The 4 Mistakes Your Editor Can’t Fix in Your Romance Novel

As some of you know, in addition to writing, reviewing, and publishing many novels, I am also a certified editor with over five years’ industry experience editing for small publishing houses and indie authors alike. Oftentimes, I’m asked about the most common, frustrating or egregious mistakes I come across while editing novels, particularly romances, since that seems to be the genre I’m most frequently hired to edit. While I could certainly do with never reading The Evil Sentence again (“She released the breath she didn’t even know she was holding…”), or the misuse of the word ‘bombastic’ (look it up—it probably doesn’t mean what you think), the biggest mistakes I actually encounter are the ones that I can’t fix.

Contrary to what some may think, a romance isn’t merely a story about two people falling in love. At the heart of all romance novels is how love transforms the main couple. We’re not off the hook in terms of plotting and character arcs just because we’re romance writers. And yet, I see far too many romances spending way more time on cute, snarky dialogue and steamy, wish-fulfilling sex scenes than on actually making the reader care. While fun dialogue and hot sex can definitely enhance a romance, it’ll mean nothing to readers if those individual characters don’t have an arc, or any flaws and conflicts to overcome.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to delve into why these aspects of storytelling are so crucial for creating stories that readers care about. If you’re curious about how and why the human brain is wired for a particular kind of storytelling no matter the genre, I recommend Lisa Cron’s books, Wired for Story and Story Genius. With that in mind—that there is, in some respect, a formula that triggers readers to care, to get what they’re looking for out of your story—here are the top 4 biggest mistakes I see most frequently in romance novels, and that a simple copy edit cannot fix.

#1: The MC Has No Goal.

When we meet your MC (in romance, it’s usually the heroine), her goal should be defined clearly from the get-go. Readers should know by the end of the first chapter, if not the first page, if not the first paragraph: who the heroine is, what she wants, and why she wants it. What does she gain by reaching her goal? Why is it so important? What are the consequences if she doesn’t reach it? Why must she avoid that outcome at all costs?

From that point, everything that happens to the heroine throughout the story will be perceived through the lens of this goal. Even her romantic relationship—which will no doubt complicate things, at least at first—will be perceived through this lens.

Too often, I read about heroines who don’t know what they want, or don’t want anything at all. Their goals are never clearly stated or defined. Or they’re super vague and wishy-washy. The resulting story is a sequence of events that simply happen to the heroine, and the heroine simply reacting to them. The reader isn’t given a reason to care about, identify with, or root for her.

All of the above applies to the hero, as well.  

#2: The MC Has No Flaw.

In addition to a goal, your main character must also have a flaw. It can be a character flaw, a personal shortcoming, a false belief, or some other obstacle standing in the way between her and her goal. The point of nearly every story is to show how a character overcomes her flaw in order to achieve her goal (or something better). Yes, this is the point of a romance, too.

Too often, what comes across my desk are perfect, beautiful, sexy, brilliant, well-adored heroines and their equally perfect, handsome, sexy, brilliant, well-adored male counterparts. The characters already have everything, so what more do they need? “True love” for the sake of itself is NOT a valid answer. True love should only be a means to a deeper, greater end—such as to awaken compassion, humanity, empathy, healing, integrity, or some other universal value or life lesson.

Think about it: What would you care if two perfect, beautiful strangers fell in love…unless you learned that their love for each other was actually what rescued them both from a debilitating addiction, or helped them survive and overcome a devastating trauma? This is why we tell love stories: to share the power of love. Love ought to change the characters for the better. If they don’t desperately need to change to begin with, then what’s the point?

#3: Tension is Resolved Too Quickly.

You’ve heard the adage “raise the stakes”. Most authors do respond with life-or-death consequences and plenty of near-misses. Except, often I find the tension is still not drawn-out enough to give the reader any real sense of danger. This might be because some romantic subgenres don’t necessarily lend themselves to having many action scenes or a central villain. That’s OK. You don’t always need a character villain or a car chase; circumstances and character flaws can be conflict enough. Just remember to milk it for everything it’s worth.

Going back to Lisa Cron’s books, part of why readers read—even for entertainment—is to learn from the characters. Just how will the hero overcome that insurmountable obstacle, or make it out of that tight situation? In romance, the conflict can be relationship-oriented and still just as serious and significant as the showdown in a superhero story. But if all tension in your story dissipates rapidly, or disputes are easily resolved, the reader will quickly catch on that they aren’t going to learn anything new from you. They’ll lose interest and curiosity. So, keep them curious. Make them wonder: ‘How can she possibly make it out of this?’ Then unravel your master plan, piece by piece, and enlighten while you entertain.

#4: The Main Characters Don’t Change in the End.

This ties back into #2, but is important enough to bear repeating: The point of any story is to show how someone overcomes a flaw or an obstacle to transform for the better. In a romance, love is the means by which your characters overcome their central flaws—but we need to see proof of their transformation in the end. Ask yourself: Did my characters achieve their goals (or something better)? How has it changed them? Compare whom you introduced us to in the first chapter with our final image of them in the last chapter. Did they overcome their central flaw, dispel their false belief? Have they come full circle? Did they learn what they needed to in order to grow and change? How do they look, think, behave differently, now that love has changed them?

Mechanical errors can always be fixed. The difference between further and farther can be explained. You can alter a sentence to make it show and not tell. But the story itself, which is formed in the author’s heart and mind, can’t be rewritten by the editor. I can’t take a manuscript and make the story work simply by cleaning up spelling and syntax. But I can certainly point you in the direction of tried-and-true templates and storytelling components that comprise a compelling romance. So, keep creating. And don’t forget: You have the power to inspire the world. Use it well. 😉

The Perks of Being a Hybrid Author

When I sat down to write this article, I originally wanted to title it, ‘Why I Love Self-Publishing!’ But when I really began to envision my preface about how much my publishers have taught me, and what an integral part of my writer’s journey they’ve been, I realized pretty quickly that I am only a competent self-publisher because I’ve had the privilege of working with some great publishing houses. 

