Going Where the Characters Take You

This week, I met up with some of the wonderful members of the Greater Detroit Romance Writers group for dinner and a write-in session. While we worked hard, we also chatted a bit here and there. (And laughed a lot.) One of the ideas that came up in our discussions was that characters sometimes take a writer to places the writer doesn’t expect. We all agreed; we’d all been there. You plan a book, you create a character, and so seemingly you’re the god of this manuscript – yet sometimes the characters tell you that they need to do something you hadn’t expected.

I’m eagerly working on three projects right now, which is not my habit. Typically I work on one book at a time, from start to finish, because I like to walk around with the characters talking in my head and let them really sink in as I get to know them and their story. But this new year has been an inspired one so far. A new idea for a hot story set in New Orleans jumped out at me, and before I knew it, I’d written four chapters without even an outline. (Also unusual for me.) I’m also revisiting a YA I wrote years ago that I think might be worthy of sharing with the world, once it’s polished. And, thanks to the GDRW crew, I mustered the courage to open the file on the celebrity romance I started last August and abandoned after some bad news.

Here are things these characters are doing that I had not expected:

  • The celebrity romance pair wants to have a very sexual relationship long before their declarations of love kick in and long before they overcome the obstacles to being a real couple. I typically write one sex scene, most of which is off the page, after the couple acknowledges they want to be together, so writing a narrative where the sex comes first is huge. It’s a big deal for a romance writer. Readers typically stick with one heat level, so it can be off-putting when an author whose books they normally read switches heat. For now, I’m writing as the plot as the characters want it to happen, but we’ll have to wait and see in the end if they get their way in the final version.
  • In the New Orleans story – and this is the biggest shocker – the woman protagonist seems to be on a course to fall in love with a cis straight man. Since I write LGBTQ romance, this is huge. I probably cannot finish, sell, and market this book as Jane Kolven. Beyond sales concerns, though, this was just plain weird to me to realize. I’m not sure I fully know this character yet, since her experiences are so different from my own. But I’ll go along with her for now to see where she takes me.

There are many different ways to write. Some people create outlines and character sketches and know before they put their hands on the keyboard what’s going to happen. Others just start typing and see what happens. I’m usually a plotter, but I’ve always been a plotter open to where the story might lead. This January, I did not expect to be led to writing multiple books at the same time, and I definitely didn’t expect these characters to take their sexuality in these directions. Right now, since the stories are all in the nascent stages, my job is to just to listen and observe before making any conclusions about what will and won’t stay in the book.

No Writing Deadlines

This December is the first in four years that I haven’t been on a frantic deadline. For the past few years, December 31 has not been an enjoyable holiday or time to reflect on the past year. Rather, I’ve spent it finishing a manuscript draft (The Haunted Heart, 2021), copyedits (a non-Jane project, 2020; The Queen Has a Cold, 2019). This is usually after I spend November doing NaNoWriMo and frantically drafting all month. (The Holiday Detour, Queen, and Haunted Heart all started as NaNo projects.) This year was different.

This year, I took some time off. I didn’t participate in NaNo because I’d had a non-Jane project due October 31 and needed a break, and because my current work in progress isn’t yet under contract and doesn’t yet have a publication date, there was no frantic December 31 deadline this year. I’ve spent the last two weeks hanging out with people I love, putting together a murder mystery jigsaw puzzle, watching a lot of TV, and making my house look nice. It’s been lazy and glorious.

When you’re a writer, though, downtime can feel creatively stifling – much like a professional athlete might feel more depleted than rested after taking several weeks off training. I find myself itchy to open up Scrivener and get back into it.

Easter Eggs, Allusions, Hidden Messages – How Authors Wink at Their Readers

Years ago, I was at a talk by someone who worked for Bravo, and he was talking about the Real Housewives franchise. The network knew its stars were ridiculous. More importantly, he revealed, the stars themselves knew they would be portrayed in a way that was ridiculous. The executive explained that they tried to ensure every ridiculous, affluent-and-whiny-beyond-reason moment was followed by a “Bravo wink”: someone looking at the camera to acknowledge the madness or the editing pausing or otherwise alerting the viewer that, “Hey, we know this is nuts. That’s the fun of it.”

