Am Writing

How I Pantsed My Way to a Bonkers Book That Still Works

I’ve been surprised – and delighted -- how some people have described my debut romance novel, Lush Money:

“Absolutely wild”
”A bit crazy”
“Old skool”
“High drama”
“Over the top – in the very best way”

Why surprised? Because I wasn’t TRYING to write an “absolutely wild,” “old skool,” OTT, bonkers book. I literally just sat down at the computer each day and thought, “What happens next?”

As you do when you’re a pantser.

As some of you read in an earlier blog, I began my writing years as a plotter, deliberately planning a book with outlines and story arcs. After several years, I “plotted” my way into hating writing and I set down my pen. When I picked it up again four years later, I did it with a determination to be free, to type stories on my phone if the spirit moved me, to post first drafts serially to Wattpad, and to let the story unfold in my head at the same time it did on a page.

So how did I pants my way to a bonkers book that still – miraculously – comes together?

Step 1: A strong title

Over Christmas vacation of 2015, I was skimming through ebooks and thought I saw the title, “The Billionaire’s Prince.” I assumed it was a male/male book. In a flash, I realized what I had done: even as a lifelong feminist, I presumed the billionaire had to be a man. But what if the strong and self-determining master of the universe was a woman?

That title and concept gave me focus and set the (bonkers) tone for the book. When you start with a gender-bias-smashing, trope-flipping, grandiose title like “The Billionaire’s Prince,” – later to be renamed Lush Money -- you’ve got to presume the story is going to be a little larger than life. (BTW, the actual name of the book was “The Billionaire’s PRICE.”)

A strong title gave this pantser a lot of plotting direction.

Step 2: Time barriers

As an unpublished author, I was posting fanfiction and original stories to Wattpad, an app/website where writers can post their stories and readers can like and comment.

Wattpad writers are encouraged to post serially to build readership. Writing and posting serially, without a clear sense of where the story is going, definitely works the pantsing muscles! I discovered while writing a popular fanfiction story for the site that the key for pantsing a serial story is to put time barriers around it. My couple in my story Desperately Seeking was going to go on five dates before they had sex. These “dates” – the only time we saw the characters -- put time constraints around what could have otherwise been a meandering story.

When I began putting together Lush Money, I wanted to use a similar time-barrier device. So I decided that my billionaire and prince would agree to meet each other three times a month for a year for sex. Readers would only see them during these three-times-a-month interactions.

These time barriers kept the story immediate and moving forward, when one of the issues of pantsing is letting the story wander.

Step 3: A conflict-focused summary

Wattpad is a great way to vet ideas to see if they have any traction. So I designed a cover and wrote a summary for Lush Money to see if the concept was appealing to readers.

I was pantsing my way into this story one step at a time, so when I wrote the summary, the only steps I had were my characters -- a billionaire and a prince – and the time barrier. But what was the story about? What was the conflict? Why would people be interested in this story?

I slowly typed out: Three nights a month. That’s all the billionaire wants from the prince. Just three nights a month for a year, and at the end, she will give him enough money to save his struggling winegrowing kingdom that means everything to him. Just three long, hot nights a month in her bed. And his heir.

The conflict in these billionaire stories is almost always the power dynamic – that the powerful individual wants to buy something that the less-powerful individual struggles with giving. So what would a prince need? Sitting on a bench at my parents’ vineyard in Sonoma County, I looked up and decided he had a nearly-destitute kingdom whose fortunes were based on wine grapes. And what would a billionaire want that she couldn’t buy? A perfect, fairy-tale princess baby.

Having a clean sense of the conflict gave me bumper lanes – crazy, weaving, mountain-road bumper lanes, but still – that kept my story from going over a cliff.

Step 4: Raising the stakes

The conceit of the book is that the billionaire and the prince are going to meet three times a month for sex with a goal of impregnating the billionaire. Which was great and all. Until the point when I’d written two detailed sex scenes within three chapters and realized that I couldn’t have a book with 36 sex scenes (sex 3x/month x 12 months = 36 sex scenes.) While I like to consider hot, sexy times a part of my writer trademark, that was pushing it even for me!

