That Cake: Lessons in Writing a Contemporary Romance Novella

So: Save the Cake. 

I’m finally finished with the full Draft 1 for Mina V. Esguerra’s contemporary-romance writing class, though it feels more like Draft 0.5 because it’s still kind of raw around the edges (and could use some copy-editing, besides) – at around 37,000 words, it’s still a monster that could use a little bit of trimming.

A part of me is still scared of putting this through a second round of beta-reads, considering that I got burned a lot after I went on Critique Circle and got some too-harsh-for-my-own-good comments. (This is all I have to say about the first few beta reads: Racism? Seriously?) But all in all, I’m proud of how it all turned out, messy subplots and all.

To be up front with you, I actually miss these crazy characters; unlike most of my previous work (*ahem*NaNoWriMo*ahem*), I went straight into the revisions for Act 1, knowing that I could do more justice to the rewrites once I had a clearer idea of what was going on and how everything is supposed to end. The fact that I had to use an outline actually helped me, in this case, because it kept me focused on seeing the story through as a whole rather than just a mass of parts.

Here are the other lessons I learned from writing this story:

Lesson #1: Pick your beta readers wisely. After I accepted the fact that I put a rough draft through a beta read, I went through all of the comments I received on Critique Circle and chose the ones that helped me the most. I already know how it feels to go through so many poor matches before I found my first writing buddy – and some of my own attempts at beta-reading other people’s work turned out to be such massive FAILs on my part – but I learned to develop a good working relationship with a select few whose opinions I truly trusted. And not all of them were romance writers, either; I was able to get readers who were writing YA, mysteries, and women’s literature in general. That helped me a lot with the next lesson…

Lesson #2: Take a picture of your (ideal) audience. Obviously, I can’t please everybody who reads my story, so I had to step back and come up with a vision of the reader who would be most likely to buy this if this was on the Romance section of the local bookstore: female (of course), between the ages of 25 and beyond, not necessarily a baker but adventurous when it comes to food. If my ideal reader were to take a vacation anywhere in the Philippines, she would probably scout the entire Visayas region for lechon and mango butterscotch bars instead of lounging around on the beach. She would stay away from trendy, artificially-lit cupcake “bakeries,” choosing instead to read books at a corner of an out-of-the-way cafe that serves strong coffee, hearty sandwiches, and irresistible pastries. And the books she reads must make her want to hang around that same cafe and order another round of coffee so that she could find out if the leads do make it to the ideal romantic ending, “happily ever after” or not.

Lesson #3: It’s not a romance if you’re not much of a romantic. And I’m not just talking about MC-on-LI romantic moments, though I admit that my stash of Julia Quinn books helped me a lot in creating perfect moments for flirting, kissing, and (yes) more-than-just-kissing. The trick is to find romance in the moments that require the full-swoon treatment, which meant that I had to rewrite my food-porn scenes to make them even less gratuitous. For example, Sean, the main love interest in the story, was introduced in the first chapter as a customer with Proustian memories of Reyna Bakery empanadas, so I established a connection between him and Eloisa based on those romantic notions. That, I believe, was sexier than having Sean in full lust over the delicious little pies, which could come across as creepy.

Lesson #4: Let the muse speak to you. Just because you have an outline doesn’t mean that you can’t be inspired to take the story in a new direction. Halfway through the writing process, I realized that I had another villain who was more compelling and dramatic than the first one that I had in mind, so I ran with that and ended up with a stronger B-story. Detours make stories more interesting.

 Lesson #5: Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. One of the great things about writing this as part of a class is setting up a reasonable timeline for each act of the story. I always found myself finishing ahead of schedule because I had already pre-set a schedule for myself: the final chapters were due on June 9, but I submitted them last week because 1) I was on a roll and 2) I had to finish before my Mom’s out-of-town trip, so that I could concentrate on things I needed to deal with outside of my writing. There’s just something liberating and rewarding about the thought of being done with something important and cohesive – as opposed to being “done” for the sake of getting done, as I usually am with NaNo and my academic papers (shhh!) – because by then I can say that there’s time for me to go back and make the changes that I need to make for the story.

Finally, I would never have survived all of this without help and encouragement from Mina and the rest of my writing class, which has made a huge difference in helping me create the story that I now have in my hands. Thanks, guys, and I hope I can work with all of you again!

Love, Stella

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Stella Torres

is the author of the adult contemporary romances Save the Cake, Crushingly Close, and Nine Years Away, as well as the short story “Be Creative” in the anthology Kids These Days: Stories from Luna East Vol. 1.

In her previous life, she has worked in public relations, taught English as a second language, and even attended graduate school (twice!). She has lived in Indonesia, Honolulu, and Quezon City before moving back to her hometown of Los Banos, a few hours’ drive (with traffic) from the heart of Manila.

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