characters get to know each other and respect each other. They don’t have the same strengths.

DW: As a personal story, when I first saw my husband, I decided that he was the man I was going to marry. Respect came later.

AB: The woman has to like the man. In my book, I had a character who wouldn’t do something. So I turned it around to force them to do it and see how they react.

EL: Emotion is important. You have to have a man who is capable of feeling something other than anger. The man should be able to lean on women. You don’t need your characters to marry, but they do need love.

Audience question: How was your path and process from a non-writing life to a writing one?

DW: I was an archaeologist before, but I’ve written since first grade. At 18 I had cancer and decided that I wanted to write and entertain others with stories that promised a happily ever after. I wanted to change people’s minds with words.

KM: My husband was writing a historical novel and gave it to me to edit. While I was editing, I thought that I could do this. So in my 30s, I had a story–a western–tried it and found what I wanted to do in life. Eventually I sold that first novel after a lot of rejections. Don’t quit.

JF: I had been writing before, but it was just dabbling. Then my mother died which precipitated the question: what was the purpose of life? Now I have an MFA and write young adult. Writing is part of what I do every day. It’s tenacity, willingness to learn, and to keep writing.

AB: It started when I was four years old–I liked sci-fi/fantasy and Disney. English or music. But then I raised six kids and even though I wrote in my twenties, it was dangerous because other people tore me down. Then I went to the local RWA chapter, went to writing workshops, etc., and I was driven to be published.

EL: I’ve always been told that I was a good writer by teachers, but I didn’t consider it. I went into geology instead, but my professor told me that if I went into geology, I would be forced to follow a man in the field, even if he wasn’t as good as me. So I switched to English. When I was pregnant, I read all the books in the library and decided to write a sci-fi book, which got rejected several times. Writing utilized a part of me that hadn’t been used.

Mod: Is every path unique?

EL: If you want to be published, it’s like standing in the rain for a long time before lightning strikes.

KM: Go to writing classes and learn the craft.

AB: Understand the difference between critique and criticism.