I’ve thought a lot about the Bravo wink over the years. As a novelist, there are similar ways I can acknowledge moments in which readers might want to make sure I know what I’m doing. Similarly, novelists can give readers a quick meta-moment – a reference to something outside the book, a hidden message for readers of their previous books, an “Easter egg” that only savvy readers will find.

For the Bold Strokes Books blog, I wrote about this phenomenon and how I used it in The Queen Has a Cold. Check it out and let me know what you think!

How I Revise

Although NaNoWriMo is only halfway over, my book is done. I should wait until the end of the month for this topic, since so many NaNos are still in the drafting stage. But since it’s on my mind today, let’s talk a little about the revision process. There is one inescapable fact: revision is always necessary. If you do not revise, you are not done writing. How you do that, though, may vary. Every author has a different procedure, and sometimes mine changes based on the book. Here is my general process, which I hope will give you insights into my writer’s brain and – if you’re an aspiring writer – will give you some tips for your work work.

Take time away from the manuscript after it’s fully drafted.

This one is tough, admittedly. I just finished drafting my royal romance novel, and I’m eager to plunge back into it. We want to do a quick clean-up, write the query, and get the thing off to a publisher as fast as we can. Recent trends like rapid release also encourage swift drafting and minimal revision in exchange for quick publication and faster royalty checks. If your goal is to write stuff, this works fine. If your goal is to write well, you need to put the manuscript away for a little bit.

Time away is a crucial part of revision because it gives us critical distance from what we’ve written. It’s a lot easier to catch spelling and grammar errors when the sentences aren’t so fresh in your head that you can remember them without fully reading them. Time away means you have to actually look at the words on screen or on the page, and that’s when you start to notice mechanical errors.

But it’s not just a matter of proofreading. When we write, we fall in love with the characters and the story. The work is precious to us; we remember how hard it was to get out there, and the emotions can easily take over when we go back and read what we’ve written. By giving myself a week – or two or three – before beginning revisions, I find that I’m able to look more critically and objectively at my writing.

Read on paper if possible.

Most of us write on computers these days, and publishers and agents want manuscripts submitted electronically. Increasingly, readers encounter our work on screens, too. It’s possible for a book to exist only as a digital file from inception to publication. This revision recommendation isn’t the greenest in the age of climate crisis, I admit, but I try to print my manuscript and read it on paper. I’ll print double-sided with two pages per sheet to conserve a little. If you can’t handle reading print that small, my suggestion is to alter the margins or the font in some way, so that the words fall in different places than they do on the computer screen. That way, when you read, you can trick your brain into seeing different stuff and you’re less likely to overlook things you did before.

There’s a lot of research that shows we process information differently on paper than on screen. We often read faster on screen and less carefully. College faculty are encouraging students to go back to taking notes on paper to help with comprehension. Although doing manuscript revision on paper means that I’ll eventually have to go back to the computer to input any changes I want to make, I find it allows me a much more thorough reading of the document. I can see multiple pages at once, spread out on a table. I’m more willing to move entire sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even scenes, by drawing brackets around them and arrows to the place where I want them go. I strike extraneous words, revise sentences, and have this complicated system where I use letters in circles to indicate points of revision. (When I do get to this step with the royal romance, I’ll post photos on Twitter, so you can see how marked up my pages get and how weird my process is.) When I read on the computer, making these kind of big changes is a lot harder. Your mileage may vary.

Proofreading and plot reading are two different steps.

Proofreading is the process by which you clean up a manuscript for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation and catch the fact that Katie’s name changed to Kathy in chapter three or that Liam left the house without an umbrella but got soaking wet when a rainstorm came. Proofreading is an absolute must for any writer at any career stage, whether you work with a publisher who has in-house proofreaders or not. If you don’t proofread your work, you’re being lazy.

