Monday, October 17, 2016

The Road to NaNoWriMo 2016: Building Characters

One of the weaknesses that I've noticed in my writing comes from characterization: judging from the reviews that I've gotten for my books, it seems as if my characters don't seem to fall in line with the other beats of the story. I understand where this is coming from--in a way, it's a leftover from my days as a pantser--but even I have problems getting it right, even after several drafts.

I've tried using character interview sheets in the past, but I find that it makes the problem even worse; I feel like I have to answer so many questions that ultimately won't make it into my book, no matter how much work I put in to make them as vivid as possible in my mind. Besides, I don't have enough time to answer 50-100 questions about each and every character in my book if they're not going to be important in the first place.

I know, right? It's blasphemy. And it feels like lazy writing, but that's how I work.

Lately, I've tried a different tack on characterization, which I've picked up from both Rachel Aaron and K. M. Weiland during my struggles to finish my last manuscript. I've boiled down my character sheets into seven questions:

- Name
- Age
- Occupation
- Physical Description
- I like:
- I hate:
- More than anything, I want:

And for the lead characters, I add:

- The lie that I tell myself (click here for the explanation from Helping Writers Become Authors)
- The truth that will set me free (not exactly part of this article, but I used it as a jump-off point)

The thing is, because I was better at plotting than characterization, I could see a need for structure in terms of who my characters were and where they wanted to go in the story. Doing the character sheets in advance, therefore, was a way to reveal the baggage that everyone carried into the narrative.

For example: Christian, my dashing love interest, is one of those perfect specimens who can eat all the bacon that he wants and still look as hot and athletic as he was in high school. When I opened up the Excel spreadsheet for the plot, I found that his character development was out of sync with the hero's journey that my main character had to go through over the course of that fateful weekend at the beach. Enter the character sheet, where I wrote down all of my impressions of him (e.g. he likes gourmet food and hates cheap booze)--and I realized that I didn't understand what he did for a living. So I did my research and found information on internal auditors in the Philippines, who tend to start out in accounting firms before going into auditing. That was when I realized that he couldn't be an auditor at 27, though his goal is to be one someday. So I decided that he would have a job at his dad's accounting firm, which would give him the outward appearance of stability. That stability, then, became part of his lie: all his life he had always done the right thing, but he hadn't been rewarded for all of his good deeds, and he ended up losing the one he wanted because of his quest to be seen as the good guy. Thus, the truth that would set him free is the realization that just because he's "the good guy" doesn't mean that he has the power to get other people to see things his way. My challenge, therefore, is to make it clear to the reader that he genuinely wants this relationship with our girl, not out of penance or obligation, but because he sees someone with whom he can have his happily-ever-after. And the greatest obstacle to that goal is his need to be seen as "the good guy" who only does nice things. This means I'll have to write one hell of a grand gesture where he really has to grovel and make his intentions known to our heroine.

Even with the brevity of the questions, I still had difficulties coming up with sheets for all the other characters, especially since some of them have so little page time. (There's one character who only appears in one scene, but I had to draw up a sheet for him because his past affects everyone else in the story.) And yet, there are some surprises that emerged when I worked on them--especially the insidious secrets that they kept from each other that would end up changing everything if they were revealed. Why them? Why now? Who would end up getting hurt? And so on.

I had a lot of fun drawing up those sheets, though, so I was able to come up with a mini-reference for my characters. The visuals, on the other hand, would have to wait, since I'm running on limited data with my Internet plan (*waves fist at Smart*) and I want to use my library time for actual studying in the next two weeks. Since I'm working with Scrivener, however, I'll see if I can maximize the "research" function so I can build up my visual library for the book.

That said, the question still remains: Will I end up pantsing my character development anyway? Depends on what my characters tell me while I'm writing their story. Planning ahead means that they don't have time to be belligerent and lazy. The fact remains that they were the ones who told me the story first when I drew up the outline, so I have to remind them that I'm in charge. But I wouldn't mind discovering a little bit of character development while I'm writing the story, either, so let's see how it goes in November.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

ANNOUNCEMENT: Feels Fest 2016!

