Workshops by CJ
CJ gives several workshops each year. Please browse through the descriptions of the current workshops on her desk (click on any title to jump to the workshop description). Interested in bringing CJ to your event to give a workshop? She'd love to come. Simply contact her for availability.
> So You Want To Write a Romance Novel?
> Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...
(a study of long contemporary romance novels with a focus on subplots)
> Why Should I Care?
> The Bestseller Under Your Bed
See what CJ currently has scheduled on her calendar.
So You Want To Write a Romance Novel?
(45 minutes to 1 hour presentation)
Writing a romance novel is a dream of many people. This is an introductory workshop for those who share this dream. C.J. will share tips that she wishes she had known when she started her own career.
She begins with an overall look at the market, discussing the wide range of books available, moving on to a discussion of the core qualities of all romances. The remainder of the workshop focuses on the basics of good storytelling: Characterization; Point of View; Plotting and Conflict, and instructions on how to submit your manuscript to an editor.
The workshop concludes with a list of 8 concrete steps you can take realize your dream of writing a romance novel.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...
(a study of long contemporary romance novels with a focus on subplots)
(45 minutes to 1 hour presentation with quiz)
In this workshop we look at the substantive differences between short and long contemporary romance novels. Using C.J.’s Long Contemporary Quiz, participants can gauge whether their current project has the qualities and the depth required for long contemporary romance.
In the second half of the workshop participants will study subplots. The right subplot becomes an integral part of a story—the wrong one drags it down. How can you use subplots to best advantage in your own work? And how can you avoid the common pitfalls that lead to rejection letters from editors?
Why Should I Care?
(45 minute – 1 hour presentation)
How do you hook readers quickly into your story and keep their interest—even through the sagging middle?
C.J. believes that there are several magical ingredients to storytelling. One of them is “connections.” When an author builds “connections” into her story, she is also making a connection with her reader.
Discover what C.J. means by “connections” and why they can make your story come alive to readers, Learn how connections create riveting opening scenes, build reader involvement in your story, help with pacing and create unforgettable settings.
The Bestseller Under Your Bed
(This can be either a 1 hour presentation or a half-day workshop with exercises)
We have all heard stories about writers who, once published, dust off old, rejected manuscripts, revise them a little or a lot, then publish them to great acclaim. This workshop is designed to help aspiring authors answer two questions. Is the manuscript under your bed a potential bestseller? If so, what do you need to do to make an editor fall in love with it?
Since it can take as much effort to revise a manuscript that isn’t working as to write a completely new book, it’s important for a writer to allocate her time wisely. In this workshop C.J. will discuss how to analyze an editor’s rejection letter, and how to tell if a rejected manuscript contains the seeds of a terrific book. She’ll help you decide what to save and what to let go, and how to build your book to its peak potential.
(This workshop will be of most benefit to those writers who have a rejected or stalled manuscript of their own.)
Best Supporting Role in a Novel goes to...The Subplot
What is a subplot?
A subplot is a sequence of events that impact the outcome of a story and at least one of the main characters while remaining of secondary importance to the main plot.
If subplots had feelings, they’d probably be slightly hurt. Readers don’t often put down a much-loved book and say, “Wow, that was a great subplot!” And why not? After all, a subplot has everything that a novel’s main plot has...only less.That’s right—less. A clever author isn’t going to weaken her story by making the subplot more interesting than the plot. The plot gets the most words, the best twists, the more sympathetic characters, the high-stake conflict. No wonder our poor subplot ends up with an inferiority complex.Yet, the right subplot can elevate a good story to the sublime. (Just think of all that Jane and Bingley add to Pride and Prejudice. Without these characters and their romance, it wouldn’t be the same book, at all.) When the author gets it right, subplots add depth and complexity and meaning to the main plot. But beware: the wrong subplot can do terrible harm, weighing down pacing and destroying the unity of the story.We don’t want that to happen to our books! So let’s review the basics of subplotting.