Plot reading is a much harder step. This involves looking for places where the narrative flow is disrupted and cutting, moving, or adding scenes. It means including details that help the reader under characters and their motivations, things that are clear to me, the creator, but not clear to anyone else because they’re not yet in the book. When I work with student writers, I find this is the absolute hardest step for them because it requires being able to critically assess your own work. Consequently, this is the step that many writers try to skip or do halfheartedly. But, actually, this is the step where you should double your efforts. It’s the most important step, the one that distinguishes a polished, good manuscript from an okay one.

I do plot reading before proofreading, since plot reading means sentences and paragraphs will undergo big changes. It’s better to handle the mechanical stuff after, so I’m not wasting time cleaning up stuff that is just going to change anyway. First, I read my book again, all the way through, the way a reader would (without a pen in hand and without fingers on the keyboard ready to make changes). I ask myself where I laughed, cried, and felt empathy for the characters. I look for glaring plot holes and missed chances to flesh out my characters.

Then I read again, on paper, with a pen in hand. Using the system with arrows and letters I mentioned above, I chop up the manuscript. I think of my pen as a scalpel and myself as a surgeon. I carve up what I’ve written and stitch it back together, knowing the bad stuff has been cut and the healthy stuff has been allowed to thrive. Over the years, the amount of pleasure I have taken in this process has grown and grown. I find rigorous revision the most enjoyable part of the writing process. It takes me a very long time, but my work is infinitely better for it.

I once saw a quote from Ray Bradbury: I'm an okay writer, but a great editor.

After I finish the plot reading and paper mark-up (during which I can also fix commas and misspellings), I input all the changes in my computer document. This step gives me one more chance to see what revisions I’m making and contemplate them. Sometimes I actually keep what’s already there, but usually I add even more changes than I made on paper.

When this is complete, it’s time to run spellcheck and grammar check. Usually, by this point, I have caught most mechanical and grammatical errors. But one more careful read, on screen, looking for things that digital tools like spellcheck inevitably miss, can’t hurt.

Read it one more time before you send it off.

Once I finish plot reading and proofreading, having read my book once on screen, once on paper while marking it up, and once again on screen to complete proofreading, it’s time to read one more time. This is a pleasure read. I’ve worked really, really hard on my revisions and proofreading, and this final read-through is to 1. make sure I haven’t done anything to harm the book more than help it, and 2. give me a chance to enjoy it.

This last read is necessary for seeing the flow of the story. It ends up helping me write the synopsis and query that accompany a manuscript when it’s submitted for publication because it means the pacing and the idiosyncrasies of my characters are fresh in my mind. It also gives me a chance to sit back and enjoy the story, pat myself on the back, and think, “Wow! I made that!”

Revision is painstaking.

My process (and the length of this post!) should tell you that I approach revision as painstaking work. It takes a very long time to do well. I write romance novels, which are often consumed quickly and read for pleasure rather than scrutinized for their literary merits. So you may wonder if all this is even necessary. For me, it absolutely is.

First of all, I can’t draft well. I draft without self-censoring. I write things like “put something about food here” and “lost what this scene was about” into my manuscript. Currently, one of my characters is called Wilbur because I’m picturing him as a man with a very pink face and a pudgy belly, and I was thinking of him as a very nice piggy. But he’s French, and this is obviously not the name he’s going to have when I’m done. I just didn’t want to interrupt my drafting flow to pick a more suitable name for him.

I’m lucky that I don’t experience writer’s block where I struggle to put words on the screen. I am a word glutton. Drafts flow out of me, only stopped because I have an appointment to do something else. Because I’m such a glutton, revision helps me clean up and clear out.

Second, I don’t care if my readers will only spend three hours with my book and then never think of it again. I want those to be three pleasurable hours, and I want them to buy future books from me. One way to do that is by writing to my absolute best ability, and that means careful revision.

And, finally, I don’t do all this because I like torturing myself or because sales are the only thing that matters to me. I love writing. And that means I love revising. Even if I could learn to write better first drafts or if a book I never proofread sold a million copies, I’d go back to my painstaking process in the end because it’s fun for me.

