Thursday, September 10, 2009

Which Rocks to Polish?

From my Write Stuff pages . . .
Today's post is mostly aimed at writers, but I hope readers will enjoy a peek into some of the issues writers grapple with as we craft our stories.

When my kids were little, we visited a gem mine. They had a ball picking up moonstones and amethysts right off the ground. Of course, they also picked up rocks that even weeks in a rock tumbler wouldn't turn into anything of value. Only the experienced gemologists could tell the precious from the ordinary with any degree of confidence.

So how do writers decide which ideas are worth developing and which will only wear out the tumbler?

First, make sure your story idea is something that ignites a fire in you. There's no point in writing about time-traveling shape-shifting vampire fighters because you think the market is clamoring for them if YOU aren't excited by them. Lack of passion will shout from your prose so loudly, no one will be able to hear your story.

Don't re-tell stories that have been done to death UNLESS you put an exceedingly fresh spin on it. If you want to do the virgin and the rake, make the guy the virgin. Create characters who are not the usual suspects.

A story thrives on conflict. Make sure the place where your story lives has conflict built into it intrinsically. One of the biggest complaints about romance novels is that the conflicts are contrived or so shallow a simple five minute conversation between the hero and heroine would solve the issue. Make your conflicts matter.
Your story needs two kinds of conflict--internal (problems stemming from personal tension between characters) and external (outside influences-villains, unfortunate events, forces of nature). Remember the conflict must be strong enough to propel you 400 pages.

Make sure your story's idea kernel does not violate the conventions of the genre. Romance readers will not accept a rapist as a hero. They dislike heroes and heroines who act in less than admirable ways unless there is a hidden heroic reason for it. Likewise, we mistrust protagonists who are too poisonously good. Give your hero and heroine a few flaws. They need a chance for growth.  

Don't forget to ask yourself the eternal writer's question: "What if . . . " When you're in the planning stages, you can run as wild as you like. Don't be afraid to ask yourself outrageous questions. Think about your characters before you go to sleep and let your subconscious bubble the story all night. You might be surprised what your dreams tell you.

When you're brainstorming your plots, take a fresh sheet of paper and write at least 20 possible twists your story can take. Chances are the real gem will be toward the end of the list. It will be something out of the box, something no one else has thought of, something untried and fresh.

Then all you need do is toss that idea in the tumbler of your imagination and let the precious stone emerge.

We interrupt this post for a brief commercial announcement! A CHRISTMAS BALL is almost upon us. If you'd be willing to post this invitation on your blog or myspace to help me get the word out, I would bless your name! Please send me a quick email at and I'll shoot you the code for this graphic. Thanks so much!

Jennifer Ashley, Emily Bryan & Alissa Johnson
invite you to . . .

Create your own banner at!

RSVP at your favorite bookseller!

Ok, back to the topic at hand. How do you decide which story to throw your heart and time into? Happy Writing!    


Erin said...

I go with what idea excites me the most. If I'm only feeling so-so, I write the blurb down on a scrap of paper, and that paper goes over my desk for later.

Jane L said...

Thanks emily for the wonderful advise! I agree you must write what you are passionate about. I felt for a long time I should not try to write Historicals and found out YES! I should! So I am focused and excited about my WIP!

Penny Watson said...

I call that unpolished gem my "kernel"--once the kernel settles in my brain (it's usually just a flash of a scene), it starts growing and growing and will not be denied! :) Even if it hangs out for over a year or more, I know I'll get to it eventually.

Kathye Thornton said...

Hey Emily. Good advice. But as an unpub I was wondering what you do when the editor comes to you with a project (like a Xmas book or anthology with a certain theme) that really doesn't inspire you. Don't you just have to bite the bullet and write - or is there something to do that I'm not aware of? Thanks, Kathye

EmilyBryan said...

Erin-Wise choice, my friend. 400 pages of so-so is drudgery for the sake of it. Hope all is well with you and the rest of the gang at Eastside!

EmilyBryan said...

Jane L--You never know if something will work till you try. Hurrah for finding your genre!

EmilyBryan said...

Penny-Kernel. Like a germ of wheat. Sounds like your mind is a fertile place for the idea to grow!

EmilyBryan said...

Kathye--Good question! And one I have a little experience with answering since my Christmas anthology is about to come out.

I didn't hesitate to say yes when my editor came to me with the premise of A CHRISTMAS BALL because each of the three authors were given so much autonomy in our stories. The only constant was the setting and time.

But I was asked a few months ago about a possible western set anthology that I declined. I have no problem with westerns, but this was going to be erotica. My stories are hot, but making them hotter just for the sake of it doesn't ring true with what I believe about story telling. If I could have figured out a premise where the uber-high level of sensuality made sense, my answer might have been different. The sex has to be an outcome of the love relationship, not the primary theme for me.

So my advice is to consider whether you can craft a story that will fit the parameters of the project that also excites and inspires you. If you aren't excited, no one else will be either.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Wish I had heard your wonderful advice when I was a lot younger. Very helpful advice on writing. I'm a bit old to start. How much market is there for geriatric romance?

EmilyBryan said...

Patricia--There is no expiration date on romance. As long as a human heart beats, it needs to love and be loved.

I want to tell you a true story.

When my grandmother had a debilitating stroke and had to move to a retirement home where she could get the 24/7 nursing care she needed, I used to stop by every night after work to visit her. While I was there I made friends with a reading circle of octagenarians who were seated at the next table in the common dining room.

These ladies read like a house afire! So every month I'd clear off my shelves and bring them a box of gently read books. (You'd have thought I'd brought them diamonds and pearls!) Then one day, I noticed that one of them was gone. Fearing the worst, I asked about her.

"Oh, she got married and moved out to her new husband's house," they told me.

Romance keeps any heart young.

So don't be afraid, Pat! Write your stories. You can do it!

Patricia Barraclough said...

I should know better. Our library has a senior program (that I am now in charge of) which delivers books to nursing homes, senior apartments, and shut-ins. You are right, reading is very important to them. Romance is the major percentage of what I bring them. Most are reading christian fiction, but ore or two want juicy romances. One of the younger ones who is disabled wants them because "it is the only way she is going to know what she is missing." We do bring the older romances that we have deleted to the nursing home and senior apartments and leave them there for them to take when they run out of what we bring them. It is a very worthwhile program that I'd like to see more communities copy.

Sandy said...

I've been without a computer for a few days, but I couldn't resist reading your blog.

I have a file with ideas for stories, but I only use it when I run out of ideas, and so far that hasn't happened. lol New ones are always popping into my brain.

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy, I'm with you. The problem isn't finding ideas. They're everywhere. The problem is choosing the right one and then sticking with it and seeing it through to THE END.