To start: what is a ‘hybrid author’? The term usually refers to an author who has published both traditionally and independently. While I don’t have an agent and have never been published by one of the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, etc.), I’ve been published by both a boutique press and a large indie press (48fourteen and Limitless, respectively), as well as self-published many of my titles. Once upon a time, when I was a newly published author, I used to scratch my head and wonder why I’d see so many authors beginning with publishing houses (large or smaller ones, like mine), and then self-publishing the rest of their series/later works. I had so many questions. Was it because their publisher rejected the sequel? Why would anyone voluntarily choose to go from the “prestige” of having a publisher to the “stigma” of self-publishing? Why would someone pay to publish if she had access to a publisher who covers all the costs? While these are all valid questions, five years later, I can answer them from personal experience.

I’d first like to reiterate that I wouldn’t be anywhere near the writer I am today if it weren’t for my publishers who gave me a leg up and introduced me to everything I know about indie publishing. 48fourteen gave me not only the confidence and validation I thrived on as a fledgling author, but a great editor who forever changed my writing for the better, an amazing cover designer who’s been the Hannity to my Trump (OK, bad analogy), a tight-knit community of fellow authors who encourage each other, and even, some years later, a job. Limitless brought me a whole new audience, taught me marketing skills, and introduced me to an even bigger author community, which led to me attending book conventions with fellow Limitless authors…which led to being invited to join my local RWA chapter…which led to more fantastic friendships, networking, and learning opportunities. I don’t even want to imagine what my author experience would’ve been like without both of my publishers. It might even be safe to say I would’ve hit a dead end long ago had I never been signed by them. 

“OK, C.K.!” you’re saying. “I get it! You’ve got these two great publishers, that’s established…now why do you exclusively self-publish?” The short answer is because, thanks to them, I now have the resources, connections, know-how, and wherewithal to put forth a product of equal quality on my own. Not only that, but I’m able to customize the book exactly how I want it, and release it as soon as it’s ready, without having to wait (and wait and wait…lol) months, or even sometimes years, for the service and approval of any publisher. Not to mention, the self-service is ongoing, and allows for plenty of experimentation. And now, for the long answers…

#1: Time
The top reason I self-publish now is because I don’t have to wait. In the words of Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. I remember at one point, I had four or five books in the pipeline just sitting there, all just twiddling their thumbs as they awaited publication. It really blocked me from being able to create more content, as I felt so backlogged. It was so difficult not being able to share my finished work with my readers until years later, when several had already moved on, forgotten about me, or simply lost interest. That is sooo the opposite of how we want to engage our audience as writers! While the publishing industry may have once worked that way, where publications by one author needed to be spread out, nowadays digital readers tend to favor the author who releases a new book every 3 weeks. (No way any of us can be that prolific, of course, unless we write all that content ahead of time, package it up beautifully, then strategically schedule those back-to-back-to-back releases. Which is an excellent strategy, by the way. Or, unless we are not an author but a TEAM of ghost writers *coughBellaForrestcough*.)

The digital age is speeding everything up, including publishing. So, there’s really no need to wait months or years anymore between publications that are otherwise polished and ready to go. After all, by then, the whole market could have changed, and your ‘young adult’ readers are no longer young! Time and expediency is the paramount perk and reason I exclusively self-publish now. As long as I can ensure the book I produce is still high quality, there’s no reason for me to wait in line behind 15 or 215 other wonderful authors, when I have all the resources, connections, and skill sets to create the same product myself.

#2: Editing
Another reason I love to self-publish is that the editing process is smoother. My beta readers, copy editor, and ARC reviewers give me all the early feedback I need if something is problematic. Otherwise, I love not having to engage in back-and-forth with various in-house editors, many of whom aren’t experts in my genre, and often over very minor (and, let’s face it, silly) quibbles. With a publisher, I’m pretty much expected to accept all an editor’s changes unless I provide a potent written argument for rejecting one. Of course, I’m always going to accept if I’ve used the wrong homonym or misused a semi-colon, but do we really need to have an argument over my choice to make my hero bald (lots of pirates shaved their heads; have you tried managing your hairdo while living on a man-o’-war for 8 months?), or whether or not I’m using ‘to’ as a subordinating conjunction in a particular instance? (I wasn’t. There are other uses of the word ‘to’.)

What’s important is that the book is an overall quality product, properly edited, grammatically sound, with no gaping plot holes, and protagonists who remain sympathetic (without crossing any lines too far – I’ve learned my lesson there). Scrupulous or obtuse editing becomes counterproductive after a while. So, with self-publishing, I can handpick competent editors who totally “get” my style and work, and who aren’t going to hold me up over the fact that there are two cities in my 60,000-word fantasy that happen to start with the letter S. (Who cares?)

#3: Money
The third reason is money. While yes, a publisher covers all your costs (mainly editing and cover design) up front, you then have to share your royalties with them. Depending on how many books you sell, it could be worth the cost up front to keep all your royalties. In my case, I’m able to keep costs down by crowd-sourcing and bartering with other authors who have other skills to trade for mine. You also get to make all executive decisions when it comes to things like pricing your books, sales, promotions, and even creating the book in other formats, such as hardcover or audio book. The more formats in which your book is available, the more revenue streams you create off that title. (And lots of indie publishers don’t bother with hardcover and audio creation, for instance.) My biggest expense as an author, honestly, is not creating the books but marketing them. And I tend to spend the same amount marketing a title whether it’s self-published or with a publisher.

