I’ve been surprised – and delighted -- how some people have described my debut romance novel, Lush Money:
”A bit crazy”
“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As an unpublished author, I was posting fanfiction and original stories to Wattpad, an app/website where writers can post their stories and readers can like and comment.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.