Sometimes telling a story is a relatively straightforward matter of introducing main characters and a compelling dilemma and letting the action run from there. At other times, our stories branch out like trees. We begin with our main story idea (the trunk) but find ourselves splitting off with one or two or more story ideas that are related to the main idea, yet different, too.
The sequence of events in a subplot must contain:
- A dramatic central problem or conflict
- Turning points
These branches—part of the tree and yet separate—are subplots. Though they will not command the dramatic attention of the main plot they have all the same elements.
For example: let’s say we wanted to write a story about a woman who gave up a child for adoption when she was a teenager. Our heroine is a schoolteacher now, in her mid-thirties, and unmarried. She wants a child more than anything—but worries she has lost her chance.
Enter a pretty, teenaged girl, a top student with a hunky boyfriend. She finds out she’s pregnant and decides to confide in her trusted teacher—our heroine. This secondary character and her plight, represent our subplot. Both she, and our heroine, face their own personal dilemmas.
Later in our story we will give them turning points. Our heroine will have a chance to marry someone she doesn’t love, but who’s willing to have a child with her. The teenager’s boyfriend may put pressure on her to have an abortion. Our plot is thickening...
Eventually we will reach the story climax. Let’s say the teenaged girl’s boyfriend tries and force his girlfriend to have that abortion by threatening her teacher. With her life in jeopardy, our heroine finally realizes what’s really important to her—and it happens to be the man she married and the baby she’s carrying.
Resolution occurs when the girlfriend defies her boyfriend and phones her parents for help. The parents contact the heroine’s husband who tracks her down and helps rescue her. Our heroine’s baby is born early because of the trauma...but both mom and baby are fine. A happy ending for all.
Criteria for Subplots—how to make them work
Rules for using subplots:
- The subplot must involve one or more of the main characters
- The subplot must occur within the time frame of the main plot
- The characters and events in the subplot must impact the characters and events of the main plot
What if you have written a short romance story and want to revise it--by adding another 30,000 words or so--into a long contemporary. My advice in this situation is: tread carefully. The solution is not as simple as adding a little “mini-story” or subplot, to fill out the pages.
Are these rules etched in stone? Perhaps not. But if you want readers to empathize with your main characters, if you want them to be lost in the story and not jarred by inexplicable shifts in focus, then you would be wise to make sure your subplots conform with these standards.
Let’s look at the example we developed earlier. The subplot involves our heroine (she’s the teenaged girl’s confident) and so we meet the first criteria. The heroine and the teenaged girl’s dilemmas occur within the same time frame in the story, so we meet the second criteria, too. Finally, events of the subplot do impact the main plot, as we see when the teenaged boyfriend threatens the heroine at the climax of the story. Hurrah--our subplot meets all three criteria!
Subplots Strengthen the Main Plot
If your subplot doesn’t make the main story stronger—why would you write it in the first place? If your answer is because you need an extra 20-30,000 words to make your book the right length—think again. Like a great supporting actor or actress, the best subplots work to the advantage of the main plot. They do this in several ways:
- A subplot can emphasize (by reflecting or contrasting) the theme and conflict of the main plot. In our example, both plot and subplot examine the effect of pregnancy on a woman at different stages of her life. What may be unwanted, possibly even traumatic, at one age, becomes something desperately treasured at another.
- Subplots add depth to the main characters. As writers, we can tell the readers that our heroine went through an unwanted pregnancy when she was younger. But by introducing a subplot involving a pregnant teenager, we give our heroine a chance to revisit that experience and make it real to the reader. Our subplot allows us to convert the abstract into the concrete.
- Subplots provide story events that feed into the main plot, enabling the reader to be interested in the story on many levels. She wants to find out if the heroine achieves her dream of love and a family of her own. But she also cares about the teenaged girl. She wants the girl to be free to make her own choice about her pregnancy—not to have her hand forced by an overly controlling boyfriend.
