A Session with Steven Manchester
Let’s cut right to the chase, shall we? If you’re writing a love story, then you’ve read stacks of love stories or you haven’t really done your homework, have you? Most writers pen the stories they enjoy reading or—more precisely—the stories they wish they’d read.
Before I even tried my hand at writing a love story, I asked myself: How many love stories have been written throughout history? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? So is there anything new for me to tell? Of course there is, I decided. The world has never read a love story from my perspective, a tale from my original and unique voice. And the same holds true for you.
Upon giving it more thought, I also realized that even if I was at the very top of my game, the most inspirational love story needs more than long stares, sweaty palms, and the sudden adrenaline rush of a first kiss. It needs purpose. It needs direction. It needs a bigger theme. That’s right, a bigger theme.
Fast forward five years, and I’ve written two full-length love stories, Pressed Pennies and Gooseberry Island. Although both novels fall squarely within the romance genre, trust that that’s only a mask. In reality, both novels are about much bigger themes “wrapped” within sweet love stories that help to carry their bigger messages along.
The easiest and best way for me to explain this concept is to take you back to my drawing board and walk you through my process. As a practical example, let’s take a close look at my novel, Gooseberry Island.
Beginning the Process
At the birth of Gooseberry Island’s concept, this was my exact thought: I really need to write a book about the servicemen and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan; how some have been physically injured, while most have been broken—both emotionally and spiritually. (Note that I used the word need, which is how I feel about all of my books—or I’m not sure I’d spend the time and effort). Suddenly, I had my message: Tell a story about America’s war heroes returning home in unimaginable pain.
The next question I posed to myself: So how do I deliver that message? How do I tell the story? Then the wheels started turning faster. What if… (Trust that there are no two words more valuable in the English language when beginning to storyboard your book). What if I create a young protagonist (David)—an Army Ranger—who is preparing to ship out overseas to Afghanistan…and what if he meets the girl of his dreams (Lindsey) the night before he ships out? Ahhh, there it is—the birth of a love story.
Next, I spend as much time as it takes to fully develop my main characters. Although it’s become cliché, it’s still true: the better developed your characters are, the more they’ll be able to tell your story for you.
David McClain is a soldier; a modern-day American patriot who believes in honor, loyalty and commitment to duty. He also recognizes that there is a big hole in his life that can only be filled with a woman’s love. Although he’s a bit of an idealist, he is preparing to see what the real world has to offer—war.
Lindsey Wood is a kind and considerate woman who has played caretaker to her suffering father—a Vietnam Veteran with PTSD. She is a loyal friend who still believes that true love exists, even though her love life has proven otherwise so far.
Here’s an excerpt from Gooseberry Island, portraying one of the main characters:
Within minutes, David’s legs and his breathing picked up pace. He was just starting to find his rhythm when a pretty woman—a brunette with a fit body—appeared in the distance. She was walking a Golden Retriever on the approach. With David’s labored breath building, they finally got close enough to offer each other a smile. David traveled another ten feet toward the girl when a seagull landed on the sand between them. Suddenly, the dog took off after it. David couldn’t slow his momentum and tripped over the leash. To his instant humiliation, he was catapulted onto the sand.
The attractive brunette tried to conceal her laughter. David looked up, angry, and his initial reaction was to verbally lash out. His mind quickly changed, though, when he looked into her chocolate brown eyes. She was smiling. He returned it, and then pointed at the dog. “Maybe you should try feeding him dog food,” he teased.
“I am so sorry!” she said. “Please, let me help you up.”
While she struggled to take control of the leashed dog, she offered David her other hand. He took it and stood. His breathing was still labored. A moment passed before she giggled and looked down at her hand. He was still holding it. She shook David’s hand. “Nice to meet you too,” she said. “I’m Lindsey Wood.”
David caught the joke and blushed. He pulled his hand away in embarrassment. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, smiling. “I’m David…David McClain.”
As he brushed himself off, the two locked eyes and remained there for an extended moment. “Well,” he managed past the lump in his throat, “thanks.” She’s really cute, he thought, but immediately changed his mind. No, she’s beautiful.
Exercise 1 Take a pad pf paper and write down the full names of your main characters, and then describe them using all five senses; what do they look like—in detail? What does their voice sound like (perhaps revealing something from their past)? What do they smell like (coffee, peppermint, body odor, etc.)? Now once you have these characteristics down, begin to detail their personalities…
I spend a great deal of time creating three-dimensional characters, filled with flaws and feelings and hopes for the future. I build and build until I know them as well as I know members of my own family or friends. And once I know them that well, I know exactly how they’ll act and react to most situations. I say most because even the most detailed characters will surprise you as their story unfolds (given that you allow yourself to share the reins with them).
Once I’m confident I have the right folks in place to tell my story—and, as an added bonus, that they’re destined to fall in love—it’s time to start framing the story’s plot.
