Opinions on a couple points about a fiction story I've started.
May 22, 2023 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to start on a novel. I'd like the green's opinions on a few questions.

I know how the story starts. And I know how I want it to end. However I have a few questions about how I go about the stuff in the middle that I'd like some opinions on.

At the beginning of the novel, the two main characters are coworkers. They obviously care about each other deeply, but apparently are just friends. The backstory is that they were dating, but a horrible event happened to them while carrying out their duties that caused them to break up. They still had to work together, so they did their best to remain friends. (Low magic futuristic steampunk. They could go find other work, but neither is willing to give up on their 'calling')

A big part of the issue with them breaking up is that they were too young, too inexperienced to really commit to each other and be able to healthily process the grief over what happened. The novel would start 3-4 years after that event, and a big part of it is them maturing as adults to grow back together again to a place where they can be together.

Questions: How slow burn is too slow burn?

I've read series where the author drags out the "romance" for books and book, and it makes me want to strangle them. Usually the author keeps dropping plot-boulders specifically meant to keep the couple apart that just are so contrived it hurts. The only thing keeping these two knuckleheads apart is their own pain. I need to put in plot points that actually help them work through it together, not keep them apart. Without plot boulders is 3 books too long??

Second, what's the favorite way you've seen an author explain past events? Flashbacks? In-conversation discussions? Alternating chapters? Why was that your favorite?

Third, if readers get invested in them getting back together as a couple by the end of the first book, and I give one of them a new temporary love interest in book two, would that piss you off?

Last, the couple in my head is a Korean man and a half Native American half European girl. It sounds awful to even ask this, but if neither of the main characters are strictly white, would this be a barrier to getting the novel picked up?

(please be kind. I'm very new to even considering this is something I might be able to accomplish.)
posted by sharp pointy objects to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How slow burn is too slow burn?

Well, I think it depends on the characters. I can imagine a certain kind of personality type for which slow burn makes total sense because it's just how they are. You know? For a long time I had a couple of characters for whom I wanted him to cheat on her (horrible grammar, but you get my point) but then I had to change the story because, it just did not fit in with his personality to cheat on her. I think as long as you're coming at it from the perspective of what makes sense for the characters, not what makes sense for your preferred plotline/story, you will write a thing that makes sense. Otherwise it feels like the characters are just doing things because you, the author, needs them to get from A to B.

The only thing keeping these two knuckleheads apart is their own pain.

This makes sense to me, especially if they are established as people who manage their own pain by, e.g. burying their heads in the sand and pretending it will go away. I don't think it would work if they are the kind of people who face their issues square on.
posted by unicorn chaser at 9:29 AM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

So... here's my position on this. Relationships are an emergent phenomenon. They're made up of all the details and interactions and nuances that exist in people's lives. You can decide "I want to write three books, that's what I have plot for" and then try to arrange those interactions and details to try to fit that, or you can start writing and see where it goes, and maybe it takes three books or maybe they hook up in the middle of the first book and then face the subsequent challenges as a couple. What you can't do, really, is decide what pacing will work before writing the book. There's nothing to go on - and much, much less for us to go on, with a couple paragraphs of description to work with.

I think you're trying to guarantee success too early. Write. Write some more. Show it to someone who's good at feedback and find out how it lands. Rewrite all of it. Repeat. That's how you get a novel (for most people, anyway.) Once you've written it, *then* worry about selling it. If you've never done it before, thinking about the market will just murder your creativity. Fuck that. Just write it.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2023 [12 favorites]

If you’re going to write characters of an ethnicity not your own, please get sensitivity readers.
posted by matildaben at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2023 [6 favorites]

Without plot boulders is 3 books too long??

Briefly, yes. If their sole conflict is their shared pain, you'll need other obstacles for them to bounce off of to show their growth and development as a couple. Jami Gold has a nice worksheet on story beats for a romance novel, and while you don't have to match it, it's a good tool for planning your pacing and structure within a single novel. A new love interest could easily be part of the pinch point for Act 2.

