By Lisabet Sarai
My ninth novel comes out next week. I am, of course, excited. Publishing a new book is a bit like giving birth, without as much pain. I’m eager to find out what the world thinks about my new baby. My beta readers and my editor have been unabashedly enthusiastic. I can only hope the general reading public—okay, the few hundred of them that I manage to reach via my hit-or-miss marketing!—feel the same.
I’m particularly curious to discover whether this book (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin) is more successful than my previous work because this is the first novel I’ve written using the Character-driven Random Walk Method. When I began writing, all I had was a title and the two main characters (reflected in the title), Rachel and Theo. I really had no idea what they’d do, other than having sex and falling in love.
I did know this was going to be an erotic romance. In fact, although the book deliberately shreds romance stereotypes, it preserves the essential core of romance, namely, the characters’ journey toward a loving relationship. So I understood there had to be obstacles or conflicts that would stand in the way of the happy ending. At the start, though, I couldn’t have told you the nature of those obstacles. I didn’t plan. I didn’t outline. That’s not like me at all! I simply sat down at my computer, invoked Rachel and Theo, and let them interact. I can’t say I heard voices in my head, the way some other authors claim, but at each point in the plot, the focus character in some sense decided what would happen next.
I’d expected the book would be 20K at most. As I let Rachel and Theo lead me deeper into their story, I discovered I was wrong. They did not want to be rushed. It took four chapters for them to get to their first erotic encounter. The revelation that they shared kinky interests took another four. By the time I reached the book’s climax, the events that tear them apart, I had more or less figured out how they’d reconcile, but I couldn’t make them follow my script. Theo turned out to be far more stubborn than I would have guessed. Fortunately, Rachel’s imagination came to the rescue. Still, every time I sat down to write what I thought would be the final chapter (as I discussed last month), I’d come to realize there was yet another one needed.
When I finally wrote “The End”, I was seriously relieved. I wasn’t sure Rachel and Theo would ever let me finish their story!
So what were the results of this exercise? (Because I really do want this blog to discuss craft issues.) How does this book compare to those I’ve written using my usual technique, the TV Serial Method?
1. There’s not much plot
Don’t get me wrong. Gazillionaire is not boring (at least I don’t think it is). Things do happen in the external world. However, compared to my other novels, this book is far less “plot heavy”. My eighth novel, for instance, includes mistaken identity, kidnapping by an international crime syndicate, disguises and deception, infiltration into the bad guy’s headquarters, and a rescue involving a bloody shoot-out—as well as the usual intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, spanking and so on. My seventh novel includes abduction, secret agents, self-powered bondage devices, mysterious energy sources, exotic Asian ceremonies, a curse and the ritual to reverse it, along with plenty of kinky sex. Even my first novel had a plot trail involving industrial espionage.
In this novel, by contrast, the most significant events are those that change the protagonists’ feelings for one another. Indeed, there are very few secondary characters, compared to my other books. There’s enough movement to keep things interesting (I hope), but far less world building than I usually do.
2. Dialogue propels the book forward
The story is narrated in the first person present, alternating between the two main characters. Thus, we do get some insight into each of the characters’ thoughts. However, a significant part of the “action” is actually dialogue. Conversations between the two protagonists not only reveal their natures, but also cause real world changes.
I recently re-edited my first novel, written sixteen years ago, for a re-release. I improved the dialogue, but I couldn’t help noticing how stilted and wooden it remained, at least in comparison to the interactions I write now. I said earlier I didn’t hear voices when writing this book, but when it comes to conversations, that’s not strictly true. As these characters talked to one another, I wrote down what they said. The results feel much more real than any dialogue I’ve written previously.
3. The characters change
In any novel-length work, the characters have to develop and grow. If they have the same attitudes, beliefs and behaviors at the end of the book as they do at the start, the book will be neither engaging nor plausible.
However, Theo and Rachel change far more than any characters I’ve written previously, as a direct result of their interactions. Naive and socially awkward at the start, Theo matures into a genuine hero. Stubborn, bossy Rachel softens and becomes more flexible as she lets down her guard and opens herself to love. Their relationship involves more than just incredible sexual chemistry and complementary kinks. Each gradually brings out the best in the other.
Would I use this method again?
I didn’t consciously choose to use the Character-driven Random Walk method for this book. It just sort of happened. I do think that the method requires a very clear initial notion of just who your characters are. When I start a book, that’s not always the case. Many of the novel-writing methods I’ve outlined involve character discovery in the process of writing (but not, I think, the Dissertation Method or the Snowflake Method). My understanding of Rachel and Theo deepened while I was writing, but I had a strong sense of their essential characteristics before I began.
I found it was more difficult to make progress using this method. As I’ve mentioned, my plans didn’t always match those dictated by the characters. I’d often come away from a writing session frustrated that I hadn’t moved further along in my quest toward an ending.
At the same time, I’m very pleased with the result. Despite the lack of an outline, the book feels very “tight” to me. I managed to link a lot of the early details into the ending in a rather elegant fashion, I think. (These were suggestions from the characters.) And I feel that I accomplished my objective, writing a book that was both classic romance and anti-romance (in the sense that it breaks a lot of rules).
I do believe that we authors can grow through experimenting with new techniques, as well as new genres. The last thing I want is for all my books to feel and sound the same. People who’ve read my other novels will find The Gazillionaire and the Virgin a significant change. I hope they view that as positive.