Note: I will be attending this event! Buy our books, get them signed, or just say hi! 

Romancing October: #romanceclass FeelsFest at Glorietta 5 

Buy some feels & listen to a little love at the #romanceclass FeelsFest on Saturday, October 22, at Glorietta 5 

Ghosts, skeletons, and cobwebs might be decorating the windows of shops these days, but why give in to fear when you can celebrate love in October? And why drown your sorrows and stress in beer at Oktoberfest when you can go on a rollercoaster of emotions at #FeelsFest? At least that’s what the folks from the #romanceclass community of authors and readers figure!

Mark your calendars: The #romanceclass #FeelsFest will be on October 22, 2016, at Glorietta 5 in Makati. Authors will be on hand to meet readers and sign books. They’ll be selling indie romance books—many of which you won’t find in your typical bookstore. There will also be games, giveaways, the launching of over 15 new titles published by indie authors just this month, a book donation drive for Ayala Malls’ Little Free Library, and the much-anticipated live readings!

In fact, #romanceclass live readings are show stealers, thanks to the feels delivered by actors invited to read excerpts from romance novels. Previous live readings have been punctuated with shrieks and sighs. #FeelsFest will mark the fifth official live reading event, the last one held just last month at the Manila International Book Fair. #FeelsFest will feature new live readings from #romanceclass books. (Visit to get the audio versions.)

 The #FeelsFest live readings will feature performances by Gio Gahol, Rachel Coates, Hervin Alvarez, and Gabriela Pangilinan. Expect to hear scenes from books by Mina V. Esguerra, Ines Bautista-Yao, and more.

“The #romanceclass community is all about encouraging each other to read, write, and publish books we love,” says author Mina V. Esguerra, whose books include Tempting Victoria, What You Wanted, and Iris After the Incident, all of which and more will be available for sale at the event. “#FeelsFest is our chance to give back to the community of readers and friends who’ve supported us. We get to have a little fun, and maybe meet some new people who love a good love story as much as we do.”

So if you like to hug your hugot close and are addicted to happy endings, drop by Glorietta 5 on October 22. Selling will begin when the mall opens, and the official program is scheduled for 2PM to 6PM.

For more information about #romanceclass, visit, where you’ll see a catalogue of the authors’ books along with other information about the community. #FeelsFest is brought to you by Ayala Malls.

Monday, October 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: If The Dress Fits, by Carla De Guzman

Martha Aguas kind of has it all--she's an accountant who loves numbers, an accident-prone puppy that loves her, and the perfect wardrobe. 

Yes, she wears a dress size 24, her bras don't fit and she's never had a boyfriend, but so what? 

It becomes a big deal when her perfect cousin Regina announces her engagement to Enzo, the only boy she's ever loved (he doesn't know, so don't tell him!) Suddenly Aguases from all corners of the globe are coming for the event, and the last thing Martha wants is to be asked why she still prefers her lattes with a waffle on the side. 

Thank god for Max. Goofy, funny, dependable Max, who finds himself playing the fake boyfriend at the family festivities. But why does it feel like only one of them is pretending?

Link: Amazon | Smashwords (releases October 15)
Print edition releases on October 22. Pre-order your copy here to pick it up at #FeelsFest in Glorietta 5 on release day!

(I have voluntarily received an advance copy from the author for this review.

The first word that comes to mind whenever I think of Carla De Guzman's writing is "delightful"--every moment is filled with humor, heart, and all sorts of swoon-worthy goodness that it's hard not to read her prose without a smile on your face. Before this book, I had only read her novella Marry Me, Charlotte B!, which took a complicated set-up (a wedding-planning business being filmed by a reality-television crew) and turned it into a romantic comedy with unforgettable characters and the best of San Francisco as a backdrop. With If The Dress Fits, however, the author brings us closer to home with a plus-sized heroine who can keep it together--or so she thinks--in a world that doesn't reward the "healthy"ones with the love and respect that they deserve. 