- Just as a weaver blends colors to make one pleasing fabric, so can the writer combine scenes involving plot/subplot (or both) in order to create a memorable story. In successful storytelling, whether you have a subplot or not, the goal is to create rising tension. When you have subplots, you have one more tool at your disposal to achieve this. Thus, at a moment of quiet reflection in your main plot, you may turn to rising action in your subplot to build the desired level of intensity into your story.
A writer can also manipulate the mood of the story by shifting from plot to subplot. For instance, a serious drama may be lightened by having a disarmingly amusing subplot. Or...the writer may wish to heighten the drama with an equally serious subplot.
These things are not subplots
While obviously I’m a fan of subplots—almost all my stories have them—I concede that a story can be wonderful without them. Sometimes a long, engaging read will seem as if it must have at least one if not more subplots. This is not always the case. You can make a story feel “bigger” using techniques such as multi-plotting, story framing and plot complications. Just make sure you understand which technique you choose—and why.
Multi-plotting: a story contains several separate stories, that run parallel to each other, but without the sort of connections that would make one a plot and the others subplots. The various stories in a multi-plotted book must be related in some fashion—or why would the author have lumped them together?
The movie, Love, Actually, is an excellent example of a multi-plotted story. The 8 separate stories in this movie are variations on the common theme of love. Relationships between the characters cross story borders, however, each story exists independently of the others.
Multi-plotting is not common in romantic fiction where readers want to make an emotional commitment to one or two main characters. In this case, secondary romances are most commonly treated as subplots to the main romance, rather than as independent stories.
Story Framing: The Titanic is an example of a story that is told with the use of a story frame. The movie opens and closes in the point-of-view of an old woman who is telling the story of the love of her life. A story frame is a structure for containing the story, and does not have the elements of a subplot.
Plot Complications: Finally, there are some books that are so long and complicated and emotionally rich that it seems they must contain several subplots. However, rich details, plot complications, even an extended cast of secondary characters, do not a subplot make.
Unless the story has a secondary conflict, with turning points, a climax and resolution, it does not have a subplot. Many taut, exciting suspense novels achieve their length and mainstream feel, not through the use of subplots, but because of the complicated nature of the main plot.
Beware the following Pitfalls:
Don’t let yourself become so enamored of your subplots that they steal the story. You know this is happening when the subplot issues and characters begin to occupy a larger percent of manuscript pages than the main plot! Or when the scenes that are the most exciting to read are those involving the subplot.
Cures for the dominating subplot are simple to explain, but unfortunately, not so simple to implement. The obvious solution is to increase the dramatic intensity of your main plot. But what if you do this, and the subplot still seems to dominate? In this case, it may be necessary to take some of the more dramatic scenes and move them off-stage (so that the reader is told what happened, rather than showed.) This may seem to run counter to the usual adage to always show rather than tell, but remember your first loyalty is to the story as a whole. If a heavy subplot is throwing the story off balance, then it needs to be trimmed back.
In a story where subplots have been successfully integrated with the main plot, the shifting of action between plot and subplot happens smoothly. The reader feels as if each scene transition is natural. She isn’t jarred out of the story, yet at the same time, enjoys the variety provided by the subplot activity.
What do you do if your subplots are not flowing smoothly—if they are, in fact, disrupting the flow of your story? Start by examining the connections between the main plot and the subplots. Is there a real need for this subplot in your story? If not, perhaps you need to modify the characters’ goals/conflict to make for a better fit. Or maybe what you really need to do is make your main plot more complicated and simply delete the subplot.
Okay, you’ve written your story and you’ve included one or more subplots. How can you know if you’ve done a good job of integrating the parts into one cohesive whole? Ask yourself this: could you remove the subplot of your story without affecting the main plot of your story?
If the answer is yes—you’ve got a problem. A subplot should be so connected to the main plot that one can’t exist without the other. The more connections between the two, the more meaningful the entire story becomes to the reader.
If the answer is no—you’ve got a winner! Your subplot may never get the top-billing it secretly desires, but your story will be all the stronger as a result.
Published June 2005 in Romance Writer’s Report (posted: November 15, 2005)