“Don’t let anybody write your story for you. Say what needs to be said. Write your own story.” ~ Taequanda, in Fast Lane
Often in life, we approach a situation or a goal (or a relationship), letting outside assumptions and expectations fuel our vision, only to discover that the truth of the matter is not at all what we anticipate. The same can be said for Lara Dixon, the protagonist in Dave Thome’s debut novel, Fast Lane. In the quote above, Taequanda is talking to Lara, who is on a hunt for the inside story of Clay Creighton and his man-centered, womanizing business, Fast Lane Enterprises. What Lara discovers once inside Fast Lane’s inner circle, more so when she gets to know Taequanda, is that everyone harbors a secret and no one fits their facade. Lara is torn between writing truth or fiction.
In a post on Babbles from Scott Eagan ( of Greyhause Literary Agency), Eagan empasizes a few “musts” in category romance novels: not “to see [characters] in bed and having a full on romance after the first meeting” but “to really get to know who these people are AS people. Emotion, motivation, depth.” Dave Thome’s novel gives readers exactly that, a satisfying romance with well-developed characters. I’m honored to host Dave today, where he talks about his writing journey and the discoveries he made along the way.
CC: When you started out writing, did you imagine you’d embark on the journey of a romance novel? I’d love to hear more about your background and how you came to be a Man Writing a Romance.
DT: Way back. Way, way back, I always assumed I’d write novels. But I also liked writing articles and columns for my high school paper, so I became a newspaper reporter. I loved being a newspaper reporter. Every day I got to meet new people and write about different things. Literally. When you’re just out of college and work for a small-town paper, you’re writing about a new math program at the high school in the morning, the last local survivor of World War I in the afternoon, and a stampede of dairy cows circling a house near downtown the next morning. (Seriously, I once wrote an article about how cows got spooked on a dairy farm in the middle of the night, broke down a fence, ran along the highway into Watertown, Wis., turned onto a side street, randomly circled one house, left—and returned a few minutes later to circle the house again. In the opposite direction.)
Anyway, newspaper stories are kind of like mini novels. Really mini novels. Like 400 words instead of 55,400 words. But you have to hook people right away. The story has to flow. You work in dialog (quotes) and narration and use description to help readers visualize things. You don’t really build to a climax, but there’s usually some element of tension in a newspaper story. Lots of news involves tension. A good reporter also has to know something about human nature. You have to get to know people quickly and assess their veracity and character. That translates into writing fiction, too.
I started a couple of novels over the years but never got anywhere. They seemed too big and complex. Then I discovered screenplays, and they seemed like a good idea because not only are they a lot shorter than novels (18,000 words), they also have a structure you have to follow. Certain things have to happen by the end of page 1, 3, 10, 28 and so on. And you have to finish by page 120—max. For comedy, finishing by page 90 or 95 is even better. Having those goals in mind helped me focus on elements of story and character that had to be developed. My mindset is exactly the same when I write novels, only now it’s a matter of rhythm instead of a matter of having an absolute page number to hit.
I ended up writing twenty screenplays in about twenty years. I wrote comedies and thrillers and sweeping science fiction action stories. The first four weren’t very good, but something clicked on the fifth. I was in a writing group and I brought in the first seven pages of what I was working on and one guy tore me a new one, making big red circles on my pages to make sure to dramatize how much he hated my dialog. He did this in front of the whole group, eight guys, I think. And then he said the lines his way—and he was absolutely right. I went home and started at the beginning and rewrote all the dialog to sound more natural—shorter sentences, dropped words, things like that—and the script just came together. When the dialog became more organic, so did the characters and the story.
That script, TERMINAL SEX, is about a woman in her late thirties who was recently divorced, hated her job and was having problems with her snotty sixteen-year-old daughter, so she follows a friend’s advice and logs into an Internet cybersex website. I made up everything that happened online because it was 1994, and I had never seen the Internet, but I made the cyberspace sequences into scenes with the characters in fantastical settings. Sex and murder ensue, and TERMINAL SEX won a writing award and got me an agent at a fairly high-profile agency in Hollywood. The script got read by some cool people—actors, producers and directors—but no one opened their wallet. Then some writer friends who were hot after having a big TV movie success tried to sell it to a network. Everyone there loved it except the last guy. The guy who had all the power.
After that, METAL MOM, a comedy about a woman who continues her heavy metal singing career when her kids are in high school almost got made twice. Another comedy, THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS, was next up on a company’s docket until they had a movie tank so badly they lost their financing. And yet another script, FRANKIE BIG LEAGUES, about a gangster who coaches his thirteen-year-old daughter’s softball team, got optioned for money but went nowhere.
At that point, I’d had enough of screenplays, so I wrote a novel, CHICK FLICK, during Nano in 2006 and worked on it for the next two years. It’s the opposite of a screenplay, with lots of the action going on inside the main character’s head. People in my writing group liked it very much, but it’s a really dark romantic comedy with a male lead. In some ways it’s “literary,” in others it’s like a romance novel, so it’s hard to imagine a traditional publishing market for it. I will eventually self-publish it.