#4A: Interior Revisions
Another major reason I only self-publish now might seem small, but to me, is huge. And it’s that, even after I’ve already released a self-published book, I can go back into the text any time to correct errors. Every traditionally published author has experienced the heart-stopping horror of reading through their published book baby for the very first time and spotting The Dreaded Typo. *shiver* You’ve all got at least one – chances are, you know them by heart. Down to the page number where they occur. You even warn people before they read it. There’s a missing period on page 112! The word ‘She’ was supposed to have been capitalized in Chapter 20 but somehow wasn’t! “I had two rounds of editing,” cries the author, “copy edits, revisions, line edits, and even a proofreader – HOW DID THAT GET THERE?!” I’ve actually seen cases where typos in an author’s finished work made them – get this – completely give up on marketing their book, because they didn’t feel comfortable selling something with errors. 

First, I want to back up and say that nearly every book in the world has an error or typo somewhere. (With anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 words, hey, it’s bound to happen to one of those words.) Yes, even books published by major publishers. So this phenomena isn’t because indie books or indie editors are “sub-par.” It’s merely an inevitable occurrence in a human world. When your book is with a publisher, you’re doomed to cringe for the next 4 or 5 (or 60+…however long your contract is) years every time you even think of that typo. I don’t know how to explain it to non-authors, but to all the published authors out there, you get me.

What’s great about self-publishing, though, is that literally as soon as the error is brought to your attention, you can go back in and fix it, hit publish, and within a few hours – all fixed. Like it never even happened. Sure, people who’ve already bought the book will have the old version with the error, but you can at least rest assured that all future customers will now be getting the cleanest possible edition. Stuff like that makes an author sleep well at night. Having the freedom and ability to fix errors immediately is something only self-publishers can do. If you so much as approach a traditional publisher about your typos, you’ll not only get the stink-eye, but you’ll likely be asked wait till your contract is up…at which point they might determine that fixing it isn’t worth their time. 

In this same vein, you can also update your front & back matter instantly, and without any push-back, in self-published books. Got a new book you want to sample in the back of the previous one? Holding a newsletter giveaway? Want to update your bibliography in the front with links to all your books? Have at it!

#4B: Exterior Revisions
As well the ability to make interior changes with self-publishing, you also can rebrand and update your covers….whenever the heck you want. Starting to get sick of your old covers? Do they no longer reflect the market? Maybe you’ve been getting negative feedback lately (the font’s not legible as a thumbnail, or these five new books all use the same stock model)? Make it over any time you want! No need to go begging to a publisher with your tail between your legs, then look like an ungrateful jerk. You don’t have to make a case to anyone, or wait on anyone’s funding or approval, to get a new book cover. That is why the freedom of self-publishing is so fabulous!

#4C: Metadata Revisions
You also get full access and freedom to your book’s metadata when you self-publish. Does your blurb have typos or need some sprucing up? Want to switch up the subtitle? Turn it into a series? Update your Amazon categories and keywords? You can do all of this and more when you self-publish. As someone who’s studied digital marketing and owns software like KDP Rocket, you can bet I want to get my sticky fingers all over my books’ keywords and metadata. As well as update them regularly to keep them relevant. This is something I can only do self-publishing…unless I want to be a high-maintenance nightmare to my poor publisher. 

#5: It Doesn’t Affect My Audience 
Lastly, I’ve found my audience is no different whether I have a publisher or don’t. Many readers don’t discriminate, or wouldn’t even think to choose a book based on its publisher (or lack of one). In some cases, I’ve had a larger audience for my self-published work than for my works with a publisher. This could be due to many factors, such as genre or audience or keywording (or the fact I can run my own AMS ads on my self-published work). And a lot of times, I have even more freedom to pursue various promotions, cross-promotions, and other opportunities to expand my audience when self-publishing. But, all the same, I can also piggy-back off my publisher’s existing & growing audience to find new readers. So, there truly are perks to being a hybrid…you get the best of all worlds!


Of course, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. You gotta hustle. You gotta have the mind of an entrepreneur. You gotta be willing to learn new skills, including many digital ones, or else pay others who are great at it (and won’t rip you off – that’s a big one to look out for). Formatting books from scratch – and doing it right – can be absolute torture the first few tries, but I promise, with practice, it gets a little easier each time. (I will NEVER compose a Word document using tabs again!) There is a lot of Googling, podcast-listening, YouTube tutorials and webinar-watching, seminar and conference-attending, and a whole heap of trial and error involved. But if you have the time, motivation, and grit, nothing can stop you. 

And of course, even though it’s called self-publishing, I don’t believe anyone can truly do it alone. Alone and well, at least. While some authors are also artists who can design a stunning cover for their novel, others aren’t. We have to know our own limitations. Cover design is where I personally reach out to the pros; sometimes I barter, other times I dish out the cash. It’s worth it. Because your covers are what sets your brand and sells your books. If you just know there’s no way you can format your own paperbacks, or you need a serious content editor, those are costs to plan for. But as low as you can keep your costs, and as many skills as you can master yourself – and yes, you will spend that much less time actually writing, because you’ll be running all ends of the self-publishing business (which, once again, isn’t for everyone) – then the less of a financial burden it can and will be to produce quality self-published work.

At the end of the day, all-around excellent quality is what matters most. And if you’re determined enough, you can achieve that with and without a publisher. 🙂

I hope this article was somewhat informative, enlightening, and encouraging to you along your path as a writer. If you’ve got something to ask or to add, scroll down to leave me a comment! As always, thanks so much for reading!