The plot of this book, and what made the book bonkers, derived from the fact that I needed to throw impediments in the way of my increasingly hot-for-each-other couple. As they are drawn to each other -- which HAS to happen for two smart, accomplished, hard-working, caring and BEAUTIFUL human beings – I had to raise the stakes to keep them apart.

When the prince demands that they build a “conversation-only” night into their three dates – check! When paparazzi throws open the car door and interrupts coitus – yep! When a little sister bursts into the room that I didn’t know he had five minutes earlier – that too!

The increasingly tense and wild plot turns in the book surprised me as much as they surprised my couple. And they kept my writing satisfyingly loose and free.

Step 5: Understanding “my” story

Over the years of writing, I’ve come to understand what my essential story is: No matter the setting, I generally tell a small-town story about a community of real-and-found family. Lush Money takes place in three settings: glamorous San Francisco, the romantic mountain kingdom of the Monte del Vino Real, and the small hometown of Freedom, Kansas. In each place, our protagonists have “families” of employees, villagers, and townies that depend on them.

Traveling to these locations contributed to the sense of it being an over-the-top book. But it also helped bring the book home. This is a divisive, self-protective couple who see the other’s heart most clearly when they’re in the other’s place of birth.

Understanding your essential story helps pantsers tell a big story that doesn’t lose its heart.

Check out Lush Money now!

Writing An Alpha Heroine

The heroine of my debut book, Lush Money, came from a lightning strike of an idea: What if the romance billionaire we’ve spent so many years reading and writing about was a woman?

Great idea, right? But Roxanne Medina, self-made Mexican-American billionaire and CEO of Medina Now Enterprises, was a struggle to write.

I’m a writer and ex-journalist who works from my suburban home and, while now an empty nester, I spent the last 21 years taking care of children. I’m ruler of my fiefdom – my husband concedes that the dog recognizes me as alpha – but that doesn’t make me knowledgeable in Roxanne’s skin.

In the beginning of the book, I had to stop a lot to ponder what Roxanne’s thoughts, impulses, and reactions would be. How would a woman with a billionaire’s level of power and self-determination move in the world? What would her desires be? How would she interact with others? What could she still want for herself when she could buy everything?

All the things I figured out writing Roxanne Medina allowed me to develop some guidelines to make writing alpha heroines in the future easier.

1) Don’t write a man

Okay, we’ve all read her: She’s a “tough” heroine, doesn’t like “girly” stuff, is sexually adventurous, into technology, and spares the man in her life (who women can’t get enough of) all her messy emotional stuff. She’s generally written by a man. And, if you squint, she IS a prototypical man with the addition of the fun lady parts.

Creators can do better than this. We women deserve better than this. To dismiss all of our womanliness as something that makes us weak or lesser is just a phenomenal bunch of crap.

Roxanne Medina wants a baby and uses her Wall Street Journal to bookmark her Vogue and enjoys her phenomenal good looks as a tool and cries easier than she likes. And all of these attributes are an extension of what make her a great leader and a great boss: she’s a nurturer, she stays in-the-know, she uses all the tools at her disposal, and she’s empathetic.

Our womanliness makes us mighty.

2) Honor her femininity

As we embrace the fact that gender is fluid – and that personalities, preferences, upbringings, and cultures vary widely – it’s counter-productive and dangerous to define specific traits as “womanly” or “feminine.” Being a woman can be all things and everything. But whoever our female character is – whatever female traits we’re bringing to the table as the story builders and our character is bringing as she develops in our heads – we should value her female-ness as part of her alpha strength. Not shy away from it as something that makes her weak.