It’s important to point out that the word working is there for good reason. Your plot will surely get tweaked multiple times before you lock it down. Here’s where I started:
“David and Lindsey meet and fall in love (with David being tentative toward trusting and letting himself go because of painful family experiences). David then heads off to war (to prove some things to himself), where he witnesses great human pain—and the internal war is waged. Throughout his time there, the only saving grace for him is Lindsey’s love (their separate experiences will unfold in the narrative, and then be shared with each other within letters and video conferences; their love growing more deeply as time goes on). David returns home visibly whole, but he must contend with his invisible demons. Before he can heal and be truly happy, he discovers that he must completely let go. In the end, he finds his refuge and peace in Lindsey, and the incredible love they share. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Lots of romance, with some emotional twists and turns.”
Exercise 2 On a new sheet of paper, start working out your plot. Don’t concern yourself with the details yet; just describe (for yourself) what your story is all about. Spend the next few days (weeks) reading this paragraph and letting it simmer your mind. It won’t take long before you’re already adding and tweaking and making changes. Each time you edit this working plot, start with a new sheet of paper. It’s an inspirational experience when your plot evolves into a story you can’t wait to write.
Once you have a solid plot, it’s time to start storyboarding. This is where you outline or frame your novel (love story). For years, I skipped this critical step in the process—only to later discover that storyboards save more time than you can imagine. Mapping out your route before you start the journey makes for a much more efficient and enjoyable ride.
Although the storyboard creates a meandering road in which to keep your storyline rolling along, it also provides you with the order and discipline needed to get the story written. Without it, many writers start one place and never end up anywhere. Keep the storyboard loose, but be sure to keep it.
Initial Storyboard for Gooseberry Island
The novel will be written in third-person narrative. It is a great love affair between David McClain and Lindsey Wood (central to the plot)…
1st third of the novel:
The novel will open with David McClain having a dream (about finding his soul mate); he awakens and proceeds to the shoebox that holds his mother’s (now deceased) letters to him. He reads one; about the secrets of a woman’s heart.
David is staying with his miserable father, the man who raised him using negative reinforcement (i.e., “You’ll never add up to anything” sort of thing)
Hell-bent to prove his father wrong, David has excelled in the US Army; and he’s now on leave before being sent to Afghanistan as a sniper.
David’s military training (depicted in a brief flashback, and setting the scene for brief post-war flashbacks later on) leads him to the present.
David goes out on a date with a shallow girl, and ends the night early.
The following morning, after exchanging dialogue with Captain Eli—a wise, old sea captain—David takes a run on the beach, and runs into Lindsey Wood. After a brief talk.
Lindsey watches David do something kind for someone and is clearly intrigued by him.
Lindsey returns home (happy) to find her father suffering terribly from PTSD flashbacks from Vietnam, and brings him to the VA hospital.
On the eve of his departure, David’s friend Coley throws him a going-away party:
Lindsey Wood attends, and their encounter is very powerful.
Lindsey reveals that she and her long-time boyfriend have recently parted ways “…because he cheated…though he swears it was the worst mistake he’s ever made.”
David replies, “I guess some people can make those kind of mistakes. But I could never do that to someone I love.” He doesn’t say this to be cruel; he’s just being honest.
At the end of the night, David kisses Lindsey, saying, “It figures that I met you now…the night before I ship out for a year…”
Lindsey says, “I can’t start a relationship now.”
David teases, “So you think being a pen pal is a risky relationship…”
She gives him her contact information. “Here’s my address. If you write me, I’ll write back.”
David is smitten with this girl, but he rushes home to see his father. When he gets there, he finds the old man sleeping on the couch. David thinks, He’ll already be off to work before I get up and he couldn’t even wait up to say good-bye. He then revisits his mother’s letter about a woman’s heart, thinks about Lindsey, smiles.
In the morning, there is a note on the kitchen table. It reads, Keep your head down –Dad; David places it into his pocket, grabs his duffel bag and heads for the door.
Lindsey awakens and sits up in bed, thinking about David and praying that he’ll stay safe.
2nd third of the novel (focused on love story):
David is stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he spends the vast majority of his time lying on a roof top in the prone position, watching the world through the cross hairs of a sniper’s scope.
Although David requests the green light to shoot on several occasions, his requests are denied. Instead, he lays there for 11 months, helplessly watching as one human atrocity after the other unfolds.
David’s limited viewpoint will be used as a metaphor for his thinking.
Being alone for 16 hours each day leaves lots of time for his thoughts to wander into the darkness (i.e., why did Mom have to die so young?; why is the old man such a bastard?; why the hell am I even here?) as well as the light (i.e., I wonder what Lindsey is doing right now?)
The only light in his dark world are the letters/exchanges that he shares with Lindsey—and in the thick darkness, he falls in love with her.
When he shares with Lindsey, the reader will see that he’s less than truthful, and does not depict the hell he’s observing every day.
The real war for David is waged within his heart and mind—followed by their physical effects (depression & anxiety).
One month before shipping home, David receives word from the Red Cross that his father was killed during a work accident, and that there will be no service—just a cremation followed by a private burial.
David is confused by the overwhelming emotions he feels; first, that his father is dead (He was a bastard, but at least he was always there), but more that he didn’t have the chance to face the man and tell him what he thinks.
Lindsey must contend with her father, and the fact that her mother left them both—leaving her to take care of the broken man (there will be a few scenes with the old veteran going through hell, and her watching/trying to help).
