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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.

Q: I always like romances where the two characters are good friends throughout, as opposed to the Pride and Prejudice thing where they hate each other and then fall in love. But they’re hard to not make boring and un-engaging. Do you have any advice?

A: The key to these romances is that something has to come between the two friends to create believable conflict, either internal or external. There’s always the element of, “But if we do this, can we still be friends,” that’s in the story, but that can’t be all that it relies on. That’s where the trouble with creating conflict comes in because believable friends would talk about their issues, right? And you need to know why they’re suddenly looking at each other in a different light. Have they not seen each other in a long time? Did they maybe once carry a torch for the other but decided years ago that it would work, but now circumstances have changed?

Years back, before Harlequin got rid of its Desire imprint, I would binge read those books. Like, two a week or something. I was hooked on them. Unfortunately, this means that the ones that still stick out in my mind are blurred in with a bunch of others and I can’t ever remember titles or authors. However, there was a friends-to-lovers one that worked so freaking well. To best friends decided to invest their money in a vineyard with a B&B on the property. They’re about to open, so they’ve got all the stress of that and they start falling for each other because they’re seeing each other in a new way by becoming business partners. Now, the stakes are higher; it’s much less, “I don’t want to ruin our friendship,” and a lot more, “we worked so hard for this, what if I bring up how I’m feeling and it destroys it all?” It was super believable.

Another good example I can think of is The Wedding Singer. When Robbie and Julia meet, they’re both with other people, so romance isn’t an option. Even though Robbie ends up single and heartbroken, Julia is still in love and engaged. So, they’re absolutely just friends, with no hope of or inclination toward romance. The conflict arises when they fall for each other, but neither believes they’re what the other truly wants. It’s pretty much the only Adam Sandler movie I can think of where you’re rooting for him to get the girl not because he’s the protagonist and getting the girl is the default, but because you see the friendship between the two of them and you know that they’re a good match for each other. Even if you remove Robbie’s horrible ex and Julia’s jerk fiancé, there’s still plenty of realistic internal conflict for the characters. Robbie makes poor choices in love because he’s desperate to get married and have the kind of relationship his deceased parents had, and Julia believes she needs to find someone stable and dependable, who has a lot of money. It’s what she’s been raised to believe is important. What they personally value provides deeply ingrained emotional conflict that they have to struggle against before they can be together at a realistic conclusion.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that there are some truly thrilling ways to write friends-to-lovers. You just have to provide a believable reason for the couple to fall in love now, as opposed to some other time.

 

Q: I’d like to know how exactly to plot and outline a novel. I have a vague idea but I just don’t know the best way to structure an outline so that it’s organized and keeps me on track with writing the actual story. 

A: There’s no one right way to outline a story. Sometimes you’ll see authors with giant boards in their offices where they’ve got all sorts of color coded sticky notes, or there’s an impossibly intimidating spreadsheet. Other authors write their synopsis first and then build around it. What I do, because it seems more simple to me, is I sit down with a piece of paper and write the important points of what’s going to happen in the book. My original outline for The Sister looked like this (spoilers, for people who read my books):

  • Sophie on a morning show
  • sex scene interrupted
  • trip for class reunion
  • family meets olivia
  • Rebecca and Tony get engaged
  • Taking Olivia to meet Valerie in the cemetery
  • El-Mudad visits
  • Recca sees Neil and El-Mudad kiss
  • Sister arrives EMOTIONAL SCENE
  • Sophie learns about kidney thing
  • Sophie finds out Rebecca kept her away
  • Sophie and Neil run off to England
  • Meet up with El-Mudad EMOTIONAL SCENE
  • Return to New York/Sophie’s birthday
  • Sophie not a match
  • Sophie and Rebecca finally talk
  • Holli and Deja have decided to have a baby
  • Christmas at Langford Court
  • Rebecca gets married
  • Sister sends a Christmas card
  • El-Mudad comes back, says he wants to be with them

If you’ve read the book, you know for sure that very little of this outline resembles the book. Why? Because things change when you start writing. And then, it’s back to the outline. Once I started writing, things started to change. Some of what ended up in this outline will be in different books, but when things start to change, you go back and brainstorm a new outline. My second outline is more in-depth, breaking things down into chapters. I try to keep my chapters confined to two or three separate scenes, so this outline will read:

Ch. 11 Last night with El-Mudad/El-Mudad leaves.

Ch. 12 Holli and Sophie hot tub scene/baby news/Sophie gets blood test.

Ch. 13 Rebecca gets back, fight about kidney/Sophie gets email that sister wants to meet.

Again, not how the book actually went, but it at least gave me a road map of sorts. I outline various sections of a book four or five times, sometimes.

You might have a super detailed outline and run into a scene that needs a full outline all to itself. When I wrote the table read scene for Say Goodbye To Hollywood, I outlined it like this:

  • How Jessica feels about read process
  • Who’s there, how the room is set up
  • Marion addresses and introduces.
  • Straight read through, no interruptions
  • Read through begins
  • Opening scene
  • Lynn interrupts
  • Marion reiterates
  • Lynn makes little tsks
  • notes and plan for rewrite

Why? Because there were so many characters and so much happening. I just felt like I needed to work the scene out separately from actually writing it. Organizing my thoughts made the scene so much easier to write.

And that’s the point of an outline. Organizing your thoughts in a way that makes sense for you. It’s not meant to be a set of hard-and-fast rules for how your book will absolutely go. You can outline again and again as you go, get super specific or just keep it really simple. You’re just writing what will happen in the book, and if you get to a point in the plan where it doesn’t work, you can re-outline. And if you find it helpful to do it on sticky notes or index cards you can physically move, do that. Or do it in a spreadsheet. Or do it in a text document. All that matters about outlining correctly is that the method you use works for you. If you feel like you’re making progress, that’s all that matters.

Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

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5 Comments

  1. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth

    I always have this problem- do I read the post when it comes up, or do I wait to get the comments, too?

    I’ll be back for the comments!

    September 14, 2017
    |Reply
  2. Bookjunk
    Bookjunk

    Oh, I LOVE The Wedding Singer. Sandler’s hair, though.

    I remember being forced to see it, because it was my birthday and we’d gone to the cinema and I really wanted to see The Deep Blue Sea (because: sharks) and then it turned out The Deep Blue Sea wasn’t playing and I was super pissed, but all my friends were there, so I had to pretend to be cool about it and, of course, I compromised by sulking throughout the whole film. Or was that The Spy Who Shagged Me? Anyway, I was clearly an ungrateful, shitty kid.

    September 14, 2017
    |Reply
    • Quelaag
      Quelaag

      But sharks.

      I understand your disappointment entirely.

      September 15, 2017
      |Reply
      • Bookjunk
        Bookjunk

        I ended up loving The Deep Blue Sea too when I finally saw it (because: super intelligent sharks), so it really worked out for the best, haha.

        September 15, 2017
        |Reply
  3. Quelaag
    Quelaag

    The problem I’ve been running into with regards to outlines is transitioning between major scenes. In my outline, I have scene x and scene y which are very important plot points that reveal a lot about the character’s motivations, plot information, etc. But once I start writing it, I realize that getting from scene x to y requires some pretzel logic or having one character hold the Idiot Ball for awhile. So I end up going back and reorganizing things.

    September 15, 2017
    |Reply

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