Bad Romance

Adventures in editing.

As I wait (still!) for answers from the second agent to whom I posed questions regarding the querying potential of my self published novel series, I have been keeping busy revising and editing the second book in the collection. Meanwhile, the fifth Bucks County Novel: Breaking Bread, has been in the hands of my beta readers for feedback. My backup plan is to pitch this book if the others in the series are untouchable, with the hope that if this one book catches an agent’s eye, then it might open the door for the other titles. 

My beta team is made up of 3 women and 2 men. Overall, reaction to the story was good. But like some of you who read it here on the blog, two of the beta readers thought the romance was lacking something. One of the women and one of the men agreed with some of the comments I received from you, my blog readers, that there wasn’t great chemistry between the couple. My male beta reader said it didn’t ‘sparkle’ the way the romances of the previous novels did. Obviously, I have some revising to do.

I admit to not feeling the romance between Maya and Brad myself, but I’m at a loss as to how to fix it. Does it need more tension? More heat? (FYI, I don’t write sex in my stories so it has to stay in the PG-13 realm. The four previous books were free of it and the romances worked without it.) Do they need more interpersonal communication? Or perhaps more internal dialogue to reveal what they are thinking about each other? Every romance needs an issue to resolve, something that prevents the couple from falling for each other immediately. After all, where’s the fun in that? 

I gave Maya and Brad two main issues work out. The first is that they’ve known each other as friends ever since they were kids. There is a history there that prevents Maya from seeing Brad as anything but her best friend’s brother. Although Brad has had feelings for Maya all those years, she never had any clue, nor were they reciprocated. Now as an adult, she has to begin to see Brad in new light: as an attractive man she could find love with in an entirely different way.

The second issue is that Brad has inherited a whole truckload of money and he wants to spend it on Maya. However, Maya is fiercely independent as a result of having no support either emotionally or materially from her family. She refuses his help even in little ways. It’s extremely frustrating for both of them. I thought… I thought… I addressed it pretty well about halfway in. 

Or maybe, just maybe…. the romance has to go.

Maybe I’m really not cut out to write romance. I may have exhausted my reserves with the other stories and I don’t have anything left to give these two. And I refuse to recycle the kind of thing I’ve already written. With some ruthless editing, I could still have an exciting mystery and the romance could just go away. Brad stays in Boston with his job and his friends and never even makes an appearance. Maya still has Olivia and Juan Paolo and Detective Jack Staley for company and finding love is not part of this novel. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it?

Any ideas, my friends?

Header image: Lady Gaga, video screen shot Bad Romance

Write it like you’d watch it…

“And… Action!” the director orders.

The actors, already in position and waiting, begin to play out they parts in the scene. Perhaps they are fleeing for their lives, preparing to engage in hand-to-hand combat or in a steamy, passionate, heart-stopping kiss. A good director will shoot a scene over and over, coaching the actors until it plays just the want he or she wants it. The movements, the facial expressions, the gestures all have to be absolutely perfect for the scene to ring true, to be authentic. The very same principles can be applied to creating the action scenes in the written form. An author must visualize –watch the scene unfold in the imagination– then write. What works? What reads awkwardly?

In writing, we talk about SHOW versus TELL. In other words, don’t just say “Mary made a cup of tea.” Show Mary filling the kettle, lighting the stove, spooning tea leaves into the pot… and so forth. It makes for much more interesting reading because all these little actions help the reader “see” what the characters are doing. The best way to illustrate is by example, so let’s practice, shall we?

The fight:

Instead of saying: Brad punched Kerry in the nose….

Brad stood staring Kerry down, his fists clenched at his side. Kerry just didn’t know when to shut up. Insinuating that Brad’s intentions toward Maya were less than honorable was the last straw. And now he was laughing about it. Brad pivoted, putting most of his weight on his right foot. When his arm shot out, Kerry didn’t have time to react. As the clenched fist connected, Kerry felt as well as heard the crunch of bone, tasted blood in his mouth. His head spun as his neck whipped around from the impact and he stumbled. He grabbed the back of the chair to keep from falling when the next blow landed. All the air was sucked out of his lungs with the punch to the gut. The blood was pouring from his nose now. He was choking on it. He raised a hand in surrender. “Please,” he managed in a hoarse whisper.

Ok, that’s enough. You get the idea. Not my best writing, but good enough for our purposes. The point is that action sequences have to have, well, action. There has to be movement. Describe smells, tastes, textures and sounds: the taste of blood, the crunch of bone, for example. The reader can visualize the scene because of the detail the writer has provided. I know that some writers actually make up story boards for action scenes. It helps because it breaks a scene into its component parts. A caution — don’t get all listy. By that I mean, don’t list the components of a scene like: First, Brad put all his weight on his right foot, then he pivoted, then he threw the first punch and then… Get it? Listy – not good.