She exchanges various communications with David, and begins really falling in love with him (though she feels torn because she knows it will be painful to love another soldier).
At one point, Lindsey’s ex-boyfriend appears and tried to win her back. She considers this—even takes several steps toward it—but realizes that it’s a mistake and that she truly cares for David; a man she’s only just met.
In time, Lindsey surrenders to the fact that she loves David.
Final third of the novel (David and Lindsey’s love affair at the center, tying it all together):
David returns home to a hero’s welcome—though he feels like anything but a hero.
David is suffering from PTSD (which he initially rejects and must come to terms with)
Lindsey is the child of a PTSD victim and isn’t sure she can hang in there with David.
After losing a friend (fellow soldier) to suicide, David drinks and drives, getting into an auto accident that nearly ends his life.
This is the turning point when David agrees to get help (to heal from war); it’s also the point when Lindsey realizes how much she loves David.
Besides healing from war, the novel will taking a turn toward the positive and romantic… (you get the idea without me giving the ending away)
Exercise 3 You guessed it—begin framing your storyboard. Start with your developed characters and working plot. Don’t rush this process. The more time (and detail) you spend on the storyboard, the more time you’ll save during the writing process.
Write the Book
Your characters are developed; you know them—really know them. Your storyboard has been developed. It’s time to write your novel.
After multiple drafts, the help of several beta readers and the firm but gentle hand of my trusted and brilliant editor, Gooseberry Island cost me eight months to complete. It took a lot of hard and satisfying work, but I suddenly had a romance novel on my hands; a story with a much bigger theme than just two characters falling in love.
Here’s another brief excerpt from Gooseberry Island:
After David babbled on about the details of his recent missions—careful to leave out anything that might be disturbing—the conversation eventually slowed and touched on several random topics.
Finally, Lindsey returned to the one and only subject that they both wanted to discuss. “David, before you have to go I want to tell you…I’m trying really hard to keep myself in check and not let myself get too carried away with you,” she said.
“And how’s that working out?” he asked, smiling.
“Not good,” she admitted. “There are so many things I wish I could share with you right now, but I know I can’t. Well, not yet anyway.”
“We will,” he whispered.
“It’s not easy, but I really am trying to keep things in perspective.” She stopped, staring at him for a few moments. “I know you can’t make me any promises and I understand that, but it’s not easy trying to pretend that I don’t miss you like crazy… wishing I could be with you right now.”
“It’ll be worth the wait,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sure of it! In the meantime, I want to be able to share everything I’m thinking and feeling with you without putting any pressure on you. That’s not my intention. I’m just trying to follow my heart and believe that we’ll have a chance. We have to.”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t feel any pressure at all,” he said. “Trust me, I appreciate the openness between us and I want you to share everything with me. I want to know everything, so please don’t ever hold back with me. As I’ve said before, my biggest fear is our timing. I just don’t want anything to happen that’ll jeopardize a real chance of us being together. Please trust that I want you at least as much as you want me. I think about you non-stop and…”
“…and I realize it hasn’t been all that long since we met, but I’ve grown to really care for you, Lindsey.”
Write the Book’s Synopsis
Now that you’ve written your love story, you need to be able to describe it in four or five sentences; this will be one of the book’s primary marketing tools—from pitching agents and publishers to hooking new readers—and should be written immediately following the completion of the novel.
Here’s Gooseberry Island’s synopsis from the back cover of the book:
They met at the worst possible moment…or maybe it was just in time. David McClain was about to go to war and Lindsey Wood was there at his going-away party, capturing his heart when falling for a woman was the last thing on his mind. While David was serving his country, he stayed in close contact with Lindsey. But war changes a person, and when he came home very little had the same meaning that it had before – including the romance that had sustained him. Was love truly unconquerable, or would it prove to be just another battlefield casualty?
Exercise 4 That’s right—write the book’s synopsis while the story is fresh and the characters are still intimate in your mind. Dust off your original working plot and storyboard, and begin there. By now, you’ll be able to polish four or five sentences—detailing your amazing love story—until they shine bright enough to catch anyone’s attention.
I’ve always believed that a good writer can make a reader think, while a great writer makes his or her reader feel. Writing a love story is one of the best opportunities to attain greatness as a writer. However, to make your story a truly memorable one, you’d better aspire to a bigger plot line than the simple, “Boy meets girl, they fall in love…and live happily ever after.” You’d better create challenges; opportunities for growth—a complex plotline worth reading.
When writing your love story, be as true to life as possible; it’s the only way your readers will relate to you. In reality, true love stories are beautiful, but they’re hardly perfect—or even neat and tidy. When aiming for the heart with your pen, be sure to take a believable path. Essentially, write a novel wrapped within a love story; a sweet or lustful romance that will act as your vehicle to move the real story along—hopefully at a page-turning pace.
About the Author…
Steven Manchester is the author of the #1 bestseller Twelve Months, Goodnight, Brian, The Rockin` Chair, and several other books. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Three of Manchester’s short stories were selected “101 Best” for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. StevenManchester.com