What about you? Leave a comment with your tips for revisions!

Engaged, married, and betrothed

How to end LGBTQ romance in the age of marriage equality

You’ve probably heard the adage that comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death. This comes from careful study of Shakespeare’s plays, which are often grouped according to their endings in addition to their subject matter. There are even entire books dedicated to the role of marriage in cementing allegiances and serving as narrative closure in Shakespeare’s work.

In romance, whether it’s a drama or comedy, the story ends with what literary scholar Pamela Regis calls a “betrothal.” This can be a wedding or an engagement – and, in more contemporary novels, it might just be some unspoken sense of commitment between the couple. But for Regis, if the story doesn’t end in a betrothal, it’s not a romance.

When I started writing LGBTQ romance, it was before 2015, when the United States achieved nationwide marriage equality. Between 2005 and 2015, laws concerning marriage varied by state in the U.S. In some, same-sex couples could legally marry, and in others they could file for a domestic partnership, the privileges of which often varied. And in some places same-sex couples were not afforded any civil union that legally demonstrated their commitment or shared assets.

Although those were politically and personally trying days, as writers we had fun figuring out how to conclude our LGBTQ romance novels. So much of what happened at the end of the book depended on where the couple lived and in what year the book was set. Did the couple live in Vermont? Then let’s have them get engaged. In the sequel, they can throw a big wedding. They were in Illinois? Maybe they went to Iowa, knowing their marriage wouldn’t be recognized by the state of Illinois when they got home. Or maybe the couple got engaged with plans to marry legally if – when – marriage equality laws changed. Maybe they didn’t believe in marriage at all, and their betrothal was just a promise to stick together and love each other as best as they could.

The differences in state-to-state laws, which by 2013 were changing faster than I could keep track, also meant that how the couple responded to the marriage question shaped what kind of LGBTQ representation the story had. Some couples were normative, seeing marriage as the ultimate and appropriate demonstration of their commitment, while others protested marriage as a heterosexual institution with a long, troubled past and found queer alternatives. (For the record, I never wrote stories about characters sealing their commitment by wearing each other’s blood in vials around their necks or anything like that, but certainly, especially among paranormal romance, these stories existed!) The complicated ways we had to organize our lives back then translated to sometimes writing deeply political characters and stories that served to educate, though it didn’t have to mean this.

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, and the court’s opinion meant immediate nationwide same-sex marriage equality. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

After marriage equality, the possibilities became less complicated. If the characters wanted to marry, they simply could. If they didn’t believe in marriage, they didn’t have to do it. But the political ramifications of each choice remain, just as they do in real life. Marriage has a history that makes me uncomfortable: “selling” women to unite rival factions, treating them as property for fathers and husbands, insisting on a woman’s virginity until her wedding night. Then there are the wedding industry problems: leading us to believe that “wedding” and “marriage” are synonymous, and that we aren’t really in love if we don’t spend more than we can afford on a party to celebrate getting married. And, of course, the history of marriage that excluded interracial couples and same-sex couples yet allows young girls to be considered “old enough” when it’s convenient for the much older men in their lives.

TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress normalizes consumption by depicting dress shopping as a romance.

But marriage equality also means that we, people in same-sex relationships, now have access to something other people had before us, and it’s important to take advantage. Romance novels might position marriage as purely about love and fidelity, but, depending upon which state you might live in, marriage actually involves over 1,000 rights, responsibilities, and benefits from tax breaks to inheritance laws, and it’s important in a just society that everyone has access to the same rights.

For romance novels, that can create tricky business. Do the author’s politics on marriage have to be reflected in the ending? What if the author created a character with different politics? In my forthcoming novel, the characters never get so far as having to figure this out. Their “betrothal” is just an admission of love and a promise to try to start a relationship together (HFN, or “happy for now” in romance-speak). In other books I’ve written, I try to remember that my views, society’s views, and my characters’ views may not always align, and I have to do what is authentic to the story and the characters.