The 10 Gifts of Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is a lot like pain. And I don’t just mean that it hurts. But, like pain, block is a sign that something is wrong. That something needs changing or repair. The body has an amazing nervous system designed to (among other things) alert us if anything’s awry. If we couldn’t feel pain, then we wouldn’t know to take our hand off the hot stove, or keep off the throbbing ankle before we seriously injure ourselves. In the same way, writer’s block can often stop a writer in her tracks, forcing her to backtrack, reevaluate, or address issues she might not have realized she had, before resuming forward. And often, the writer – and her writing – emerge stronger and better for it. 

I believe that writer’s block, like pain, appears in order to guide us. It lets us know something’s wrong so we can fix it. And if we look at our blocks closely enough, or from a different angle, they even contains gifts. You could say block is a blessing in disguise. In order to unpack its blessings, though, it’s important to first understand the reasons why we feel blocked. Then we can find the silver lining on the flip-side of each reason. Are you ready to open your gifts? Let’s do it!

Reason for Block #1: Obscurity
Gift: Freedom

A new writer, or one who’s been struggling to find an audience for his or her work, may experience block because the endeavor suddenly seems futile. Hardly anyone’s reading, after all, so what does it matter? I’m an obscure author; why put myself through this process, taking time away from family, putting in so much effort just to produce something very few people might ever read? The gift of being an undiscovered (or yet-to-be-discovered) writer is freedom. You don’t have an established base yet, which means no pressure and no expectations. You don’t have to cater to anyone. You can write what you want, without fear of disappointing the fans. You can also experiment and work at your own pace. Freedom to say what you want, and to reinvent yourself as many times as you feel like, is the oxygen that inspiration requires to breathe. So rather than view your obscurity as a setback, embrace the freedom and joy it gives!

Reason for Block #2: Guilt
Gift: Self-Care

Many writers decide to procrastinate or come down with a case of bad block due to guilt. Am I being selfish and unproductive by spending all this time alone in my room, writing? What about my family? I should be doing the laundry, walking the dog, watching a movie with my spouse…and so on. Any of this sound familiar? These are all valid excuses not to write. But let me ask you: Do you ask yourself the same question when you go to the bathroom? How about when you shower, or take care of your hygiene? What about exercise? For writers, we need our work to stay sane. It even serves as therapy for some of us. Writing fills our souls and is a totally valid form of self-care. Look at your writing time as an important practice for your mental and emotional health, just like exercise is for your body. And when you’re in good health, then you are a better spouse/parent/person for your loved ones. To paraphrase Laraine Herring, author of On Being Stuck, write so that you have a full heart to give to others! It’s perhaps the least selfish thing you can do!

Reason for Block #3: Boredom
Gift: Growth

Experienced writers may get blocked because they’re simply bored. They’re in a rut, they’ve written it all before, and things are starting to feel redundant. No fun! The hidden gift in boredom is the realization of the need for growth. Congratulations! Boredom is a sign that you’ve graduated this stage of your writing journey and are on the cusp of something exciting and new. Take advantage of this opportunity to enhance and transform your craft! 

Reason for Block #4: Fear of Criticism
Gift: Acceptance

Every writer is going to be criticized. Period. There’s just no way around it. If you hang around long enough, and especially if you publish, there’s going to be negative criticism and judgment from someone, somewhere. This fact paralyzes some writers. New writers may convince themselves that they will be the exception. Play the game, however, and you’ll quickly find there are no exceptions. Accepting this fact as a given will help soften the blow. While sometimes more painful than writer’s block itself, criticism can help point out where our writing needs improvement, and where we might need to be a bit more diligent or sensitive next time. And when it’s unhelpful? Consider Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, who says that the critic only criticizes that which he didn’t have the guts to do himself. Doreen Virtue in The Courage to be Creative adds that armchair critics sure spend a lot of time pointing out other artists’ flaws, and wouldn’t it perhaps be a better use of their time to go create their own art?

Reason for Block #5: Failure
Gift: Nowhere but Up!

One of my favorite movies my little boy watches is “Sing”. In it, the main character, a Koala named Buster Moon, says: “You know what’s great about hitting rock-bottom? There’s only one way left to go, and that’s up!” This is the great gift of failure! So, you wrote and finished a book, got it published, and…it bombed. Congratulations! You have officially broken through, and now there’s only one direction your career can go…up! 

Think of it on the flip-side: What if you had an instant best seller? (There are a lot of instant best sellers to compete with, by the way.) Imagine writing your next manuscript with that kind of pressure and expectation hanging over your head. Your next releases might do well, but they also might never replicate the success of your first. You (and your publisher) may perpetually lament how it didn’t live up to your first success. Best selling author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses this phenomenon in her highly recommended TED Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating“. See your failure, your bomb, your $0.35 royalty check, as a boon. The worst has happened, and you’re still alive. Hooray! Previously successful authors may never be able to replicate their own greatest success ever again. But you’re in a position where the slope can only curve upward…as long as you keep writing. That’s the only requirement. Don’t let one or two, or even twenty-five, failures block your flow. Keep creating, from the bottom up!

Reason for Block #6: Overwhelm
Gift: Patience

Sometimes we go as blank as the new doc on the screen. Especially if we’ve done this before, we know how steep the mountain we’re about to climb. The sheer overwhelm of the undertaking of writing a book is cause enough for some authors to take their notebooks and go home before even trying. It’s perhaps not the most PETA-friendly line, but as Johnny Andrews of Author Platform Rocket tells his clients: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” What he means is, patience is key. No one’s asking or expecting you to swallow a whole elephant. Learn to break off your work into chunks. Begin with one line. Then one paragraph. Then one scene. Then one more scene. One chapter. And the next. Take it one transition, one conversation, at a time. Nothing worthwhile is ever “fast and easy”. Honor the timing. Don’t set limits. Make a checklist if it helps. Don’t if it doesn’t. Either way, give yourself the gift of patience and take baby steps in the midst of overwhelm.   