And arcs for new love interests aren't annoying if they're consistent with your character. For example, maybe your character gets cold feet and decides a new love interest wouldn't have the baggage, or would be such a reminder of the pain, so she decides it's better to begin with someone else? Or maybe your character feels rejected by your other protagonist (due to bad timing or a misunderstanding), and so comforts herself with someone who feels more welcoming?

Modern genre love stories tend to have an additional conflict at the end where the couple finally does get together but then encounters a conflict that ultimately tests and proves that commitment, which demonstrates that the relationship has the strength and longevity to weather all future storms. It makes for an ending that feels meaningful and whole.

Don't worry for now about getting the novel picked up -- write something that you love, that speaks to your soul. Something you'd love to read and something you can't wait to write. Marketability comes later. Have fun!
posted by mochapickle at 10:34 AM on May 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I see you've identified a genre and that you're planning a trilogy. What are your models? If I were you, I'd take the books you admire most and that are the closest to what you want to do, and read them again and again, making note of how those authors do things.

Ditto to writing more than one draft. This will be my fourth summer doing Jami Attenberg's free program called #1000wordsofsummer. (It's on Twitter and there is a substack.) The first summer I joined, it was during lockdown and Attenberg had a lot of authors give virtual guest lectures. I was astounded at how many talked about going through 8 drafts or something and how many times someone said something like, "The book really broke open for me on the fourth draft." From everything I've heard, and the 3 (so far unpublished) novels I have written, your outline and cast of characters is going to change A LOT.

Also ditto to making sure you have a very good reason for any character choices that do not reflect your own background and even then, have more than one reader to comment specifically on sensitivity. Yes, sensitivity readers are a thing.
posted by BibiRose at 10:38 AM on May 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

I am deeply annoyed by slllooooooowww burn in fiction and shows. Romance is fun and flirty, then getting together, then learning to be together, then commitment and building a relationship and a life together, then and so on. It implies that the important, interesting part is the initial romance, and there's so much more. It's unrealistic and I like being treated as an intelligent reader. I won't believe these characters that persist in this.

Make your characters real and interesting and give them believable challenges. As restless_nomad says Write. Write some more. Show it to someone. Rewrite. Write some more.

I think you should reconsider a Native American character unless you are Native American.

Low magic futuristic steampunk sounds very appealing. Keep us posted in Projects maybe.
posted by theora55 at 11:04 AM on May 22, 2023

Response by poster: Edited to add: Native American/Mexican mixed with European girl is me. That's me. Don't worry about that voice. Will find more than one sensitivity reader for anyone else. (I thought that was standard by now, is that NOT standard??)
posted by sharp pointy objects at 11:17 AM on May 22, 2023 [3 favorites]

Questions: How slow burn is too slow burn?

It all depends on what happens in between. So just write!

I agree that eventually, if it's all boulders and not like, actual character changes, it's tedious.

Second, what's the favorite way you've seen an author explain past events? Flashbacks? In-conversation discussions? Alternating chapters? Why was that your favorite?

All of those things work for me if they are well written. By that I mean each section holds true, and as a reader I'm not confused about 'why is this being inserted here now.'

Third, if readers get invested in them getting back together as a couple by the end of the first book, and I give one of them a new temporary love interest in book two, would that piss you off?

It wouldn't, again, if it made sense in the story and was written in a way that makes sense and respects all the characters involved, including temporary love interest.

Last, the couple in my head is a Korean man and a half Native American half European girl. It sounds awful to even ask this, but if neither of the main characters are strictly white, would this be a barrier to getting the novel picked up?

I think this is changing. But a great community for these questions is the Writing the Other community - all the workshops I've done have been valuable. You probably don't need all the diversity markers, but what I like in those workshops is everyone is really trying to work through the barriers.

