True Grit: Writing for Beginners

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.


Love Your Backstory

Every cup of coffee has a backstory. From seeds to grinder, there’s a physical tie, a beginning, and ultimately, an ending. Hands work to plant and the rest is a natural growth. There are people behind the scenes, each step of the way, transforming the bean to cup of coffee. Who are these workers? Men and women that I will never meet, but if I met them in a book, I would get to know their details and their story, and by the last page, I would know them.

The past. The present. The in-between. There’s a delicate tug-of-war that takes place for me as a writer. How to move the story forward without the backstory thrust upon the reader in unnecessary places. I have to deal with it, all writers do, particularly in romance where two characters can’t love completely unless they’ve dealt with complications from their past.

Characters and Cafes aren’t so different. I spend a little time with each, sometimes sitting in a coffee shop writing and sipping, or taking out my Kindle with my head slightly bowed and my hand around a to-go cup while I read. Either way, my goal is to focus on what makes each unique. Writer Emily is concerned with the here and now of a heroine’s journey. And coffee drinking is very much in the moment. Diving into her past feels counterproductive to keeping the story in the present. It goes against the rules of writing, to minimize the what was, the what came before I crack open the book and started with Chapter One, unless there’s a prologue inserted, which I have mixed feelings about.

I didn’t know anything about Caffé Nero. There’s one near my apartment in Earl’s Court, right on my way to the Tube. Initially, I brushed off the idea of going in there. Then I saw their logo scattered around the city and instead of resisting the idea of trying out a chain, I went inside–got to know it for myself. Each one is a little different, each one with a sophisticated and comfortable interior, and they all bear the same blue sign with black letters.

The reader requires a gauge, a compass, to understand fully why it’s difficult for the heroine to make the right choice, quit her job, stop drinking, report a crime, say no to the jerk. The writer decides how to show these specific events and there are triggers to accomplish this that can be sprinkled in throughout the story as opposed dominating the pages. Sights, smells, and scenery are all usable strategies. A heroine will remember how the hero’s breath felt warm on her lips. It reminds her of when they first met for an Espresso on a blind date. Now, maybe it all falls apart after that, but, good or bad, it stirs something within her. Smell is a powerful connection to memories.

The same is true for a latte. The same ingredients wherever I go, steamed milk, espresso, and topped in frothy goodness and if you’re lucky, a fancy leaf or heart. The smell of caffeine and milk blended together is mouth-watering to us coffee consumers. As a reader, I get it, as soon as caffeine is inserted as a description. Find what connects you to your memories and use it.

The decisions the heroine makes come from somewhere. Locations and ancestry matters (Caffé Nero’s past includes Italian roots). Everything the heroine needs to become compelling character can be pulled from family and relationship dynamics. Her upbringing, for example. Maybe she comes from a family who owns a big chain of coffee stores or maybe she watched her mother begging for cash to buy herself a cup.

There’s a consistency I come to expect as with characters, just like every Caffé Nero location. I love the stacked cups and saucers, and the baked goods (hello, croissants). A shared experience writers, readers, and coffee lovers seek and I’m reminded about the idea of origins for both coffee and a heroine.

Caffé Nero is over twenty years old with mega experience from planters to tasters to master roasters (that’s right, it’s someone’s job to taste coffee). The founders envisioned a place for people to come together with a high-quality product. They succeeded. It started with an idea, a goal, much like characters. They’re motivated to accomplish, to forget, to feel love and to let go, to forgive…start new and walk inside the café they’ve ignored for the past year. There’s a rawness to a heroine whose dialogue and thoughts slowly begins to change as the past becomes less important. This is where dialogue, encounters, and actions must be appropriate to the plot and move the story forward. Don’t waste page space that isn’t relevant to the heroine. Don’t create a trauma or event that has nothing to do with her current problem, those should be clear early on, and wane towards the end.

The placement of a character’s backstory, just like stepping into a coffee shop, can’t be forced. It must be right. If placed too early, I risk losing the reader’s interest (only because this has happened to me as a reader). If put in too late, the information may be irrelevant or feels like a filler. The where, when, the how. Café Nero told me what I needed to know in that moment. Cozy, clean, and with a touch of class with the bookshelves full of books, floor lamp, long table with benches for large groups to gather around or private tables with wing-backed chairs. I don’t need the entire history and all the details, the décor speaks for itself, as does the product.

Sometimes just a little bit of details is enough. And love the backstory, it is, after all, what gives the heroine a strong voice.