It's not that Martha is unhappy with her weight; unlike many "big and beautiful" heroines, she doesn't see her size as a hindrance to her success. Sure, she might have a complicated relationship with food, but for the most part she has never viewed her weight as a problem that must be solved. Besides, she had already lost her virginity in college to the handsome Enzo, never mind that they were both drunk at the time and she just wanted everything to be "over with" in no time. But she knew that Enzo was going to break her heart, so she left him the next morning and proceeded to carry a torch for him for the rest of her life. Imagine her shock, then, when she sees him at a meeting in her office--a pleasant surprise that she thinks has re-ignited the chemistry between them...until he proposes in public to her cousin, the beautiful and perfect-in-every-way Regina. 

Meanwhile, Martha also enjoys the company of Max, a veterinarian and serial dater who indulges in books. His friendship with Martha is one of the few constants in his life, and when Martha's nosy relatives start to see them together all the time, it's not hard for Martha to misdirect them by blurting out that Max is her boyfriend--and Max, ever loyal to Martha, is more than glad to play the charade with her. But the chemistry between Martha and Max is so palpable--even more so than her chemistry with Enzo--that when Max and Martha become lovers (in a romantic sex scene that's equal parts sweet and hot), you find yourself rooting for them as the endgame. And yet, Martha has to realize first what it means to fall in love:
I didn't recognize it at first, because I'd known love to be this slow, agonizing thing that was never returned. But this? This kind of love filled my heart with so much happiness that I wanted to laugh. 
More than the attentions of the two men in her life, Martha has to contend with her own issues with her career, and especially the scrutiny of her family. After all, she works for her father's accounting firm, and she has a gaggle of aunts (check out their fairy-tale names!) who can't for the life of them understand how someone her size can be confident in her own happiness--unlike Regina, who is pretty and perfect in every way possible. But no matter how happy she claims to be, there's still a nagging sense of insecurity that she couldn't name for sure: 
I know I'm supposed to "love my size," and I did. But forgive me for not being totally happy with it 24/7. I felt like I was still waiting for my life to begin, but my weight had nothing to do with that.
There are so many twists and turns throughout the story that will keep you reading until the end. I loved Martha's complicated relationship with her family, and the wise decision to not demonize Regina as a harpy in a pretty package. I also loved the fact that the conflicts were not set up for the sake of conflict, since they emerged and were resolved organically. What I appreciated the most about the story, however, was the portrayal of Martha's relationship with food as something that brought her pleasure. Food, in this book, is not presented as the enemy, but the way Martha eats is a metaphor for her refusal to let down her guard and show her true feelings. It's a good thing that Martha's problems weren't easily solved by diet and exercise alone, but the psychological ramifications of her eating habits seem to do more damage to her than what she actually eats. 

(And speaking of eating, there's a scene involving Martha's dog Bibi that would leave you hyperventilating. Suffice it to say that Bibi has eaten something that would lead to a life-and-death situation had Martha not had the wits to detect the problem in a timely manner.)

If The Dress Fits is a warm, satisfying story about one woman's realization of what it means to be worthy of love and respect. You'll find yourself cheering for Martha as she finds herself--and her happily-ever-after--in the most wondrous of ways. Go read it now! 


Monday, October 3, 2016

The Road to NaNoWriMo 2016: It's Live!