However I also agree with people above - write the book you want to write! That's the most important thing. I'm on the third draft of a fantasy reverse portal that's got themes of decolonization in it, and I have no idea if it's sellable but it's the best thing I've written in fiction so far and it's a joy to do. If I had made easier choices I would feel calmer (?) about it and less vulnerable but...this is the Thing That Wants Writing for me right now. A novel is a long time to spend in a book you wish had different character.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:45 AM on May 22, 2023

If this is your first novel (which I'm guessing since you're "new to this"), write the novel. Write your characters' stories. If the end goal is to bring them together, after they've grown into their adult selves and their relationship, write that. Don't plan for a three-, five-, ten-novel series. You have no idea if you'll ever get there--or even want to get there. Maybe this one novel will be enough for you. Maybe you'll decide you prefer the short-story format better. Maybe you'll want to try writing a screenplay. Maybe you'll want to carry on writing novels, but with different characters or worlds.

I'm not saying don't have a vision for where this story could go after you're finished your first novel, but don't focus on that. It's too much. It's too big, especially for a beginner project. Your job, with this book, should be to write a book with a beginning, a middle and an ending. Your goal should be to write a compelling character arc (if that's your style) where the characters prove themselves to be fully fleshed out characters who grow and change. (Note: you don't really have to write a "character" book--you can write the next Jack Reacher novel, where the character is static, and just the situations change, but it sounds like that's not your kind of thing.)

What you've already taken on is a pretty big mouthful--you're building a world, you're bringing in a romance, you've got characters with complex backgrounds (in terms of ethnicities) that you're going to have to wrap your head around and convey sensitively and in an way that shows the readers why you've decided to make your characters represent those cultures.

Don't make the task an impossible one. It's too easy for somebody starting out to get bogged down in the big (and ever-expanding picture). You don't want to waste your time writing out a detailed timeline representing 500 of geopolitical history of the world you're going to create. You also don't want to write 50 years worth of diary entries for each of your characters. Not only is that a waste of time, it also might not even be true. When you're writing, things happen and quite often you best-laid plans end up getting abandoned when the words take you in a direction you hadn't considered. I don't write fiction, but every writer I've ever read has said, "X character was supposed to do this, but wouldn't co-operate and did Y instead."

Your characters may surprise you, so don't let them run wild now. Given them a clear and concise map. Point them in the direction you want them to travel, so they wind up at the ending you envision. Attempt to rein them in when they start to wander, but also be willing to give them their heads (at least a little) if they find a path that looks like it could be a route with exploring.
posted by sardonyx at 11:47 AM on May 22, 2023

Best answer: I'm a book editor. I'm not your book editor.

We often talk about writers falling into two categories: plotters, who want to plot everything out in advance before they start writing; and pantsers, who want to fly by the seat of their pants and just start writing.

If you suspect you might be a plotter, try this exercise:
1: Write a one-sentence summary of your story. (I'll leave it to you to decide if this should be about book 1 or the entire series.)
2: Write a one-page summary of your story. (Ditto.)
3: Write a ten-page summary of your story. (Ditto.)

In my experience, if you can get to #3, you'll have a really good framework to use, and writing will be a breeze. Meaning, it's much harder to go from #2 to #3 than it might be to actually write the thing. *If* you're a plotter.

If you're a pantser? God bless and good luck. Just start writing, and deal with the rest in revisions.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2023 [9 favorites]

It takes her more books, but Seanan McGuire does something similar in October Daye - the lead has UST and Major Sparks with one character and then she gets together with an old flame for the next four books. I got to the series late, but apparently the readers were very satisfied when that guy exited stage left and the original two took the next ten books to date, develop their relationship and eventually get married. It might be interesting for you to explore, both how she executed it and what the fandom reaction was. (These books are urban fantasy, so kinda adjacent to your genre, and getting better at diversity the further they go - the first one was published in 2009, #17 and #18 are coming out in September.)

