Ménage à Trois is not my thing – Or, how this whole thing almost went off the rails before it got started.

Jenna Brett -- First bookGetting hired as a ghostwriter based on samples of previous work is one thing, actually writing a novel-length romance from outline (on a short deadline) is in a whole ‘nuther ballpark. For my own fiction work, I rarely do tight outlines. I might make a few notes if I get inspiration for some down-the-line plot turn – just so I don’t forget it later – but generally I prefer to let the story unfold and the characters gradually reveal themselves.

That is not how this game works.

What’s weirder still, is that Deborah (my author/boss), was in semi-crisis mode right out of the gates because she was three weeks from the publication date and her previous ghostwriter (who, oddly enough was a guy!) quit on her eight chapters into the 25 chapter book. That’s gotta suck.

Deborah sent me the outline for Chapters 9 through 20 and told me to get cracking. I reviewed the material, made a few assumptions, and began. Two thirds of the way into the first chapter I realized I was driving completely blind. I didn’t know who these people (my protagonists) were, and I had not the faintest idea why they were making the bad decisions I was being asked to lead them into. I stopped writing, emailed Deborah, and asked if she wouldn’t mind sending me Chapters 1 through 8 so I could catch up.

She sent them straight away with a fair amount of apology for what was and was not there.

As soon as I began reading I realized a few things. The first was that Ghostwriter #1 was not a very good writer. His copy was rife with typos and bad structure. He didn’t even bother to format the manuscript for copy editing or publication. In short, the text was a mess. But that’s the least of it.

Generally speaking, Copywriter #1 did not have a high opinion of women. Every female character in the story was a shallow “player” of one variety or another. The main female character was written as the nastiest, most un-redeemable brat I’ve ever encountered in fiction. (I have met a few like her in real life, but that’s another topic for another day.) To get an image of this protagonist, think Lydia Bennett from Pride and Prejudice (the narcissistic sister with no self-discipline or appreciation for anything, who gets sold to Mr. Whitcomb for way too much money), with a high IQ, and even shorter temper, and probably a mental health condition approaching bi-polar disorder.

And she was the sympathetic lead female in the story. The peripheral females ranged from almost demon-possessed levels of evil cunning to vapid drunks. Not a lot to work with there.

The last point (and it’s worth observing); Copywriter #1’s last chapter, written from the point of view of the female lead, contained the first sex scene in the book. (A little late for my taste, but who am I to judge?) Reading this scene was like reliving the first time I had sex. It was excruciating. It was awkward. It was embarrassing. It hurt me to read it. It was not what is expected from a steaming hot romance novel. And it certainly wasn’t conceived from the perspective of a woman. It was clear to me that Ghostwriter #1 was so far beyond his depth in that material that he choked on it, and then ran like a scared rabbit.

(In Ghostwriter #1’s defense, he did write funny very well. He threw in some hilarious quips that I could not have contrived in a hundred years. Humor is hard to do. I can rarely do it well or consistently. When humor works, it can make an average story sing like a chorus of angels.)

So there I am, with an outline burning a hole in my monitor, two main characters that are not terribly likable (not even believable), and a plot that doesn’t quite make sense to me yet. I could have over-thought it. I could have freaked out. Instead, I just put my head down, closed my eyes, and imagined what the setting in that first scene I had to write looked like. I smelled the air. I noted the temperature. I saw the color of the walls in the room, and what decorations hung on them. I found my character’s first emotion, then her next one. The words came and in just a moment, I was rolling.

For the most part I averaged two, 2000-word chapters per day. I wrote them at night after work and then proofread and edited them the following morning when I woke up. The hardest part for me was writing present tense, first person. I’ve never written in that tense, and I often slipped into past tense when I really fell into the story. That’s easy enough to fix and I caught most of these slips in my edit rounds.

On the whole, Deborah’s feedback was incredibly positive and affirming throughout the project. That made it even easier to do the work and be myself inside it, rather than second-guessing my process.

I finished my required chapters well ahead of the deadline. Needless to say I lost some sleep along the way. When I was done, I offered to go back and try to edit my voice and the character’s evolved depth into the old chapters written by Ghostwriter #1. Deborah told me to “have at it”. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot to fix, but I did my best.