It's October! And I've already posted my novel on the NaNoWriMo website! Yay! [/waves pompoms]

Here's the synopsis, which I put together on Sunday afternoon when I was assembling my NaNo page:
Nine years ago, Kim Del Rosario suffered the worst humiliation of her life when Christian Mendiola abandoned her at the prom. So why can't she shake him off the moment that she literally runs into him on the way to dinner with their friends from high school? All she wanted was a chance to see their favorite English teacher again, but why did Christian have to come along for the ride? 
Over the course of a long weekend at a beach resort in Batangas, Kim finds herself getting drawn to Christian again, not just for his good looks but for the kindness and humor that has only grown better with age. But when the truth behind that fateful night resurfaces, will Kim be able to look at Christian the same way ever again?
I have to admit, it's a bit rough around the edges (this is what I get for writing under the influence of Choc-Nut pancakes) but I think this is enough to capture what I'm going to write all of November. That said, I'm a little bit nervous--not just because I'm spending the month going back and forth between novel prep and studying for my comprehensive exams, but because this is my first NaNo since I became a published writer. As I said in last week's entry, I'm doing things differently that I haven't done before in my writing career, and giving myself the whole month to write a complete rough draft (which is what it is, let's face it) is a challenge that I'm willing to take.

There's still a lot of work to be done, so check back every Monday to see how I'm doing in this journey. Let's do this! :)

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Road to NaNoWriMo 2016: Yes, I'm Outlining Now

Those of you who have read my interview on Jho Litonjua's blog may remember that I have mentioned writing with outlines. This is a departure from the way that I used to write, and it sounds like a betrayal whenever I mention what a big difference outlining has made in my writing.

You see, Save the Cake and Crushingly Close were both written without outlines, and no matter how much I tried to fit them into a neat semblance of a structure, I found that I just let the story go wherever it took me. And this system worked pretty well, for the most part, until I faced the editing stage for Crushingly Close and found myself unable to diagnose the problem areas that I needed to fix on top of the comments that I had already received from my beta readers. I wasn't satisfied with the story as a whole, so I ended up taking apart whole chunks of chapters and patching them together as best as I could. It wasn't until I managed to hand it over to my editor that I was able to fix the story.

The third manuscript--the one I finished two weeks ago--had an outline of sorts, but somewhere along the way (partly because of the academic and emotional stress that I was going through when I was first writing it) I lost my vision, and when it was time for me to complete it I didn't know where to pick up the pieces. So I turned to one of my writing manuals--Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris--and decided to pick apart the story down to the bare bones. From this book I picked up the suggestion of making a "structural survey" of scenes, character notes, and plot points which I have included in the story. Because I don't have enough space to lay down these details on index cards and Post-Its, however, I laid them out on an Excel spreadsheet, which gave me an idea of what went where and why. When I found that the spreadsheet system worked for me, it was easy for me to finish the draft.

Which made me think: look, I'm obviously going to be writing my fourth book in November, and I'm probably going to be an emotional mess depending on what happens to my comprehensive exams. Might as well have an outline ready, right?

I started out with the Contemporary Romance Novel Outline file that I tried (and failed) to use for Save the Cake, and this is what it looked like:

(Click to enlarge)

As you can see, this outline lays down the first part of a three-act structure, with questions about who the main characters are and where I place the kilig and conflict moments. But after my experience with the revisions for Crushingly Close, I realized that sticking to just three moments of romantic giddiness made my stories formulaic and stiff. I also realized that outlining my stories this way didn't leave enough room for me to write down the important subplots that I needed to write in. For this example, most of the focus was on the main character, Kim, and her relationship with her love interest Christian. But it doesn't adequately answer the question of how things got to be so tense between Kim and Christian. Yes, they knew each other in high school, and they're getting together for a reunion, but why are they getting together now, and who else is going to be involved? Not to mention that I'm the kind of writer who likes to introduce the other players off the bat before laying down their motivations further down the line. As it is, this was a nice starting point for who and where I want this story to go--but it's limiting, and it doesn't show me the big picture.

Enter Sheet 2 in the same document.