I realized early writing Roxanne that she was a mama bear, a protective nurturer. How did she take care of those in her den? By supporting and engaging the female business owners whose companies she invested in or acquired, running a morally responsible company that took care of her employees, and funding her small Kansas hometown that she claimed to disdain.

Roxanne’s feminine instinct to nurture was the engine that made her powerful.

The elephant in the room with strong, alpha heroines is that many times they’re called “unlikeable.” We’ve coded “make her likeable” with “make her relatable.”

3) Allow her to fully occupy her space

What defines an alpha heroine? I don’t believe it’s her job – soldier, spy, billionaire – or the fact that she can kick ass. An alpha heroine is defined by the way she occupies her space and understands her importance in that space.

Imagine a woman standing in the middle of an empty room. As people come into this room, we are preprogrammed to expect this woman to shuffle to the side. Usually as she’s asking everyone who enters if they need anything. She might even press herself into a corner to make sure others have more space.

We’ve been taught to appreciate women who accommodate other’s needs. Women as caretakers used to be an evolutionary imperative.

But an alpha heroine stays in the center of the room. Why? Because she knows how important her place there is. Only from the center can she get a full picture, assess what other’s need, and balance those needs against her own. She doesn’t diminish herself because she knows she is necessary. Others will not receive the best she can give if she’s tucked into a corner.

Roxanne makes mistakes when she first meets Príncipe Mateo de Esperanza y Santos, a Spanish prince with a struggling kingdom, who she contracts for a year-long marriage of convenience and sex three-days-a-month so she can have her royal baby. But it’s her own judgement – that Mateo is a good man, that she behaved poorly and against her own standards and morals -- that inspires her to change and triggers this enemies-to-lovers couple to work together instead of against each other. Roxanne doesn’t let Mateo take over as her mea culpa; instead she apologizes, sincerely makes amends, and welcomes him to stand as an equal by her side.

4) Know her vulnerability

Her vulnerabilities – the balance to her strengths -- are what make our alpha heroine fascinating and real. Not weak. If we deny her those vulnerabilities, all we have is a caricature of a strong woman. So it’s important we know those tender spots going in.

Roxanne’s strength is that she’s a nurturer. Therefore her vulnerability had to be that she was lonely. She worried, because of her upbringing, that she would never be valued and loved. That she would never have anyone to truly nurture. So why wouldn’t she try to buy herself a baby? Her exterior strength is her vast resources and wealth. Her vulnerability: That no one – not her employees, her hometown, or her prince – could love her unless she paid them.

I don’t want to get to spoilery so I’ll just say that vulnerabilities create issues for the hero to discover and comfort and provide fun, wrenching, awesome, heart-rending moments for the author to explore.

5) Make her human

The elephant in the room with strong, alpha heroines is that many times they’re called “unlikeable.” We’ve coded “make her likeable” with “make her relatable.” I hate both words. Instead, we should just make sure to create a living, breathing human with all of the corresponding foibles.

Give her a favorite junk food. Or an irritating habit. Or a favorite reality show. Whatever. We just make sure she isn’t perfect because perfect is sterile and boring.

When Roxanne first sees her prince in a suit, she’s so knocked out by how gorgeous he is that she slips on her four-inch-high Louboutins. It’s a tiny moment – she just passes it off like there was something on the floor – but after a couple of chapters of her imperviously ramming her agenda down his throat, I loved seeing her this way. Human. Jaw-dropped.

Because of the close perspective that romance novels are written in, it can be difficult sometimes to show an alpha heroine’s love-strewn and foible-filled humanity. An alpha heroine is not going to acknowledge them in her POV and the hero – either filled with lust or enemies-to-lovers irritation -- might not see them in his.

So, I found it useful to let my secondary characters do that work. I showed my secondary characters loving her, respecting her, teasing her, valuing her for her strengths AND vulnerabilities AND foibles, and—hopefully—set the tone for the hero and the reader.

Learn more about Lush Money

Fight to Win: Inspiration for Writers at the Washington Romance Writers Retreat

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