When I first starting writing Clutch, my very first fiction book, I thought a lot about how I’d like to tell this story. It started, as someone accused me in a review, in medias res – in the middle of the action. It was not a complimentary review, but whatever. I knew what I was doing then and I know what I’m doing now.
I decided to start Junco in the middle of a crisis. Her father was dead, she was alone, fleeing something. Moving forward towards something, and utterly confused and out of her mind. Maybe it didn’t make sense on the first page. But by the end of the series you saw the big picture. And maybe it was a newbie mistake to hold back so much in that first book. It was after all, my first attempt at writing fiction. But I knew where I was going and I knew why I started it the way I did and I think that’s all that matters. Junco was not a best seller and that tells me I made some mistakes. But it’s well-loved among the fans, so I did a lot right too.
If I were to write that story again I might include Tier’s point of view. I think it might’ve been a better book for it. But then the mystery would be a whole lot harder to sell, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull it off back then.
Three, Two, One was a great story because I knew how to do that with two points of view. It was after all, my twenty-somethingth book. I had told a lot of stories by that time and I told them each a little bit different.
So I had a lot of practice. And I did something else with 321. I started in the present and flashed back, then flashed forward to the present, and skipped to the future. And even though there were three main characters, I completely withheld one point of view. It was quite the complicated set up. But again, by that time I had mastered the skill of manipulating the reader by holding things back and telling the story a certain way. I had what it took to pull it off because I’d already done it many different ways before I got to that point in my career.
How I want to tell a story is the very first thing I need to decide and it’s the thing I think most new writers don’t spend enough time on. You can create great characters, great settings, great plots… but if you tell the story the wrong way, it falls flat.
Back when I wrote Clutch first person present was just taking off in popularity and almost no one was doing dual points of view in this format. So it really never entered my mind to write both Tier and Junco in first present.
I choose to write in present tense because I’m always hiding something. In Clutch I was hiding things from Junco. And if you’re writing first past, then things already happened. It’s not impossible to hide things from your character if they already happened, but it’s not easy either.
Right now I’m writing a Junco spin-off and I fully intended to have alternating points of view between the two main characters right from the start. But by the end of the first chapter I’d already changed my mind about that. I’m holding back one POV until later in the book to make a bigger impact. And I have a very good reason for this. I’m not going to tell you since it’s a spoiler. But there is always a very good reason.
I think this is what sets my stories apart and gives me a unique style. How I tell the story is just as important as everything else that goes into writing a good one. I try to start all my books in medias res. I like to hook people on the first page. And honestly, Junco might’ve been better if I had more action in that first scene instead of less.
This is just something to think about as you plan your next story. Where is the beginning? In this Junco spin-off the beginning happened three hundred years ago. But people don’t give a shit about that. They want to know what’s happening now.
In the beginning of a book you can do almost anything you want until you get to the first plot point at 25%. But don’t mistake that freedom for absolution if you fuck it all up. Don’t weigh down your intro with backstory. Most readers, especially if you’re new at this, won’t have the patience to wade through all your details.
Try a flashback. Try a flash forward. Try two points of view. Try one. Start the story in the middle of a crisis. Or if you’re not into the mind-fucky thing like I am, just start your story at the moment of change for the main character.
In TAUT I deliberately held back Ashleigh’s point of view so Ford could figure her out organically. She was a damaged character if ever there was one and if I had included Ashleigh’s thoughts about everything, there would be no mystery. If there was no mystery, there’s no story. She is the mystery. Who is she? What is she running from? Why was she out there on the mountain with her baby? Who does she think sent Ford to find her? But I didn’t start Ford with Ashleigh. Ford was running and so I started Taut with a final confrontation with the girl he was running from. Rook.
This is how I keep a reader’s attention. And no, not everyone likes the way I do things, but who cares? You can’t please everyone. Get rid of those readers and find the ones who do like the way you do things.
The reason I like to write mysteries and thrillers so much is because they have an inherent ability to hold a reader’s attention. I think it’s easier. Not everyone would agree with me. Not every reader likes a mystery in their romance. Not every reader wants to have their mind fucked before they get to the end. But my readers generally do. They look for the twist.
