How Dark is Too Dark? Or, the Birth of Hard Line.

So...Ghost's book is pretty dark so far. 

I know, I know, I should probably be talking about Tobias, and I will, for about half this post, but the only reason he's part of this conversation is because he's crucial to the feelings I'm having about Ghost right now. And those feelings are currently like this: 


It's like a Japanese horror movie, I guess I'm saying. Where you're really freaking out, but the only way out is through so you keep going.

Ghost's book is writing really well. Like, really well. Like nothing has written since Bad Judgment. And that's huge, you guys.

Here's the thing--Bad Judgment was fun to write. It was basically me doing whatever the hell I wanted, following plot bunnies (they hop around into random, messy places just because they think it might be cool, you know), letting the story's characters and angst lead the way. I didn't worry about audience or whether Embry was likable (he sort of isn't? I adore him anyway) or whether it was appropriately "romance novel-y" to have one hero having sex with someone who wasn't the other hero. I didn't care. I followed my impulses, and the book wrote fast and easy and fun.

That was not my experience with my other books.

With Loose Cannon and Hard Line, I had to make like a professional. I had standards to live up to and people who expected things to make sense and bills to pay. It wasn't a lark anymore, so my draft had to be good. I had to write in past tense because lots of readers apparently won't read present tense, which is what I prefer to use, and that slowed me down quite a bit. I had to be responsible for the things my characters do and say and consider what messages I'm putting out there in the world.

Now, I'm not begruding readers having expectations--you guys definitely should. You're spending time and money on these books, you should get a good experience out of it. And my publishers have lots of experience in making books available to the widest possible audience, which definitely benefits me. If there are huge swathes of readers out there who dump a book for present tense, that's important to know. Not saying any of this is wrong, necessarily, just that it doesn't suit my natural inclinations as a writer very well, which is apparently to jump out of a tree with my hair on fire and pray that I stick the landing without breaking a leg. 

Why does this matter? Because Church and Tobias's books were really hard to write in comparison to Bad Judgment for those reasons. Especially Tobias's book. Like, especially, especially. In fact, I sort of hated a big chunk of the Tobias-experience. Actually, if I'm honest, "hate" is an understatement. It was like mining for poisonous crystals in a claustrophobic cavern filled with dead unicorns.

That's kind of a weird description, but it feels right, so I'm standing by it. 

I got halfway through my outline and just. hit. a. wall. My pace slowed to a crawl. I kept revising scenes over and over instead of moving on to new ones because I thought that if I could just fix the source of the problem, things would unstick. Didn't happen. I went days, and then weeks without progress, and this is enormous, because while on paper I had four months until my deadline, in reality I had two-and-a-half because I needed time to get the book to betas and sensitivity readers and revise the manuscript before turning it in to my editor. So the time crunch was starting to weigh very, very heavily. I was 50,000 words in and I literally could not make myself sit down at my desk. Just thinking about it stressed me out to the point where I was nearly in tears. I hated Tobias, I hated the book, I hated writing. 

I can probably get more dramatic than this, but I figure we both have better things to do with our time.

So how come there's a book that me and my editor are actually really happy with? Because I finally sort of lost my shit. Imagine all the pacing and hand-wringing you get in movies when one of those Victorian husbands is panicking outside of a birthing room while their wives are screaming in labor off-screen--there was some of that. Also imagine Romeo yelling at the heavens "I defy you, stars!" There was some of that too. There were F-bombs. So many F-bombs.

The point is that I had a meltdown about something stupid that was utterly unrelated to my job. I'm pretty sure I was watching a nature show and a cute bird got eaten by an alligator and I started crying. Crying very much out of proportion with the event in question. This freaked my husband out, so he asked a lot of prodding questions that finally had me admitting that I wanted to run away to Brazil because everything everywhere was horrible and and Tobias's book was awful and it'd ruined my whole life and nothing was nice like it used to be.

He rationally suggested that I consider what I'd done differently back with Bad Judgment and try to emulate it, and I sort of yelled, "I did what I wanted!" Then he was like, "Well what do you want to do here? If there were no restraints, what would you change?" and I was like, "I hate this fucking outline and it isn't working and I don't know how to fix it because no matter how far I backtrack it isn't getting better and the only way to really fix it is to scrap the whole mess but I can't do that, because even if I had time, they wouldn't let me." And he was all mature and shit and said, "Why not? Have you asked Anne about it?" (Anne would be my editor at the time). At which point I sullenly said, "No, I don't want her to think I'm a fuck up." And he was like, "Well, it doesn't make you a fuck up to need help. It only makes you a fuck up if you don't do anything about it." 