Reason for Block #7: Disappointment
Gift: Optimism 

This ties in with #5, but disappointment from a past outcome (or lack of outcome) can leave a writer feeling frustrated and resistant to starting – or continuing – anything new. I remember my 10th grade English teacher had a poster on the wall that said: “Success belongs to those who’ve tried and tried and tried, not those who’ve tried and tried and tired.” Every day, I’d read that poster and be confused, because I didn’t notice the very last word was different. My eyes just sort of glazed over and I thought maybe the poster was trying to say that there’s no formula to success; that, just like luck, it chooses its winners at random. Only when, one day, I read the last word correctly did I realize and finally understand the true message of the poster. 

Don’t give up. Just because something didn’t work out once doesn’t mean you might as well quit. Hardly anyone succeeds on their first try, and sometimes when they do, it’s a fluke. The past does not define the future. Instead of dwelling on previous disappointments, focus on your optimism for the future. The past is known – we’ve been there, done that. But the future is unknown, a mystery yet to solve, a present to unwrap. Throw away yesterday’s junk and unwrap tomorrow’s promise!

Reason for Block #8: Performance Anxiety
Gift: Bliss

New and established writers alike experience performance anxiety at one point or another. ‘Will my work be good enough? Can I pull this off? Will ‘they’ like it?’ (‘They’ might be editors, publishers, fans, even your parents.) Just like how criticism is inevitable, so is the fact that you just can’t – and won’t, and shouldn’t even try to – please everybody. So forget what you fear ‘they’ all might want or say, and reconnect with the heart, the source, of your writing itself. What’s the reason you started writing in the first place? What intrigues you? What do you really want to say? Everyone knows Joseph Campbell’s immortal advice to “Follow your bliss.” Writing clearly gives you bliss, or else you wouldn’t be a writer. But what, specifically, about it? What kind of writing, and about what topics? Find the answer, and hold onto that. That is the gem, the golden nugget, the core, right there. Give yourself permission to write for your bliss – whatever shape that takes – and not for ‘them’. 

Reason for Block #9: Burnout
Gift: Incubation

Sometimes we simply can’t write because we feel totally tapped or burned out. Nothing left to say? It might feel that way, but most likely, you just need to give your voice a rest. Don’t worry about losing momentum either, because even when you’re not writing, you’re still writing. You writers know what I mean! Do you find yourself daydreaming, or literally dreaming, about new story ideas? That’s still an integral part of the process. Dreaming, doodling, conjuring up thought bubbles and letting them pop…it’s all necessary and needed for your next project to gestate. Burnout simply means you’ve reached the incubation stage of the writing cycle. And what do we know about cycles? They repeat! Which means you’ll get back to the physical writing stage eventually. So, stop worrying about ‘doing’ (or not doing) at the moment. Babies aren’t born the day after they’re conceived and neither are books. Rather than see burnout as a block, see it as a signal that your next story needs to percolate and take root further, while you rest up in preparation to write it. And, just like the case of Archimedes in the bathtub, sometimes the best ideas spring forth when we’re relaxed or doing something else entirely. 

Reason for Block #10: Impostor Syndrome 
Gift: Choice

Wanna know a secret? I’ve been published since 2014, have two publishers, have written over a dozen novels…and I’ve *still* turned down speaking engagements because I didn’t feel “qualified” to stand up and lecture about being a writer. Whenever acquaintances mention my books, my stomach plunges and I pray for the subject to change immediately. “Oh, that? That’s just something I do for fun… I’m not, like, an actual author.” Except I am. I am an actual author. Even writing that last sentence makes me jumpy. Because I fear that, any second, someone’s gonna write in and call me out: “You’re not actually an author, and here are all the reasons why!” Logic doesn’t seem to combat the debilitating case of impostor syndrome that I know I share with countless other authors. I’ve written books. Edited them. Published them. Held them in my hands. Signed and sold them at conventions. So, why do I still not feel “legit” (whatever “legit” is supposed to “feel” like)?  

Potterheads will recall the tavern scene in Harry in Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix, when the students solicit Harry to lead Dumbledore’s Army. As proof that he’s a natural-born leader for their group, they point out all the incredible feats he accomplished in his first four years at Hogwarts. Harry insists he’s not being modest but that, while it sounds amazing the way they’re all putting it, behind the scenes he had loads of help, no clue what he was doing, and a lot of dumb luck. Still, his classmates are convinced he’s special. Like Harry , you try to explain away your writing: it’s nothing more than a conglomeration of other books you’ve read, movies you’ve watched, places you’ve traveled, and people and events in your life. That you didn’t really “come up with” all that stuff, but rather made a pastiche, a collage, of your experiences to create something somewhat original. But if anyone looks closely enough, they’ll see the seams, the hairline cracks, catch the references, and mistake the homages as ripoffs.

Maybe you say you’re “only” self-published (as if that makes you any “less of” an author). Maybe your publishers are “only” small, independent, or university. Maybe you’re not even published, and you’re “just” a hobby writer.

Yet, the other person rebuts: “Well, I still could never write a book!”

Rather than give you a pep talk all about how you are legitimate, you are an author, and it’s time you own it, I’ll instead say this: See yourself as talented or don’t. Bask in others’ praise or deflect it. Believe you’re a phony or that you’re the real deal. Either requires a conscious decision. No one likes a big head. Neither does anyone like a person who can’t take a friggin’ compliment. There’s nothing wrong with humility. There’s also nothing wrong with admitting you’re gifted, and using your gifts for good. Impostor syndrome gives us the gift of choice. Which will we choose? 

