I had one overarching goal for my second romance novel: improve my craft. If I’m going to try to compete for readers’ hard-earned book budget dollars, I need to constantly work on upping my game.
Not that I meant it as a competition in any way vs. my debut. My first romance, Like Jazz, was an anomalous offering my Muse dropped into my lap during a week on Kauai. En route, I jotted ideas in a notebook and took my sweetheart through the plot during our initial walk on the island. I unexpectedly turned that vacation (sorry, honey!) into a writing retreat, spending my days on our lanai overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean, typing on my laptop, my fingers acting as a conduit to a story that wouldn’t leave my head. Like a gift, the words flowed, and I wrote 8,000-9,000 words per day—every day—that week!
But just because it would be harder didn’t mean it would be better. How would I improve upon my debut? I knew I had to set the bar high. After all, I was a debut author finalist for the Goldie and Rainbow Awards, and contemporary lesbian fiction runner-up for the Rainbow Awards for Like Jazz.
Here’s how: I focused on increasing the stakes as well as adding important secondary characters and (ideally) even more humor. I put into practice the suggestions my editor, Shelley Thrasher, gave me during the editing process for my first book. None of that was easy, especially as the stakes in Like Jazz get pretty high, with the protagonist’s life in jeopardy.
Where did I end up? Well, in addition to the story’s romance, For Money or Love explores treachery, class differences, and parental loss. Bernie Madoff, of all people, inspired this key aspect of the novel:
What if you discover that the parent you love and admire has engaged in such deceit that your entire world—your career, your home, your family, your social life, your fledgling relationship—will be destroyed if you turn your parent in, and the life of the woman you’re falling for will be destroyed as well? Yet if you maintain the façade your parent has created, your lack of integrity would render your new relationship and your ability to live with yourself impossible.
I believed this was a sufficiently sticky wicket to throw at my main character, though that wasn’t all I saddled her with.
What steps did I take to develop my skills? Though I’ve been a playwright for years, I read guides on how to structure a romance storyline—beats, stakes, turning points, crisis, resolution, etc. These are things many of us know, yet are good to keep top of mind. While such guidance helped, perspective was equally important: following my gut and the advice of friends who are writers and editors in their own right. Also, though I’d read over a hundred lesbian romance novels before writing Like Jazz, I’ve read hundreds more since, homing in on my own likes and dislikes.
Once I was nearly finished, I had a final chapter that worked well as an ending but didn’t bring all the pieces together the way I wished. It took months for the right idea to take shape and stick, and I’m proud of how it turned out. I had a similar issue with Like Jazz, which was the hardest part of that book to figure out and I worked through long after Kauai.
Ultimately, Like Jazz and For Money or Love are so different that it’s not easy to know if I succeeded in my goal of improving my craft. Helping muddy the waters is a different POV: Like Jazz was written in first person whereas FMOL is in third person.
What I do know is that I’m extremely gratified by how For Money or Love turned out. I didn’t force myself into complying with a deadline that might have compromised the outcome. There was no rush, no concessions. Deadlines work really well for many authors but not for me.
You may feel overwhelmed by the number of books that strike your fancy—your heart says BUY but your wallet says NSF (which, to my sweetie, means “not so fast!”). Here’s what I suggest:
Take advantage of free excerpts available at boldstrokesbooks.com or other publishers’ websites, or download samples via Amazon. Pretend you’re in a See’s Candies store. Try before you buy, and savor each bite along the way. There’s high quality stuff out there, as well as some curious what-the-heck-is-in-that-soft-center bites. Excerpts allow us to check out someone’s style and learn about the type of story we’re in for, without risk.
Hopefully you’ll be pulled into Jess and TJ’s story as much as I was when writing it. It has all the elements I hoped to bring to it. But as to whether it works for you? Only you, dear reader, can decide.
To whet your appetite, below is the first scene of For Money or Love:
“Jessica, I want you to help get our intern acclimated to the firm.”
The Diet Coke Jess was sipping shot up through her nose, drops of it landing on her silk Chanel blouse. She should have opted for the sparkling water.
As the burning sensation ebbed, she stared at her father in disbelief, silently ticking off the reasons she must have misheard. One, this was so not her thing. She was the head of marketing, not a babysitter. Two, her father rarely asked her to perform any actual work and never held her responsible for anything. Why her, why now? Three, intern? Derrick Spaulding was worth billions—with a B. His investment advisory firm was small but highly respected, with billions of assets under management. Interns should occupy as much space in his head as sunlight.
It wasn’t possible she’d heard him correctly.
“You expect me to believe you’re interested in an intern’s first day?”
“I’m interested in her project. As you should be. She’ll be doing a case study on the firm, and if it goes the way Philip intends, it will be taught at some of this country’s best universities.”
Philip Ridge and her father had been college roommates. He was the dean of Griffin University’s business school, where the two had met as undergraduates.
“Have Gary handle it,” Jess said. Gary Treanor was the firm’s chief operating officer, her father’s right-hand man and stepson. Unlike Jess, he was a fixture at the office.
“I don’t want her to focus on the side of the business Gary handles. I want you to show her other aspects.”
“How you and Brooke manage to bring in so many new clients.”
Of course. Brooke. This was Derrick-speak for her sister’s ability to sell anything to anyone, but he was being kind enough to include her. Brooke could sell sand to Saudis and portable heaters to Algerians.
“If she’s doing a case study on the business, shouldn’t she spend her time with the investment managers?”
“I want to her focus on sales and marketing, without which we’d have a sliver of the assets under management that we have.”
It was as close to a compliment as Jess had ever received from him in a business context, and she took to it like gum to a shoe. “I’ll help in any way I can. What do we know about her?”
“According to Philip, she was the impetus behind the program.” The Derrick Spaulding MBA program was a sixteen-month accelerated curriculum that included a two-year nonprofit-sector service requirement post-graduation. It was Ridge who ensured that if Derrick made a sufficiently large contribution to their alma mater, he’d work his magic to get the program named for Derrick. Jess was well associated with it because Derrick’s donations were one of the things she adored most about him and one of the reasons she worked so hard, albeit surreptitiously, on Magnate’s behalf. The higher Magnate’s profits, the more Derrick gave to various causes. Prospective investors interested in learning the character of the firm’s founder found an extensive bio on the corporate website, much of which related to Derrick’s philanthropic interests.
Jess closed her eyes and placed two fingers against each temple as if channeling an otherworldly entity. “Okay. I’m getting brainy, dull, and single-minded. Am I close?”
Derrick offered his winning smile. “Once you’re through with her? Not a chance.” He winked.
Another compliment. Apparently this internship was a bigger deal than she anticipated. “You haven’t met her?”
Her father shook his head.
“Do we know if she has more than the social grace of a hyena?”
“Except for her chronic halitosis and unseemly body hair, I imagine she’ll be fine.”
Jess loved it when her father bantered. At home—at least when her stepmother was out and she dropped by—he proved a great foil, engaging her with humor and interest. Work was another story, where he scarcely acted as though they were related. She could probably unicycle in front of him wearing a gold-lamé bodysuit that shot sparklers out of her bustier, and he wouldn’t notice. She treasured these unguarded moments, wishing desperately they could share more of them. But she’d take what she could get.
“Bring a little Listerine and some tweezers?” she asked.
“And a brush for the dandruff.”
“I’ll put it in my purse.”
“My little Girl Scout. Always prepared.”
Jess kissed her father on the cheek. “For you? Anything.”