You might even want to watch a fight scene from film or TV to find some inspiration. The same would be true of a car chase, an attack by aliens or giant radioactive monsters… (All of which I may address in future posts. I know — you can’t wait.) Nevertheless, the principles apply.

Now let’s go to the complete other end of the spectrum to an example of a smaller, more subtle kind of action.

The kiss:

Instead of saying: Brad kissed Maya tenderly…

Tears streamed down Maya’s cheeks and it broke his heart. Brad crossed the room in three strides and took her in his arms. “Maya,” he whispered, framing her face with his hands. With his thumbs, he gently swept away the last of her tears. Her blue eyes were bottomless pools and he found himself sinking into them. With his heart thudding in his chest, he lowered his lips to hers, softly at first. Tentatively, he deepened the kiss as she responded. She sighed against him, parting her lips slightly, letting him in. She tasted like the salt of her tears but he didn’t mind. He teased with his tongue, slowly, languidly as if he could make this kiss last forever…

Ok, romantic drivel, I know. Sorry, dudes. There are things to consider when writing the perfect kiss. What are the kissers doing with their hands? Is it a chaste, first-time kiss or a passionate kiss between long time lovers? Do they angle their heads one way or another? (The nose gets in the way, after all!) How long does it go on? They may be out of breath when they finally break apart.

Speaking of breath, I know we don’t like to talk about it, but is it minty fresh, taste like cigarette smoke, coffee or the shot of whiskey he or she just tossed back? Think about textures again: his soft flannel shirt, her silky blouse, his rough and calloused hands, her glossy, swollen lips, his strong arms, her lustrous hair, blah, blah, blah.

You see what I’m saying, though, right? You, the reader, have the movie of the scene playing in your head while your eyes scan those words. Every time you write action, think about how the five senses are impacted. That is how you SHOW action, instead of just TELLing us that it happened.

I hope you found this to be useful. Now go write something!

Gone For Good

This is the first new fiction I’ve written in months. It also has the potential to be developed into a longer work but for now, it is going into the short story collection. Enjoy.

Moving day was finally here. I’d always hated living in the Philadelphia suburbs and at long last I was saying goodbye for good. The plan was pretty simple. Kim and I would recruit friends and neighbors to help load up the moving truck on Sunday, we’d stay with her family Sunday night, and first thing Monday morning, we’d go to settlement. With cash in the bank account, I would hit the highway in the truck, towing one of the cars. Kim hated the idea of a coast to coast road trip so I suggested she fly out five days later. “You’ll have some private time with your mom that way,” I had said.

The sale of the house netted us $53,000. Not a fortune, but enough to get started someplace new. Kim kissed me goodbye outside the realtor’s office and I took the cashier’s check with me to the bank on my way out of town. I promised to call her when I stopped for the night. My plan for the first day was to reach Knoxville, Tennessee.

At the bank, I deposited the check in our joint checking account and withdrew the small balance in our savings account which I added to the stash of currency I’d been accumulating over the past few months. The black Addidas backpack held $21,000 in tens and twenties.

The trip to Knoxville would take longer than if I were simply traveling by car. I was counting on that fact in keeping Kim from worrying if I didn’t call until late in the day. My first stop was actually going to be in Lancaster, at an auction, where weeks ago, I had negotiated a lump sum for all my worldly goods. The proprietor had also agreed to pay me in cash. When I drove away with my empty moving truck, I had another $8,000 to add to the backpack.

Next, I returned the truck to the local rental office and transferred my bags to the back of the Subaru. Now, I would hit the road for Knoxville. I arrived only an hour past my estimated travel time. Kim hadn’t worried at all.

The bank had said the money from the cashier’s check deposit would be available in increments of $10,000 per day on the first four days and the final $13,000 on the fifth day. I wouldn’t have time to access all of it before Kim boarded the plane for San Fransisco, but I’d be able to get a sizable chunk. I had planned my route based on branches of the national bank being close by. First thing Tuesday morning, I withdrew $9,990, just below the limit that would attract attention from the Internal Revenue Service. I did the same thing in Asheville, North Carolina the next day. And again in Atlanta, the day after that. Enough was enough. I was cutting it close.

That night in the hotel, I smashed my phone to pieces, cut my driver’s license and my credit cards into tiny bits and said goodbye to Perry Reynolds for good. My new driver’s license issued in Florida, read Michael Johnson, a name so common, it would never stand out.

The next morning, I parked the Subaru in the long term parking lot of the Atlanta airport and took the shuttle to the terminal for international flights. Instead of boarding a plane, though, I circled through the terminal to the area for arriving flights and hailed a taxi to take me back to the city center. After replacing my cell phone using my new identity, I made a single phone call.

“Hey, it’s me,” I said, the smile apparent in my voice. “I’m on my way.”