(Click to enlarge)

This is the spreadsheet version of Roz Morris' "cards game," where I jot down the tiny elements that I want in my story and arrange it into chapters. Don't let the spreadsheet format scare you; I find that writing down the details that I want into single cells helps me build the story scene by scene, chapter by chapter, until I have a skeleton of a story that I can consult once I start writing the manuscript in earnest come November. And I don't hold back on what I plug into that outline--there are plot twists, specific settings, and even bits and pieces of dialogue (not shown in this picture). The breakdown is scene-by-scene and chapter-by-chapter, but sometimes I find that there are times where I would have an insight and plug it into a cell that I can move around the spreadsheet. Then there are those scenes (especially the sexy and/or romantic ones, which usually spiral out of control anyway) which deserve their own chapters, so I cut and paste the rows. This is not to say that I'm going to write everything in order, but the outline gives me a picture of what it takes to go from beginning to end--and since I tend to write with the end in mind, I can use this outline to deal with chapters as I see fit, as opposed to waiting for the muse to strike whenever I try to write chronologically. Not to mention that this would come in handy when I finally set up the Scrivener file for the book so that I can organize the chapters into file folders right away.

The only other thing I can say about this outline is that it only gives a glimpse of characterization, which is a big challenge for me (more on that later). What it does map out, however, is character motivation, which helps the plot along by pitting characters against one another in every scene. Without establishing motivation, I'd be left with a plot that doesn't move smoothly or naturally, which would then affect everything else in the story--including pacing and dialogue.

So in conclusion, outlining is my way of saving myself precious time and effort in writing my books. I'm not saying it's for everyone--if you've succeeded in writing without an outline, that's great!--but if you're like me and you've found that pantsing gets you nowhere, why not try it out for yourself? At the very least, it can help you map things out for certain, and you can make it to "happily ever after" without the angst. And really, who doesn't want that?

Monday, September 19, 2016

MIBF and Beyond: Books, Books, and More Books

This is what my to-be-read pile looked like before this year's Manila International Book Fair:

Of these books, I've only finished How to Be Single; it was alright, but I don't think I'm cut out to read unromantic chick lit about neurotic single New Yorkers anymore. The Eliza Victoria was a recommendation that I've been meaning to purchase and read since forever, and so is Smaller and Smaller Circles. As for Stephanie Perkins, I've already purchased Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After, so I'm already anticipating some marathon reading for those three books.

(I also bought It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover, but after a few chapters I couldn't take the intensity. That one, I'm giving to my mom to read first so I can come back to it when the time's right.)

Anyway, let's talk about the MIBF! Last year I was there as an author, so I didn't have time to browse the shelves and buy anything for myself. This year, I had some time to kill before the #AllTheFeels live reading in the afternoon, so I decided to go around.

The view from this year's Visprint/Meganon booth. Save The Cake was still on the shelves, but I didn't get to sign them. Sorry!

Unfortunately, my phone died right before #AllTheFeels started, so I wasn't able to take pictures of the readings (shout out to Migs, Grae, Gio, and Gab, and all the featured authors) so you would have to rely on the #romanceclass social media accounts for that. But trust me when I say that everyone was into the intense feels brought on by hearing our favorite books being brought to life by talented actors, and I think we made more than our fair share of sales after the event. Yay #romanceclass!

(And for those of you who missed it, there will be #FeelsFest on October 22 at Glorietta 5. Will keep you posted on the exact times, because you won't want to miss it!) 

Going back to the book shopping, I went to Fully Booked because I knew I could snag a copy of The Little Prince on their shelves--and sure enough, they still had it in stock, along with several different editions. (There's an anniversary edition, a pop-up edition, and oh my gosh just let me get my copy I haven't read it yet--you get the picture.) Anyway, books were 20% off during the fair, so it wasn't hard to get The Little Prince for a little over P200. Then I kept seeing books, books, and more books everywhere...and when it came for me to stand in line (which I did for almost an hour) I ended up grabbing more books as I passed by the shelves. Here's what I ended up with: 

Of these books, I already read The Little Prince and The One Thing, which I read in succession because I didn't expect The Little Prince to be so heavy. (But it's a lovely book! I'm glad that I read it, and I'm glad that you liked this book too.) So here's a run-through of why I bought the other books:

- The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. My sister has read this book, and she has recommended it to me. I read the first few chapters of this one at Cool Beans (my usual Maginhawa haunt) and I liked it, so I decided to take this home with me.