There's been an explosion of racial and cultural diversity in fantasy in particular, so I wouldn't worry too much about finding an audience. Honestly the description of the leads would make me more likely to pick up your book, just so I don't have to read about Yet More WASP Americans.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:42 PM on May 22, 2023

What else are they going to be getting up to other than maybe, maybe not, falling in love? That feels like a critical question. Presumably if you’re planning a gradual coming together for them, they’ll have to have some other kind of compelling mission in the meantime, and the interpersonal stuff will wrap itself around that. So the question for me would be whether the other stuff will be robust enough to sustain the reader for the length of time you’re envisaging.

I mean (not a novel, but just as an example) the writers of the X-Files kept their main characters-who-you-want-to-ship apart for the entire length of the multi-series show, and that worked because they were also/mainly having exciting adventures and saving the planet from alien invasion. If you’re wanting to write something really extended that has a potential but not-yet-realised love interest, the question is how you balance it with everything else in the plot.
posted by penguin pie at 12:54 PM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve written five novels. One is currently out to editors, two were published, and two will probably never be published. Even after all these books, when I start a new one, it feels kind of presumptious. Who am I to believe that anybody wants to hear what I have to say?

So I 100% understand where all of your questions are coming from. But what I have learned is that the relevant questions aren’t, “Do readers like it when an author uses flashbacks?” or “Do readers like it when an author creates a temporary love interest?” The question is, “Do readers like it when I do those things?” Every author has strengths and weaknesses. It is immensely satisfying when Jane Austen separates potential lovers through character-driven misunderstandings, or when Brandon Sanderson separates them geographically across a vast fantasy landscape. It would probably be a lot less satisfying the other way around.

That said, if you want a general rule of thumb: your characters should always do what is necessary for them as people, not what is necessary for you as an author. If your characters can’t be together simply because it’s too early in the book for them to kiss, the reader will sense that and be unsatisfied. There needs to be a reason why they themselves feel it is absolutely essential to stay apart. Whether that feeling is plot driven (“She’s the general of an enemy army”) or emotionally driven (“He reminds me of my withholding father”) is up to you. The right answer is whichever one you, as the unique human being you are, can make feel the most real and urgent.

As you write your first draft of your first novel, treat it mainly as an exploration of what kind of writer you are. Notice the kinds of things you enjoy writing, and the kinds of things you think you’ve written well, and the kinds of things that feel like a struggle. And when you’re done, once you’re feeling brave enough, show it to the people you trust, and notice the things that worked for them and the things that didn’t.

Ultimately, if your goal is publication, you’ll need to find the intersection of three circles: “Stuff you want to write,” “Stuff you’re currently good at writing,” and “Stuff other people enjoy reading.” But the first step in mapping that Venn diagram is to draw the first circle, and you’ll only do that by getting that first draft written.

Also note that, as a first-time novelist, the “Stuff you’re currently good at writing” circle is going to be a lot smaller than you want it to be. That is totally normal and fine! Nobody is born knowing how to do this stuff. I put the word “currently” there for a reason; there will always be stuff you can’t do, but if you keep at it, there will be steadily less of it. You may want to print out this quote from Ira Glass and put it next to your computer.

Finally, in terms of your question about the ethnicity of your characters— it is probably harder to sell a book if you have a single main character of an ethnicity that is not your own. But if you are yourself of mixed Native American/Mexican/European heritage, and you are able to use your own cultural heritage to enrich your protagonist’s life, I think that can only help you find an audience. And for your secondary characters (or other protagonists if it is an ensemble piece), then diversity is a good thing as long as you’re using it to make characters more alive, rather than more stereotypical.

Good luck! It is a scary thing to start a first novel but it is incredibly exciting. And the moment you sit down and actually start writing, you have already done more than the vast majority of people who think about writing a book but never put their butt in the chair and you have a right to feel proud. Anything else that follows is icing on the cake.
posted by yankeefog at 4:02 AM on May 23, 2023 [4 favorites]

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