I wrote Sexy pretty straight forward. Sure, Fletcher has a little mystery to him, but not in a mind fuck kind of way. There are a lot of readers who like that too. So I’m not telling you to write a mystery or a thriller. I’m just saying there is an art to choosing how you want to tell the story. And maybe your story is better if you give it a little extra thought. Don’t jump right into a linear timeline without asking yourself if that’s the best way to entertain a reader. Take a chance every now and then. Try something new.
Try a new point of view. Get rid of one point of view if you don’t absolutely need it. Add one if you think it will make the story better. Start in the middle, start at the end, or sometimes you just need to start at the beginning. But whatever you do, don’t do it because it’s expected. Sometimes the best way to tell the story is the way in which it’s least expected.
In my final Junco book, Return, I tell the story in seven, yes, SEVEN first-person points of view. Did it work? Fuck yes, it worked. I re-read the story for the first time since I wrote just a few months ago and I blew myself away with how fucking fantastic and fast-paced it was. It held my attention the entire time. I was supposed to be writing Meet Me In The Dark, but hell, that story scared the shit out of me, so I was looking for anything to take my mind off it.
Return was brilliant and it started with Lucan killing someone he loved. I started it there because after four full-length books and one novella, it was finally time to reveal all the secrets I’d been holding back. And even though Range and Magpie, the two books that came before this one, both ended with a major cliffhanger, I let that cliffhanger dangle for seven chapters before I finally got back to the main storyline.
I did it this way because the story was not, after all, Junco’s. It was Lucan’s. And I wanted to make that perfectly clear from the very first sentence in Return. I wanted Lucan to do something so unbelievably cruel that it felt like a betrayal of all those nice thoughts you had about him in the prior books.
And he did. But since he now had a point of view, you finally begin to understand why he’s doing all these things. His story unfolds in flashbacks, the same way Junco’s did from the very first book. And none of this happened by accident.
Think about your beginning. Think about your story and the best way to tell it. It might make all the difference in how you connect with readers and it will definitely make all the difference in your craft. You don’t learn by doing the same thing over and over again. And you only get better with practice.
This brings me to that stupid article that was on the Huff Post last week where some unknown author begged all the prolific self-pubbed authors to stop writing so fast. Take your time, she said. Write slow. Blah, blah, blah. She cited people who took eleven years to write a book and as one of my street team members pointed out, well, if that eleven-year book is a flop, you wasted all that time and you learned nothing. Write at your own pace, but if you’re not publishing you’re not getting feedback, and if you’re not getting feedback, you’re not learning shit. And if you’re not learning shit, you’re definitely not getting better at it.
If writing is a hobby, all that’s cool. But if you’re looking for a career, you want to learn. You want to make mistakes, fix them, do it right, succeed, do it again, fail, learn, try another method, learn, learn, learn.
Practice, in all areas of life, career, family, love, friendship, etc, etc, etc – really does make perfect. And if I had not made mistakes in Clutch, I’d never have fixed them in Tragic and honed them in Panic.
And if I had not written Panic, then I highly doubt I’d have attempted to write a book with seven first person points of view in Return.
And if I had not completed that Junco series in such a spectacular fashion with Return, I’d never have had the confidence to pull off Taut and Guns. And if I had not written Taut and Guns, then Dirty, Dark, & Deadly would’ve been impossible.
All those books led to my biggest risk yet in 321. And if I had not written all those stories, in all those different ways, then 321 would’ve never happened.
And how sad is that? If I had taken the safe road I’d have missed all these learning opportunities. If I had written every story the same, I’d never have figured out how to pull it all together and write books that not only sell, but that I’d actually read. I do not even read romance, bitches. But I can still write romances that sell and that people want to read because I write them my own way.
And if I had never pulled it all together and written stories my own way, I’d never have made the New York Times bestsellers list with a book that is so far outside mainstream fiction, it’s mind-blowing.
Life is a series of stackable moments. They build on each other like a tower until they finally add up to something bigger than you expected. And all that happens when you take chances, make mistakes, fuck up, fix it, fall down, get up, and try again. And most of all, be true to yourself.
So that’s how you tell a story, JA Huss style.
And to that reviewer who complained about my in medias res style in Clutch back in 2012, well, thanks. LOL. Thanks for pissing me off and making me work harder to tell a better story in future books. And also, fuck off. Because you were an asshole about it.
I was on the right track. All I needed was a little practice.