If you’ve been suffering writer’s block, my heart goes out to you. It does. I promise you will get past it, and I hope that this article was helpful in any small way. Identify the reasons holding you back, flip them over to see the gifts, and most importantly, by all means, write on!

For writers who are stuck.

There will be many trials and many errors.
There will be many failed attempts.
Many experiments will go wrong, while some go nowhere at all.
There will be false positives and silver linings.
Frustration and hours of dullness and darkness will prevail, for a time.
There will be lonely, listless days and electric, sleepless nights.
Stay authentic, whatever you do.
Don’t write anything that isn’t calling to you.
You’ll know it’s right when it’s got your scent, your trademark, your fingerprints all over it.
Forget what you’ve learned.
Break all the rules.
Un-confine yourself from the box you’ve been living in.
These walls are illusions.
The only thing blocking the flow is the fact you haven’t been giving yourself permission to be yourself.
In truth, there’s only you and the words no one’s written before.
Nothing stands between you.
Write them.

Repost: Handling the touchy topic of feminism in historicals

The following is a repost of a guest article I wrote for Jennifer M. Eaton’s blog in December 2016, originally entitled “Handling historical attitudes in a millennial feminist world“:

Make no mistake, I consider myself a Feminist. I’m not old enough to have fought for it; I was simply fortunate enough to have been born into a nation and generation where the idea that I could grow up to be or do anything I wanted, regardless of my gender, was something I really never thought to question. I took it for granted. My eyes were opened in high school, when I began to read historical novels and their depictions of how, throughout history and around the world, women had limited rights, if any. Most weren’t allowed to read, vote, or own land. They themselves were property. Independence and autonomy? Many women lived and died without ever having experienced either.

Oddly, that didn’t mean they were all unhappy. Every historical novel about any kind of woman’s revolution will show you the ‘other’ side – the women who didn’t wantto vote, the ones who didn’t want to enter the workforce, the ones who willingly embraced what we may consider sexist today: a woman’s domestic and maternal “role”.

To my generation, it feels wrong to be okay with people not wanting or asking for more choices – or indeed, having no choices at all. And yet, that’s how generations of women lived before us, as influenced by the predominant cultures and paradigms of their various societies and eras.

I don’t write a lot of historical fiction. But I do write fantasy that takes place in historical-like settings, and that includes patriarchal societies. One of the challenges of being a writer in today’s market is handling accurate historical attitudes toward women for the integrity and atmosphere of an old-fashioned story, when most of today’s audience may be young Millennial Feminists like myself, to whom these societal gender structures come across as backwards or even immoral, were they applied in real life today.

For example, the ‘damsel in distress’ is a classic literary motif used by the greatest writers for centuries. But authors paying homage to those old stories today run the risk of being considered sexist. In my opinion, there’s a huge difference between crafting a story in an old-fashioned, patriarchal setting and actually condoning it or thinking the world ought to run that way again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being under the modern lens as an author, it’s that there are as many different reactions to a story as there are readers to react to it.

Historical attitudes towards women in a novel may offend some, while those enjoying the escape to a different world won’t bat an eyelash. While it’s fun to craft plots about women who must somehow assert themselves amidst arranged marriages, forced journeys, and salacious suitors, I’m appreciative to live in the here and now, where the choice to write whatever we choose is ours.

Why enemies-to-lovers is my favorite romance trope

Let’s clear up one thing first: “trope” is not a bad word. Neither is it an insult. A trope, for the purposes of this post, is a common theme or archetype that frequently appears in stories. The ‘damsel in distress’ has historically been a popular trope in storytelling – albeit, one that’s losing significant steam in a modern culture of feminism and strong female protagonists. But, tropes that are still thriving today, particularly in the romance genre, include reunited/second-chance love, secret babies, mail-order brides, and arranged marriages or marriages of convenience (the latter few exploring the fantasy of taking a complete stranger to bed, but in a fashion that is entirely permitted and socially acceptable).

Tropes are popular. Research shows they sell. Readers like them. I like them. So, by the word ‘trope’, let’s be clear that I mean absolutely nothing derogatory. *claps hands* Onward!

One popular romance trope I didn’t mention above, however, is ‘enemies-to-lovers.’ Also called ‘hate-to-love,’ this trope is fairly self-explanatory. As you might’ve guessed, these are romances about a couple that starts off hating each other, yet eventually (or inevitably) falls in love.

Enemies-to-lovers is the premise of countless classic romances, from Pride & Prejudice to Han and Leia’s relationship in Star Wars. Romantic comedies like One Fine DayRomancing the Stone, The Proposal, and Clueless also come to mind. It’s prevalent even in kids’ movies, such as Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia and, to some extent, Frozen (Anna and Christoph can’t stop bickering with each other) and Shrek

A little-remembered but highly recommended gem from the ’80s that simply embodies this trope is my all-time favorite romance novel, Amazon Lily by Theresa Weir. Another fantastic enemies-to-lovers romance can be found in Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa Klein, wherein the love interest took me entirely by surprise. Both books have inspired my own writing.