- The Hidden Staircase, by Carolyn Keene: I bought this for the same reason that I bought Smaller and Smaller Circles -- it's a way for me to keep in touch with the side of me that has always wanted to write mysteries. I just haven't decided on how I'm going to approach the genre (cozy mystery? romantic suspense? YA/NA/contemporary?) so I thought I'd give it a try anyway.

- Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (damn spell check). Flow was one of the books that was recommended by Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist, but I didn't find that one on the shelves. And since I've already read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic several times, I thought I'd read a new take on the topic of creativity. Can't wait to sink my teeth into this one.

- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. My goal is to finish this book before the decade is over, since I have always failed to finish it whenever I borrowed this one from the Hawaii State Library. It's a toss-up between reading this and giving it to my mom for safekeeping, but more than likely I'll pick it up soon.

But wait, there's more!

- This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. This is another departure from the norm for me, since this one's literary fiction. It wasn't just the title and cover that caught my eye; my curiosity was also piqued by someone writing an #ownvoices take on love and loss. I'm not expecting a happy ending with this book, but that hasn't stopped me from making this my next read.

- David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. I've been a Gladwell fan since The Tipping Point, but I stopped after Outliers after everyone and their cousin started citing him from coming up with the "10,000 hours of practice" maxim. (It's not from him, apparently, but he has looked at the studies.) I did see What The Dog Saw, too, but I decided on this one instead because who doesn't like books about underdogs?

So that's my book haul for this year, so far. I think I might have met my quota because of the time and space constraints (ie. no shelves) but it doesn't look like this is the end of my new-found book addiction. And, hey, after all the studying I've been doing, it's good to feed the mind with something new. Until next year...or the next trip to the bookstore.

Monday, September 12, 2016

September Thoughts

I'm writing this at the tail end of a long weekend (Eid Mubarak!) so it feels right that I should write something about where I am, writing-wise.

The big news is that I did finish a manuscript over the weekend--something that I've been working on and off for more than a year, since I was doing it around the same time I was working on Crushingly Close. It's a rough draft right now, and I'm still ironing out details, but I'm looking at having it beta-read before the end of the year.

The only difference between this manuscript and the two books that I've already published? I'm submitting it to a publisher first.

You see, this was one of those books that I wrote under a writing class sponsored by a publishing house, and while I didn't meet the deadline for this particular class (mostly because of school), I wanted to make sure this one had a fair shot of getting published traditionally before I resume the process of self-publishing this. Does that mean I love this manuscript any more (or less) than any of the others? Not necessarily. I know that I'm taking a risk on this one by playing the waiting game for this story, but it's a risk that I'm willing to take.I know from experience that nothing is certain in publishing, which is why I've spent the rest of my writing time outlining new books.

The way I see it, I'm in a position right now where I can leverage my experience with the publishing industry here in the Philippines to take more chances by writing more stories and putting myself out there constantly. That doesn't mean that my risks are going to pan out--I already know that some of my books won't fit the market as I know it--but if I'm always working and putting myself out there, I can build a little career for myself, and people will get to know me as a writer worth reading.

Or maybe I'll just write whatever I want to entertain myself, and hope that I can share it with other people with the hope that they'll be entertained too. Because, really, what's the point of all this striving without having a little fun?

And that's what I'm going through with the outlining I'm doing for the new books. I'm having so much fun with them (mostly because they have nothing to do with my academics) that I feel like my writing mojo has come back. I want to write more books now, share more stories, make people smile. That doesn't mean the long-term things won't go away (e.g. editing, cover artists, publishing costs) but the fact that I'm playing around with plot bunnies on my downtime has given me a renewed enthusiasm for what I've been doing in the last three years. Plus, with NaNoWriMo around the corner, I'm excited to go back to my roots and remind myself why I've been writing in the first place.

I'm sure I'll think of more when I get there. But these are exciting times ahead, and I for one can't wait to see what's going to happen next.