Romance Authors Are From Venus

I’ve attended four different workshops given by fellows who’ve taken a calling writing screenplays  and morphed it into guidance on how to write a romance. Invariably, these men do not write romances themselves, though they are long on charm, full of great ideas, and well worth the price of admission.

Also right next door to useless when it comes to helping me plot my books.

The first time I heard one of these fellows, I felt that sinking, I-don’t-get-it feeling familiar to me from junior high math classes. All around me, talented, eager romance writers were nodding happily and scribbling away, or typing on their spiffy little notebooks, while I sat in the corner with Bertha–who is missing three keys, and weighs more than seven pounds because I can’t see those dratted little screens–and tried not to look lost.

When the same thing happened a second and third time, I stopped fretting long enough to think about what was happening, and a salient fact presented itself: These knowledgeable, helpful, articulate and enthusiastic presenters were all… guys. Every one of them referred to their stories as having a hero, usually of either gender, but one per book. The person of the opposite gender (apologies to LGBT readers) was “the love interest,” and their role in the story was to serve as one of several factors propelling the hero along the arc of personal growth that made the drama more compelling.

The last time this happened, I was attending a workshop in Atlanta, which meant about a 600-mile drive home. Somewhere in southern Virginia (of which there is a deuced lot) it occurred to me; Most men don’t get romance. Why should these plotting gurus comprehend that in a romance novel, there isn’t a hero and a love interest, the relationship is the main character.

What happens in a romance is whatever is necessary to develop, try, and forge that relationship into its concluding form. The characters are the personalities necessary for the same exercise, and the settings, and secondary characters likewise.

The rubrics put forth by these helpful gentlemen are useful to me as diagnostics, to assess pacing and structure in a completed manuscript, but their plotting road maps yield me no insights when it comes to how a particular pair of characters must find their happily ever after.The nomenclature doesn’t help, their  graphics provide so many blanks I will never know how to fill in.

But what a relief, to realize, not for the first time, I’m not stupid, I just follow a different process. Has the same insight ever befallen you? To one commenter, I’ll send along a signed copy of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight.

Merry Christmas!!!

This week marks the launch of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight, the tale of Louisa Windham and her doting, growling, limping, pig-farming swain, Sir Joseph Carrington. Louisa doesn’t see those qualities in Joseph, though. She sees that he listens to her, he asks her to dance when nobody else has the courage, he recites poetry to her, and he risks his life to save her reputation. Guess what Louisa gets for Christmas?

And Joseph? He doesn’t see that Louisa is too smart for her own good, nor that she lacks the preferred pale English beauty, nor that she suffers a lack of small talk and flirtation. He sees that she’s brilliant, lonely, brave, loyal, and completely going to waste in the ballrooms and conservatories of Mayfair. How anybody could overlook such a treasure baffles him utterly.

Michael Hague, a noted teacher in the field of screen writing and story architecture, has a pet peeve with many romances: On page 3, the hero and heroine see each other across a moonlit alley/crowded ballroom/soccer field or battle field, and fall in love: THUNK! He or she is emotionally distant, despite there being Chemistry. They snark at each other, sabotage each others’ plans, and so forth for 300 pages, but on the strength of their mysterious attraction, they cast Steamy Glances (ahem) at one another anyway.

His point is that if you or I came across such a potential mate, we’d perhaps indulge in a fling, but never consider them keeper material. What creates a credible bond is when somebody GETS us, they understand when our wounds are acting up, and their response is compassionate. They appreciate our strengths even when those strengths are standing between us and our best selves. They do not love us and leave us, or toss grenades at our dreams.

And maybe this is why I love Louisa and Joseph as a couple. More than other couples I’ve written, these two complete each other. They are not a crooked pot and a crooked lid, they are the pot and lid made for each other in a unique and beautiful design not intended for the standard kitchen. Last year, they were my Christmas present. This year, I hope they number among yours.

So… in the interests of making our Christmas shopping lists, who are some of your favorite romantic couples, and are there any romantic leads who just did not work for you? To three commenters, I’ll be passing along signed copies of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight.

The All Important Mirror

WHY have I gone two weeks without updating my blog? Shame on me! But not really shame on me because I was off at a writing seminar taught by James Scott Bell. I want to learn how to write really good books, you see, and that means I must occasionally tear myself away from the fun of writing and focus on the craft of writing.

And friends, I learned a lot. One of the concepts cited frequently was that of “sign post scenes.” These are the moments that recur, book after book, in much good fiction. Many writing instructors have a of list of them, or particular names for them–the inciting incident (JSB does not like term because every incident in a good book ought to incite somebody to do something, right?), the black moment, the point of no return.