Fast Lane came about because the writing business my wife, Mary Jo, and I have run since 1999 had its worst quarter ever at the end of 2009. She knew a woman who published erotic romances online, so she thought that might be something to do while business was down. I thought that if she was willing to do that, I should, too. But neither of us ended up writing an erotic romance. Fast Lane began as an idea for a screenplay that I started but never finished twenty-five years ago. I tried to write it in the erotic romance style, but I couldn’t stop myself from cracking up like a sixth-grader. Not a good thing. But the story was much better after having steeped in my subconscious for a quarter of a century, so I decided to make it a contemporary romance instead.
CC: In FAST LANE, your minor characters add such depth to the story — from Taequanda, one of the women in the rotation, to Morgan Hopkins, Clay’s security guard (one of my favorites, by the way). Did you spend a lot of time initially on character development? Or, did the characters fully come to life during rewrites?
DT: I don’t develop anything initially. I’m the epitome of a pantser. The side characters, believe it or not, always come to me when I need them.
I sit down at the computer and have to write something involving my main character, and that usually involves interacting with other characters. My idea is, well, why not give these characters some fun or interesting characteristics? It’s not unrealistic. We all go through our days running into people that have distinctive speech patterns or who wear odd clothes or who won’t look at you, so I try to characterize individualistic attributes to make them real enough without, I hope, overwhelming the scene.
I never know everything there is to know even about important characters like Taequanda. I think I end up knowing enough to convey to readers what’s important to the story. Taequanda has a secret that’s pretty delicious within the Fast Lane cosmos—she is, after all, one of the hero’s erstwhile consorts—but I didn’t actually know the secret myself until way near the end when it became obvious to me. When I was rewriting I added a few details to reflect Taequanda’s ultimate identity, but mostly, I left things alone because I thought the way I’d written her made sense already. I don’t know how that happens, but it happens a lot. It’s kind of like I’m reading the book as I’m writing it and am surprised by what happens.
Someone gave me an insight about Morgan, so I made one major change about how he reacts when he sees Lara, my heroine, naked. Morgan’s an older gentleman, the head of security at the Playboy mansion-like setting of much of the story, and a consummate professional, but I first wrote him as being embarrassed. The insight was that he should take seeing Lara in stride: Another day, another naked woman…same ol’ same ol’. Next.
Tiffany was the character I expanded the most in rewrites. She was the most fun for me. But I had to make sure Sushma was right. That was important, so I sweated out some details about her.
CC: On the note of writing, what was the most challenging aspect of crafting a romance that took you by surprise?
DT: I was surprised that women can actually be offended by use of the word “panties.” All the ads say panties. All the packages say panties. But some women insist it’s a juvenile term and won’t say it and bristle if someone else—especially a man—does. One woman said, “What if I referred to your underwear by a juvenile term like ‘grundies’?” And I said, “But, I do refer to my underwear as grundies. And other funny words, too. Men’s underwear is funny.” Really, I had no idea a word like “panties” could be so emotionally charged.
I was also a little surprised that some women in my writing group thought that when my heroine, Lara, faces down her nemesis, she’s not mean enough. They wanted Lara to inflict some physical pain. And I thought, isn’t that what happens in guy novels and guy movies? The good guy kicks the bad guy’s ass?
CC: What are you reading these days?
DT: I don’t read in just one genre, and I don’t read very fast. The last few books I’ve read include THE HELP and THE HUNGER GAMES, Karen McQuestion’s EASILY AMUSED, Donna McDonald’s DATING DR. NOTORIOUS, Jennifer Crusie’s FAKING IT, and friend’s books, like ON THE ROAD TO DEATH’S DOOR by M.J. Williams and WHAT THEY DON’T TELL YOU ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S, a powerful and informative memoir by Robert Bernstein. Mary Jo needs the Kindle for a while, so I’m finally digging into the new Kurt Vonnegut bio I got for Christmas. I love Vonnegut. I wish I wrote like him.
CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?
DT: Well, I’m a writer on the rise (I hope), and I now spend a couple hours a day doing marketing things—Facebook, Twitter, commenting on blogs and websites, doing interviews, promoting Amazon giveaways, to name a few, in addition to working on new projects and writing my newspaper column about car technology (for which I’ve been getting paid for more than a dozen years). What I would tell anyone in my position is that if you’ve had any reason to think your work can make it in the marketplace—script options, offers from agents, contest awards, good reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, success in other media, like short stories or journalism or advertising—there’s hope. Really sucky days are inevitable, but remembering that there’s evidence that your work is good enough will get your through it.
Dave Thome is a self-employed journalist and advertising copy writer whose work has appeared in several magazines and newspapers. He’s also taught writing at Marquette University and has written twenty screenplays, several of which have been optioned or won writing awards. Read more of Dave Thome’s writing on his blog, Man Writing a Romance. Follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, and purchase a copy of his novel, Fast Lane, here.