And I maybe gave him lots of dirty looks for being a grown up, at which point he went to buy me comfort food and I went to play video games because there's only so much maturity I can handle at one time.

But I couldn't sleep because I kept thinking about what he said. I decided it was stupid to tell my editor that I wanted to do something different when I had no evidence that the something different would actually make anything better, so at three in the morning, I did a little experiment. I scrapped the outline entirely, opened a new word document, and just started over. 

An hour later, I had twelve pages. Twelve pages of seven different, partial scenes throughout the book, because I'd get partway through one and have an idea that I had to get down, so I'd switch and it would be glorious, and then I'd have a new idea. This new draft was darker, and Tobias was being kind of a jerk, and he was falling apart and being self-destructive and taking advantage of my other hero, and suddenly Tobias wanted to have really kinky sex, and my other hero was writing better too, because it turned out I hadn't been the only one to loathe Tobias before (which might've explained their entire lack of chemistry in that draft).

The experiment got rid of any lingering doubts I might've had.

So by six in the morning, I was writing a long, twisty email to my editor that might not have made much sense considering I'd been up all night having a lot of emotions about how much I loved my job all of a sudden despite being scared that maybe I wouldn't be allowed to do what I really felt was best for the manuscript, which was to scrap the entire outline that I had submitted to them months before. This was the outline that had convinced them to buy the book in the first place, so it was a really big deal for me to say, "hey, instead of giving you the responsible station wagon you wanted, can I interest you in this Porche? Yeah, it's crappy in bad weather and it's way more expensive, but look how shiny! SHINY!"

And Anne got back to me with the equivalent of "Let me talk to some folks, but one way or another we'll figure this out." And then she got back to me a couple of hours later with, "Okay, break down what you want to do. In non-outline form because I don't want your brain to melt out of your ears." And then she got back to me a couple of hours after that with, "If you really think you can start over and re-write this entire book in only four months (really two-and-a-half, with revision time, remember) and still turn in a draft that's readable, knock yourself out."

I really love Anne and my publisher, you guys. They're super.

So the claustrophobic cavern of dead unicorns became a sun-drenched field of happy, prancing unicorns. I really like this version. I mean, I re-read it for edits a couple weeks ago, and I kept catching myself thinking, huh, I'm really enjoying this. While Anne has moved on to do other stuff, my current editor has said she really likes it too (and she's paid to say when she doesn't like stuff, so it's a pretty reliable opinion).

If you like good boys rebelling and tattoos on wise-cracking private detectives and blackmail and stakeouts and stress-baking and unexpectedly kinky sex (I actually made myself blush while I was writing. That has never happened before), you'll probably like Hard Line too.

Why does this matter? How is the birth of Hard Line related to Ghost's book?

Because I'm not actually an idiot and I learn from my mistakes sooner or later. I have no outline with Ghost. I've made a deal with myself that I will let Ghost be imperfect and unlikable, that I will follow plot-bunnies into dark corners if they look interesting, and that I will let this book get as blood-soaked and messed-up as it wants. 

So far, that's pretty damn blood-soaked and messed-up. In fact, I cannot imagine a world in which this draft gets published by a mainstream romance publisher as it is right now. But then, I thought that about Bad Judgment, too, and look how that turned out. I mean, Carina Press has a line called Dirty Bits. Probably I should stop underestimating them.

Anyway, Ghost's book is writing soooo easily. And I'm not about to put myself in a position to end up back in that grody cavern with the unicorn corpses where the first Tobias draft lived, so I'm just going to keep trooping into the ridiculousness that is Ghost doing Ghost-things and hope that my other hero can rein him in a little by the end. I'm probably setting myself up for a massive overhaul in developmental edits, but I can live with that. I'd like to not make my current editor's head explode, please and thank you, something she'll no doubt agree would be nice, so I'm resigning myself to the fact that this one's just going to be an uncertain process.

It feels right, though. And a tiny, hopeful part of me thinks readers willrespond really well to this. Bad Judgment got great reviews and I've gotten an enormous amount of positive feedback from readers on that one, and it's pretty unorthodox for a romance novel.

Plus, people seem to really...well, "like" is probably not the right word for how readers feel about Ghost. The comment I get most is that he's intriguing. Most of my readers have already figured out that there's some crazy-dark stuff in his background. So I'm thinking that it won't even be a shock if the book ends up blood-soaked and messed up. It's just--you can't wade into the life of a guy who's gone through what he's gone through and get a pretty story out of it. It's completely unrealistic, and trying for anything else will just have me eating my hair in the corner anyway. So I'm letting it get dark. 

Cross your fingers, huh?