I haven't been writing, but I have been thinking. A lot.
I'm preparing to start a new book, the first in a new series, and I've been feeling for a while that I want this series to be different somehow. I just haven't been able to define different. I feel like I need to write something more. By that, I mean something with more depth, more to say. Maybe. The problem is, I still want romance, and I still want mystery. I don't want to switch from genre fiction to literary fiction.
This urge might have something to do with my general overall mood. When I wrote Unwritten Rules, I was a new empty-nester, work was going great, and I had life by the tail. I could try to be funny. For the past couple of years, humor has eluded me. I really struggled with the final book in my female bodyguard series, and while I love the final result, I know it isn't as funny as the previous two.
In an effort to find the right tone for the new series, I've been re-reading Donald Maass's brilliant book, Writing the Breakout Novel. I'm not trying to "break out" in the way he means--signing with a top agent, scoring a six-figure contract--but I am looking to add depth to my work. Several years ago, I attended one of his day-long workshops based on this book and found it very instructive. He puts into words many of the principles most of us sense about writing but never mange to articulate. The book was published in 2001, so some of the advice is dated, but much of it is still pertinent. I recommend you read it for yourself, but I thought I'd share some of the highlights I hope to incorporate into my next book.
A breakout premise has plausibility, inherent conflict, originality and gut emotional appeal.
High stakes start with high human worth. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness, bravery, respect, trust and love of one's fellow men are all measures of high human worth.
Breakout novels combine high public stakes with high personal stakes.
To raise personal stakes ask, "How can this matter more?"
To raise overall stakes ask, "How could things get worse?"
Breakout characters are deep and many-sided.
Larger-than-life characters say what we cannot say, do what we cannot do, change in ways that we cannot change.
Conflict in the breakout novel is meaningful, immediate, large-scale, surprising, not easily resolved and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.
This all sounds pretty lofty, especially for what may turn out to be another quirky romantic mystery, but it has helped me think about my characters and my story in a new, deeper way.