Although I try to diversify my romances, something just keeps bringing me back to the enemies-to-lovers trope. You can find it in most of my novels, from Capturing the Captain, The Red Pearl, The Golden Dove, Heiress Heist, and I, Guinevere, to elements of it in The Duchess Quest and The Duchess’s Descendants. Why is this trope so prevalent in my work? Why do I love writing it so much? What is it that’s so appealing, even arousing, about enemies falling in love? While I can’t speak for everyone else, I can give a few reasons why I think enemies-to-lovers is the most irresistible trope in romance:

It’s witty
Funny is attractive. A good sense of humor exudes confidence and charm, which is especially appealing in a partner. Wit, however, takes ‘funny’ to a whole new level, because it’s also clever. In hate-to-love, the characters bicker, trade sharp comebacks, and showcase their skills in snark. Sometimes this banter diffuses the tension, sometimes it escalates it. But either way, it’s fun and gets the characters engaged. When a battle of the wits becomes especially heated, this can easily translate to sexual tension, which brings me to my next point…

It’s tense
You don’t have to write steamy scenes to make a romance novel hot, IMO. Creating intense friction alone between two emotionally complex (or emotionally confused, lol) characters does the trick. Where there’s strong tension, emotion – and passion – runs high. At that point, it’s only a matter of time until the line between passionate hate and passionate love gets blurred…and crossed.

It’s relatable
Main characters who are enemies shows us that the hero and heroine have distinct personalities and minds of their own. Unlike, perhaps, a more ‘boring’ traditional couple, they aren’t afraid to butt heads and point out each other’s flaws. In male characters, this can come off masculine and strong – whether he’s charismatic and alpha, or more quietly confident about it (yet still oozing with BDE). In female characters, at least from my perspective, it fleshes her out, creating a heroine I can relate to, who reacts more how I would. A strong-willed heroine who isn’t afraid to speak her mind is easier for me to sympathize with, which in turn makes it easier for me to feel what she’s feeling for the hero, bringing the romance to life that much more vividly.

It’s surprising
Nothing delights me more than unexpected love! Predictability is fine, but I love surprising readers and being surprised. In fact, sometimes I even go out of my way to mislead readers…like creating a red herring love interest, or bringing a side character to the forefront just when they least expect it. But what I especially love is making the hero seem so despicable in the beginning that he’s dismissed, at first, as a villain. (Anyone who follows me on social media knows I have a villain complex!) Villains are often the heroes of their side of the story. And giving them a chance to redeem themselves or win over the audience is important to me. I’ll never tire of readers telling me how much the romance surprised them – and I like to be surprised!

Everyone loves a rogue
Lastly, I think it’s safe to say the whole ‘bad boy’ appeal is pretty much universal. It’s why pirates, vikings, vampires, rakes and rogues are so popular as heroes in entertainment. In the words of Rita Skeeter, “Everyone loves a rebel.” Enemies-to-lovers typically takes such a rogue – be it the coarse pirate who’s kidnapped the fair lady for a ransom or the rakish duke who’s only marrying for financial gain – gives him an arc, and turns him into the hero of the story. But even more than redemption, I think we just love rogues. 😉

So, now you know just a few reasons why I find enemies-to-lovers stories so darned romantic…and why I won’t stop writing them any time soon!

What’s your favorite romance trope? Scroll down to post a comment!

Why Prophecy is the laziest literary device

I’ll never forget waiting three years between releases of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels. Rumor had it, we were finally going to find out WHY the evil Lord Voldemort had tried to kill innocent Harry as a baby. That was the crux of the whole series, wasn’t it?

The morning of Order of the Phoenix‘s release, I arrived at the bookstore the hour it opened (this was before they held midnight release parties – I attended those in subsequent years for Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows) and picked up my precious pre-ordered tome. Over the next few days, I did little else but devour Book 5 from cover to cover. And what did I learn between its 766 pages was the reason Voldemort had tried to kill baby Harry? Why would the Dark Lord go after the boy wizard for a whole series of seven books? The giant mystery was finally revealed!

Spoiler Alert:

Because of a prophecy. 


Oh. That.

At age 12, I’m not even sure I knew what a prophecy was. But I knew at least enough to feel justifiably underwhelmed. So Voldemort believed Harry was a threat to him…because someone predicted Harry would be a threat to him. Not because Harry was particularly skilled. Not because he inherited powerful wizard genes from his family. In fact, it wasn’t because of anything Harry had, did, or was.

It was all because someone else said it would be so.

This circular reasoning is just as confusing as it is anticlimactic. J.K. Rowling even went on to include in the narrative that the “chosen one” could just as easily have been Harry’s hapless classmate, Neville. So what is the moral of the story line? Are prophecies right or can they be wrong? Does believing in or acting on a prophecy make it come true? Can it go unfulfilled if simply ignored, or are all prophecies inevitable? The answers will vary depending on which book you read – if you’re lucky enough to get an answer at all.

Prophecies don’t only appear in Harry Potter, of course. I recall feeling the same flop of disappointment reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to discover the White Witch was only after the Pevensie children because of… (*drumroll, please*) a prophecy. No other reason, really. Someone, somewhere (never mind who and when; you don’t find out) foretold that four human children would usurp the Witch’s throne – thus, the basis of the entire book’s conflict. How convenient, Mr. Lewis.

We also find prophecies in much older stories, of course, from Oedipus to Macbeth. But those works are clever and self-aware enough to play with the question of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of the point is the irony in that what was foretold only ended up happening as a result of the respective kings trying to prevent the prophecies about them from coming true. 

Switching back to the modern fantasy novel, though, I’ve come to the point of having read far too many books in which the main character is “chosen,” and the villain is attacking because of – how’d you guess? – a prophecy. This brings me to why I hate prophecies as literary devices. In two words:

Lazy writing.

There, I said it. Using prophecy as a plot device, and especially a motive, is nothing more than lazy writing. Not only are prophecies disappointing to readers, but all they signal is that the author didn’t want to take the time to come up with a real reason – an interesting, original, and authentic reason – for their hero, villain, and conflict to exist in the first place; or worse, they simply don’t care. As writers, it’s our job to make our work make sense. Prophecies are arbitrary, self-referencing, and they don’t make sense. Why are they there in the first place? Who knows?