We have forged new ground politically and socially in the United States in the last four years, and for novels set in a naturalistic world, this has created lots of new possibilities. The wider range of possibilities we explore in the “betrothal” part of LGBTQ novels, the wider range of LGBTQ representation our books will have.

Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

Prep ideas and resources for the writing blitz of November

Next month is National Novel Writing Month, the annual November contest to produce 50,000 words in thirty days. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, as it’s known for short, three times in the past, each time “winning” by making it to the 50,000 word goal. Once those 50,000 words equated to a complete first draft of a novel that I later revised, polished, and sent off for publication. The other two times, the 50,000 words weren’t sufficient toward finishing a draft, so even though I “won” the contest, there was still substantial work to do before having a novel written.

I haven’t participated in several years due to other obligations, many of which were writing related, but I decided to undertake it again this year because my list of book concepts is outpacing my current ability to get them all drafted. (This is one of those things they call a “good problem to have.” I’m blessed with never having writer’s block.)

This year, I’m doubling down on a concept from five years ago, updated to reflect contemporary understandings of sexuality and gender identity. My story draws on a silly game show premise, though I won’t tell you which game show.

It’s not this one.

Because it’s a romance novel, one of the couples recruited to participate aren’t really a couple, and of course as a result of the game show experience, they become one. Everyone lives happily ever after.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, their website has a lot of cool pre-writing resources to help brainstorm story content, such as character worksheets and plot outlines. You can find them in the Writer’s Resources section.

Since my novel was previously planned, I won’t be using these materials to prep, but I do think they are great tools for newer writers or those who don’t yet have a concrete story outline and characters. I’m a plotter, and I follow a specific beat sheet for my novels. “Save the Cat!” is probably the most well known outline guide for screenwriting, and it’s now software. The Save the Cat! website has a novel writing section that includes beat sheets for famous novels. A beat sheet helps writers keep track of major plot moves and when they should happen in order to keep a story tightly written and well-paced. Author Jami Gold has a similar treasure trove of beat sheets and worksheets, including downloadable templates. I use Jami’s downloadable Excel sheet to plot out my romances. The benefit is that it will automatically calculate how many words each major movement in the story should be and at what word count certain plot elements should happen.

The other major part of preparation for an event like NaNoWriMo, in which writers have a designated period of time to write a designated number of words, is knowing when to write. The 50,000 word count averages to 1,667 words per day over the thirty days. For some writers, that might be a full day’s work. I find that if I’m well prepared, know the story outline, and have the characters living in my brain already, 2k per day can easily come flowing out of my fingers on the keyboard. The hard part is finding the time to do it. My first year, I was like a bad college student who put everything off until Thanksgiving and then backed out of plans to celebrate with friends, so I could have a marathon writing session. I didn’t enjoy that very much. The second year, I pledged to write every morning before beginning other work. Within two hours, I’d have my word count for the day and could relax knowing I was on target for the monthly goal.

This year, I have a carefully calibrated spreadsheet in which I keep my schedule. Tasks are color-coded by category: administrative tasks like answering email are highlighted in yellow, research in blue, and writing time in orange. Each hour is planned out. It gives me relief to know when a block of time is over. For instance, if I’m not in a writing groove, it’s helpful to know that I’m not expected to write until I drop. Or, if I feel eager to write that day, it makes a treat to know that once 11:00 rolls around, I get to write for three uninterrupted hours without feeling guilty I’ve neglected my email. I’m tweaking this schedule for November to include NaNoWriMo-only writing time.

We’re just about a week away from November, and while I’m very excited about Halloween, I’m looking forward to this month of drafting. How about you?

Present Tense vs. Past Tense: The Great Verb Debate

A blog post in which I find myself defending a trend I didn’t think I liked

After I finished reading Natalie Cox’s Mutts and Mistletoe, which I picked up on a lark at a big box store as a treat for myself while grocery shopping, I started contemplating what drew me into the book (spoiler: the mutts) and what had me initially hesitant about the book. Since I came to the book with no prior knowledge, my experience of opening to the first page was one of real discovery. And there it was on the third page, glaring at me, mocking me for trusting that first page, daring me to abandon the book after two seconds of reading: a verb in present tense.