After my part was done (with eight days to go before the planned publication date), I went back and re-read the entire thing, beginning to end, looking for egregious errors in plot points, timelines, etc. I sent my notes to Deborah. She informed me that she added a couple chapters in the middle (between mine and Ghostwriter #1), just to ease the transition. That worried me, but her pen name is on this thing, not mine, and she’s done this before.

When my part of the project was completed, Deborah paid me as per our contracted rate, and tipped me handsomely for beating the deadline and helping with editing/rewrites.

Then all went quiet for almost five days.

The insecure writer in me wondered if she finally got around to reading my work and was so horrified she never wanted to speak to me again. I sat on my hands and waited (patience isn’t a strong suit when it comes to work feedback).

During the time that Deborah went quiet, I know she was dealing with getting the book cover finalized, professional copy editing for the manuscript, then formatting the thing for eBook and print. She had to set up marketing programs and send out emails to her list of subscribers offering Advance Reader’s Copies for review. There was a ton of work for Deborah to do to get ready for the book’s launch. I wish I could have helped, but not my wheelhouse.

I got a note from Deborah on a Monday morning, notifying me that the book had gone live on Amazon. I popped over and found it. I hated the cover, and the blurb, but was amazed to see that in just a few hours live it already had 20-something positive ARC reviews. I was impressed.

The book debuted on Amazon’s “Paid in Kindle Store” list at 135,000+/- on that Monday. On the following Tuesday it had climbed to 800 and was in triple digits in select categories like romance>crime, romance>military, etc. The reviews were 90% 5-stars, with the balance at 4-stars, and one 3-star that pointed out a glaring plot mistake that I had caught and reported weeks earlier. (Pissed me off!) On the third day the book shot up to 200-something, and broke into the top 10 in the most important sub-categories for the genre. Our reviews were still super-strong, with a few ego-boosting comments like “first few chapters were rough, but after that it was well-written exciting, and unputdownable” (Yay!). One reviewer wrote that the sex scenes were “Kindle-melting”. I’m gonna use that one day on my resume.

The most amazing thing happened on the fifth day after launch, going into the weekend. The book broke the Top 100 for eBooks on Amazon, and made the Top 10 in Romance. By then we had hundreds of positive reviews, almost 80% of them going 5-stars and lauding the writing quality. Deborah was thrilled. She told me this book had done better than any of her previous ones, and she would begin to turn a profit on it beginning that Friday.

Cool. I feel like I deserve credit for a small part of that.

Here are my postmortem observations on this first project:

– Three-ways don’t work. Ghostwriter #1’s crap should have been scrapped altogether, replaced, with a week or so delay in the publication deadline to allow for seamless prose and adequate copy editing.

– It takes a lot of time, hard work, hands-on attention, and MONEY to get 200+ ARC reviews in the first week of launch. I need to learn how Deborah accomplished this. I know it can be bought, but at what price? Clearly it’s worth it if she’s breaking even after five days.

– My author knows what she’s doing. If I have any hope of ever doing this for myself, I need to sit back, observe, write well, and ask questions. I need to do as she has done and start laying the foundations of an author’s platform, developing a network of readers and fans who will support my work. That’s REALLY hard to do when you can’t tell anyone what you’ve written, but this blog/website is my start.

– This thing of writing trashy romance novels, it’s not for rank amateurs. 🙂 Anyone who say’s it is, can kiss my ****.

4 thoughts on “Ménage à Trois is not my thing – Or, how this whole thing almost went off the rails before it got started.”

  1. I’m not sure if it would make me excited to see all that success, or make me super-bummed that I couldn’t tell anyone I WROTE THIS, PEOPLE! But at the very least, you have the satisfaction of knowing you did a great job, and that “your” half of the book was the one people liked most.

    1. Never fear Lynda — I am having a blast doing this. And the success of the first project has motivated me to think long term about my own work. I need to learn quite a bit about the marketing/promotion end of things. I won’t take credit for any of that. Deborah got the book in people’s hands and opened to the first page. That’s more than 80% of the work, right there.

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