But to a higher purpose, if we’re going to tell a story – and expect some people to read or even pay for it – then we’d better have something to say. When I read a book only to discover that the big “secret,” or indeed catalyst to the entire plot, is a “prophecy,” it tells me the author really had nothing to say, that he or she just wanted to write a story for the sake of writing a story.

Prophecies are cop outs. They’re the equivalent to the author tossing up her hands and deciding, “I don’t know why this needs to happen, but I know I need conflict and a reason for my protagonist to be the one to overcome it, and I can’t think of anything else.” As literary tropes go, it ought to be banned along with deus ex machina. Think about it: all it tells the reader is, This has to happen because I say so, or, perhaps more insulting, Just go with it

As writers, we’ve got to do better than that. Please, please, provide genuine reasons, explanation, and thoughtful world-building to explain your plot instead of resorting to a predestined fate that ‘must be fulfilled’. We owe our readers not only satisfying stories, but characters who rise and grow and overcome the odds, not because it was their destiny, but because they earned and fought for it through the virtues of hard work, love, courage, etc.

If your book features prophecy, I apologize if my opinionated rant here offended. My goal is never to tear down other writers, but to encourage us all to think more deeply about our craft and strive to create better books. I wrote this blog because this topic is probably my biggest pet peeve in literature – next to the evil sentence. At any rate, now you know why, as cool-sounding or popular of a keyword as it might be, you’ll never find the word ‘Prophecy’ in any of my titles. 😉

What do you think about prophecies in novels? Do you have any literary pet peeves? Post a comment!

Mailbag: Suggestions for writing action scenes

I recently received this email from fellow Michigan writer, Jaclyn E. Dunlop. She had a very good question:

Jaclyn’s Email:
Hey. Do you have any suggestions on how to write a combat scene? …My main character is fighting a dragon to prove her worth, and I’m not sure how to go about it.

C.K.’s Response:
The best advice I’ve been given for action & combat scenes is to use short, punctuated sentences. Combat/action scenes can be very difficult for readers to follow otherwise.

Here’s a bad example:
She swung her sword overhead, shielding against the fiery blaze of the dragon’s breath, then ducked out of the way of his massive, swinging tail, just narrowly missing its heavy thrash.

I’d rewrite the sentence above as:
She swung her sword overhead, shielding against the fiery blaze. The dragon swung its massive tail. She ducked, narrowly missing its heavy thrash. 

Short, verb-oriented sentences and definitely active over passive voice (e.g. Instead of ‘she was pierced by the dagger,’ we want ‘the dagger pierced her’). Those would be my suggestions! Good luck!

So, there you have it! Do you have a writing question? Write me via the contact form!

What inspires my stories?

When I sit down to brainstorm or outline a new book, I always start with one question: What intrigues me?

Reconnecting with my younger self, I recall the stories, secrets, mysteries, and phenomena that once sparked a burning curiosity within my adolescent mind. What was forbidden and what was taboo? What was sneaky and tempting and possibly dangerous, but oh-so-seductive and impossible to resist? What made me feel as though I’d entered another world, what dreams and dreamscapes had altered my thoughts and perception in ways I’d never considered before? If I could learn the truth about any secret buried in history, which secret would I choose to unearth?

What if Anastasia Romanov had really survived her execution? What if I could find out who I was in a past life? What if I lived in a haunted house? What if I were to walk in the sandals of a Greek goddess? What if a girl had pulled the sword from the stone? What if I fell in love with a pirate? What if… what if… what if…?

The day I stop asking ‘what if’ is the day I run out of ideas. The moment I realize nothing intrigues me any longer is the moment I am no longer a fiction writer. For me, creative writing stems from the roots of exploration and experimentation. And I only want to explore and experiment with ideas that truly inspire me. It’s the only way I’ve found to sustain my passion for a project. And as any writer knows, you’ve got to have passion to finish a novel!

You can look at what’s hot. You can gauge the market. You can see what’s selling and try to follow trends. You can set goals, track word count, and turn yourself into a production machine. Some people look at the number of publications I have and think that’s what I’m doing. Honestly, it isn’t. Sure, I outline my novels, which saves me an immense amount of time, but what truly enables me to write is my determination each day to tap into what intrigues me, and to stay excited, impassioned, and inspired from page 1 to page 201.

What ignites me most of all is love and relationships. I will never tire of conjuring up different couples and throwing them together in a wild and fun adventure. I love making the characters interact with each other. I especially love villains who become the love interest, or enemies who turn into lovers, a common theme in my books. I like to first choose a premise that intrigues me – whether fantastical, historical, or paranormal – then create characters who come alive and demand I tell their story. They become the reason I keep writing. Once I call them into being and develop a connection between them, I know I must finish their stories and do them justice. My commitment to the characters and the relationships they’re building is what propels me through the more difficult chapters, the boring logistics, the action scenes that can be challenging to execute, and the days when it feels like the words just won’t come. I am grateful for the colorful characters and timeless love stories that keep me company and keep me working.

Dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, gods and goddesses, kings and queens, emperors and empresses, married couples and young singles, witches, ghosts, reincarnated souls, priestesses, paupers, and pirates have all filled the pages of my novels. I’ve covered master plots from rescue missions to treasure hunts to quests and mythology retellings. I’ve written for adults and young adults. Sometimes I flip through the pages of my notebooks and wonder where I’ll go next, what’s left, what’s fresh that I haven’t already done before. That’s when I know it’s time to return to the crucial question: What intrigues me?

If you dream of writing a novel, or more novels, ask yourself what intrigues you. The answer might surprise you. Either way, when it comes to finding inspiration, it will never lead you astray.