Page one of Mutts and Mistletoe begins with the narrator telling us something she’s already done, luring readers like me into believing it’s a past tense novel until this line on page two or three.

I won’t lie. I nearly put the book down, puppies or no. I avoid present tense books at great lengths, including many of the recent award-winning ones. (Nope, I’ve never read Wolf Hall or The Hunger Games, and don’t regret it.) But I really, really hate spending money on romance novels and not reading them, and also puppies! So I soldiered on. Very quickly, I was laughing out loud and so taken by the story (and puppies) that it didn’t matter. And a few pages after that, I was accustomed to the present tense, which took me on the main character Charlie’s journey with her.

This summer, the world seemed abuzz about Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, which is also in present tense. A couple of years ago, Writer’s Digest did a spread on the trend for novels in present tense, especially when they’re in first person POV. According to the article’s author, even as early as 1987, present tense was being hailed as the cliché of our modern literature. Thirty years later, it’s grown even more popular.

When I first started writing, I was taught that books must be in past tense, period. The writer is telling the story of something that happened, channeling the grandmothers of yore who would tell fables from a rocking chair to the children gathered around their feet. Hearkening back to the ancient orators and storytellers who chronicled the myths of gods, the feats of heroes, the quotidian affairs of ancestors.

In fan fiction, present tense writing is quite common. Although many stories are written in prose, the present tense mimics the style of the screenplays for the films and television series – the origins of much fan fiction in the first place.

Excerpt from the Silver Linings Playbook screenplay showing how scripts use present tense to describe action.

In present tense writing, we’re invited to experience the world with the characters. We’re the invisible sidekicks. Or the camera. I think a lot of present tense writing in romance especially probably comes from it being a convention in fan fiction, since so many fan fiction authors transition to commercial romance. But I also think the prevalence of present tense speaks to the growing trend of books-into-media (feature films, television series, and TV movies). The transmedia world is a lucrative one; writing a book that becomes a series, which becomes a television series, or a book that becomes adapted into a movie on a cable channel – how many writers dream of this transition?

There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to writing in present tense, which Brian Klems chronicles in the Writer’s Digest article I mentioned. I won’t duplicate that list, which is quite thoughtful, or the lengthier piece on Salon a few years earlier that traced a richer history of the trend, but instead concentrate on those aspects of verb tense that are especially important to romance writing.

Even in sweet romance, we’re supposed to believe two characters are passionate for each other, right? And in other forms of romance, we might read that passion translated into sexual encounters of all sorts, from kissing and fade to black to full-on descriptions of who does what to whom.

When these scenes are written in present tense, it can allow the reader to experience the moment with the characters. Instead of someone – hotly – recalling what happened, we’re right there, watching, reading, consuming every intimate act. Let me give you an example from my forthcoming novel, which is written in past tense:

I learned a lot about Charlie that night. It was the most fun, least nerve-wracking sex I had ever had. We guided each other’s hands to places that wanted to be touched, we kissed and held each other at times, and at other times we threw our bodies against each other in frenetic rhythm.

In this moment, the narrator, Dana, is describing what happened the night before. Past tense makes sense here because the action has already happened. As readers, we were not “present” during the scene to experience it with Dana. She had politely excused us from the action, the chapter concluded with the promise that Dana and Charlie were going to have sex, and now, the morning after, Dana tells us about it. Since I don’t write explicit sex in my romance novels, the morning-after recollection is a strategy I use to give the character a chance to reflect on what happened and share the highlights reel with the reader.

But now let’s imagine the chapter didn’t fade to black as Dana and Charlie grew more passionate. If the reader hadn’t been excused from the scene, we would need a lot more details. “We guide each other’s hands,” “we kiss and hold each other,” and “we throw our bodies together” are pretty quick, vague descriptions of what’s going on. In a present tense novel, in which the reader is sitting on the corner of the bed watching Dana and Charlie, this isn’t really enough information to convey the scene. Unless the moment lasted all of three seconds, which is about how long it takes me to read those sparse sentences. Considering that iDana calls it the best sex of her life, I hope it lasted longer than that!

