The first real moment of writing begins with the phrase, “I have an idea for a story.” What follows can be a fumbling struggle with uncertainty and confusion. There are many rules to putting a story on paper. The publishing industry has changed. The path to publication isn’t straightforward. How does my manuscript fit in the market when my characters are the wrong race, age, or background? There’s a lot to consider. But I find solace in one thing. The craft of writing remains unchanged. Grammar still matters. The structure of a novel needs an arc. Getting from an idea to a finished book is like traveling a road with jagged potholes and detours. It takes determination and constant improvement. It takes…a bit of grit, which is why I’m kicking off the fall with my trip to Grit Coffee in Charlottesville, Virginia to tackle writing for beginners.
Forget the noise of getting published. Writing starts with a vision, a concept. Maybe one with the great ending you’ve imagined, or a dark secret revealed between lovers. How the story unfolds isn’t the toughest part. There must be a reason for you to follow through from first word to spell-binding ending. Ask what motivates you to tell this specific story? A lifelong dream? A hobby? Your name on a book cover? The reason why you write is critical. This will be the difference between quitting and persisting when things don’t go as planned. My reasons for writing have changed. They aren’t what they were before. They’ve evolved into a better discipline and greater understanding for the expectations of the industry and appreciation for what good writing looks like.
The romance market is saturated with similar stories. How does your tale stand out? I consider this question each time I enter a coffee house. The elements are the same, like the smell of caffeine, or a barista steaming milk behind the counter. At Grit, I like the uncluttered feel of the interior. They have a clear brand with a menu that doesn’t overwhelm. There’s space to sit down and not feel cramped and they have favorite options like lattes, espressos, and carefully selected drip coffee. The operation runs smoothly and there’s a bit of flare in the subtle music. The place feels right. The basic components are all there like breakfast menu items to pair with my coffee.
I don’t like feeling unaffected about writing. I want an author to make me want to be a better writer. Creating characters who are unique, but still someone whom I can identify with or have empathy about, can be a struggle. Even using fresh words to describe appearance or a city can seem too familiar. The same is true of plots. They’ve all been done (or so they say). Predictability can be the death of an otherwise awesome book. Take a hard look at story details, at both the heroine and hero, and their problem. How does this situation stand out? How are your characters different from every heroine out there? Leave the reader with the feeling that when they turn the page (or finish their coffee), they’re not ready to be done. They want more.
Chapter one is my starting place, but find a method that’s best for you. Novels don’t have to be written in sequential order. Romance novels begin with two characters and a conflict. The first chapter is an introduction to the people you’ll spend time with on the pages. If I’m a main character and I’ve walked into Grit Coffee, I see right away this is my kind of scene with the metal décor and minimalist decoration. There’s an inviting, round table on the patio overlooking the downtown outdoor mall. After the order is punched into the computer, I realize I’ve forgotten my wallet and the computer suddenly isn’t working and they only take cash. Enter in the next character, a handsome, standoffish male, he’s impatient in a rush to get to somewhere, and begrudgingly pays for my breakfast sandwich and espresso. That’s it. That’s my introduction.
Who are your main characters? Consider the audience. Grit is in a college town, in multiple locations, each one with a different set of customers. The vibe is consistent, fresh and clean. There’s clean lines and bright colors. There’s breakfast options including baked goods and I don’t have to spend a morning here, I can come later for a glass of wine. The atmosphere is calm and I see the story unfold. There’s art galleries nearby by, Indian food, a draft house, and boutiques. My audience for a book set in this location will be youthful or young at heart, with interests in culture; they enjoy experiences. Maybe they are students studying at the table or twenty-somethings looking for love. Understand the age range of your market and why your story might appeal to them.
Create a work space and have goals. A novel can sit in a laptop for months and years if steps aren’t taken to protect writing time. I find writing in coffee shops helps put new energy into my words and my mood. I treat writing like a business and I give myself two hours, a bit of a break for breakfast and coffee, and I get to work. When that time is up, I go, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph that has me stuck. Know when to put the writing aside and let creativity regenerate.
You’ll eventually have a draft of the entire manuscript. This is where the real work comes in as you get closer to a finished product. Have others read your story. This might be more difficult than you think. You’ve been alone with your characters and your writing. Now it’s time to see what others think. This is the best opportunity to practice being open to feedback, which sometimes, doesn’t bring in lavish praise and adoration complete with confetti sprays. I’ve learned the more critical a reviewer is, the stronger my work becomes, and when I ask people to read, I tell them I’m more interested in what doesn’t work than what does. This isn’t always easy, but not everyone will love the story. Not everyone will see this writing as the-next-best-thing. I’ve reworked entire paragraphs and have deleted chapters; I’ve had to rethink a character when the feedback came in that they weren’t acting like someone their age. The comments are usually right though and that’s the reader telling me it didn’t work for them (and it probably won’t work for others).
Taking steps to work through your first book, or second or third, always begins with an idea. If one of them isn’t working out, let it go. Try a new approach. Add a more memorable character or a definable moment. Step into a Grit Café and spend some time thinking of how to show the story in a new light. I thought there was something great about Grit Coffee. I like the bold flavor of my espresso. It makes me want to sit awhile and look out one of their windows.