So where does that leave me, the staunch defender of the past tense at a time when the trend is toward present tense novels? What have I learned from reading books in present tense in recent years and from thinking about the craft of romance writing so much? Although for the foreseeable future, my books will remain in past tense, I can see a real advantage in romance writing for the use of present to take readers on the emotional journey of the initial attraction, the doubt and fear, the shivery exhilaration of acknowledging one is falling in love. And for sex scenes, present tense demands details. It promises the reader they get to be a voyeur to every juicy thing that happens. For romance readers, that’s a pretty exciting prospect.

The most embarrassing thing I ever wrote

On developing talent in the pre-internet era

A recent conversation with a writer friend reminded me that before Twitter and WordPress and Facebook and direct emails, before I got sucked into the world of branding and cultivating an audience of readers and understanding market trends, I was a lonely kid who sat in her bedroom writing stories on the back of old office memos from my mom’s work.

I wrote short stories and novels. I designed covers for my books. I reimagined them as movie trailers with Don LaFontaine narrating (although I didn’t know his name and didn’t know “book trailers” were a thing). I created series and drew maps of the neighborhoods my characters inhabited. And – this was my favorite thing ever – I drew blueprints of the houses my characters lived in.

I might have done more ancillary work than actual prose writing, now that I think about it.

But when I did write, often lying on the trundle bed that rolled out from under my day bed, I poured my heart into it. I wrote epic adventures, gripping emotional scenes, adrenaline-laden climaxes, and heartfelt resolutions.

Or so I thought.

Now, many years of training and wisdom later, I understand that my books, which I imagined would win awards, were just the drivel of a novice writer developing her craft. They were inspired but technically flawed. And sometimes terrible.

Here’s one that I remembered in that recent conversation with the friend:

Prisoner of a Gas Chamber

Premise: Separated twins have each been raised by a different parent (hello, Parent Trap). The father is angry (about what?) and wants revenge, so he kidnaps Kate, one of the sisters, and brings her to his split-level suburban home. It looks perfect ordinary on the outside, but Kate’s bedroom has been outfitted to serve as a “gas chamber.” When her father doesn’t get the answers he wants (about what?), he fills the room with gas that knocks Kate unconscious. Her sister (did she even have a name?) must save her. Or maybe Kate was supposed to save herself.

Here is my recollection of the carefully designed cover, which was done on green paper with blue pen, drawn by hand because we didn’t have fancy computers for that kind of thing back then. The original has long since been lost, so this is my best memory of it, hastily redrawn thirty years later:

I think we can all agree this was a pretty dreadful idea. It’s clear I didn’t understand basic physics (couldn’t Kate have just opened a window?), character development (what was Dad’s deal?), or…really…anything. Thankfully, this little work was created on paper, alone in my room in the pre-internet era. There was little risk that anyone beyond my immediate circle would know about it (until now).

I think there is a lot of value in developing craft through digital social networks. Events like NaNoWriMo encourage productivity and help create community among aspiring writers. Social networks on Twitter and Facebook allow people to share ideas, give each other feedback, and find critique partners. There is so much good that can come from this. Things I didn’t have access to when I asked for a copy of Writer’s Digest for Christmas and spent my entire school break typing and mailing query letters to publishers. (Don’t worry. I didn’t pitch Prisoner of a Gas Chamber. I pitched Surrealistic Stanzas, my collection of poetry that had nothing to do with surrealism.)

I also think there’s value in learning, developing, and writing really terrible things that don’t go anywhere. Not everything we write is good enough to be shared. Not everything should be shared. I think developing talent is matter of experimenting, be willing to take risks that fail, and slowly growing over time. By sharing immediately, we potential damage that “self-branding” by giving the world access to things that aren’t ready to be seen. I wonder if my eight-year-old self would have wanted to post my fantastic idea for a novel to Tumblr if it had been available back then? I’m very glad it wasn’t.