I’m not much of a list maker, not much of a conscious book plotter, but one scene we discussed stood out: The Look in the Mirror. This is the point in the book where Our Hero and/or Heroine is barreling along, trying to mind their own business or save the world or stay drunk, when the Clever Author puts them in a situation where they must face what sort of person they’re becoming (or have become). They further face the fact that they have choices regarding whether that’s the sort of person they continue to be.

Interestingly, Mr. Bell noted that this scene is often dead center in the book. Michael Hague of Storymastery legend says what he finds at the dead center of the book is a scene he calls, “the point of no return.” By that point, the protagonist has gained enough insight to know the old self or life is lost to them forever, but they haven’t quite located the courage to commit to change.

And I’m sure every half-awake romance reader in the room is noting that around page 175 is usually when the relationship is fully consummated. This makes sense to me. What is an intimate moment, except a time when we’re forced to deal with who we are, who we really, truly, probably not entirely happily are?

And yet, I don’t think one scene of a character peering into the moral mirror will do for a solid romance. From my perspective, the function of the entire budding relationship is to give the character the courage and motivation to deal with their wounds, weaknesses, and flaws, and  step by step, to change themselves if necessary to earn a life graced with  true love.

What do YOU think? Have the books you’ve enjoyed had a light bulb scene in the middle of the book, or shown character growth over a progression of scenes? Both? Neither? Does any of this relate to real life?

To one commenter, I will give a SIGNED copy of Eloisa James’ lovely, “The Ugly Duchess,” which has a lot to tell us about change, growth, and true love.



The Elegant Question

My dear old dad, who has ninety-one years to his name, chose to spend at least seventy of those years as a bench scientist. This term does not refer to people who study benches, but rather, to people who make their contribution at the laboratory bench. Dad studied things like how a milk fat globule is made. You shrug, but the question takes on significance when you consider the fat globule ends up being larger than the mammary cell that produces it—and without these processes, we would not have whipped cream.

I am quite fond of whipped cream, myself, also butter, ice cream, and mousse, which depend upon the same little miracle.

Dad also looked at how light alters flavor compounds in milk (which is why we have opaque milk jugs unless they’re made of thick glass), and he studied flavors and fragrances from a chemical standpoint.

Dad earned a reputation for coming up with excellent experimental designs. If you had a great hypothesis, an earthshaking insight you wanted to test, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to isolate your variables or measure results, Dad was the guy you bounced your problem off of.

He loved a failed experiment. The failed experiments were the equivalent of the locked room for him. When you discover you’re in a locked room, you try the door knob. You jiggle it hard, then harder. You back off, and wait for somebody to come by, but at some point, alone in that room, hungry and cranky, you Get Creative. You fashion lock picks out of paper clips, you build ladders out of modular furniture, you slide messages under the door written in Pepsi on your T-shirt. You bust out windows, you drop paper airplanes down the ventilator shaft, and so on.

And that process, that wracking-your-brain process, enthralled him as a scientist. I expect it enthralled him as a little boy, too, and still occupies much of his mental day.

Authors find themselves in locked rooms all the time, though my creative space feels more like a broom closet. I can usually envision my characters, I have some idea of their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but to craft a story for them, I need tension, conflict, problems. I need ways my hero and heroine reveal themselves to themselves, and to each other. I need the right problems and the right solutions to those problems to structure a 400 page book.

In this struggle, because by God, it is a struggle, I’ve come across some wonderful tools. Each tool is in the form of a question, and one of the most powerful is: What is the one thing my hero/heroine would never, ever, no matter what, be caught dead doing? How can I make them do it? (And thanks to Michael Hague for developing that one.)

What is the worst, most terrifying development that can befall my hero/heroine? How can I inflict it upon them?

What does my reader expect at this moment in the story? How can I surprise the reader without losing my credibility?

My dad had ultracentrifuges, microtome slicers, electron microscopes, and a relentless curiosity, and with those, he found his way out of many locked rooms. I have tools too—elegant, incisive, illuminating questions, and with them, I can also get out of locked rooms.

What question has helped you escape a dead end situation?

Why Do You Women Read That Stuff?

I had dinner with a good friend the other night, and in the course of the conversation, the question came up that blights many an otherwise sanguine exchange with a romance aficionado: Why do you women read that stuff?

What he was asking, though, was: Why do you women write that stuff? There are as many answers as there are authors, or readers, but this was a guy, a spectacularly nice guy, but a guy just the same, and I think what he was trying to find out was what I hope to accomplish by putting my books out in the world for purchase.

Or to put  it in guy-speak: What is that stuff supposed to do?

One answer that came to my mind (later, of course) was: Romance is an antidote to cable news.

We’re taught from little up that it’s a privilege to participate in a democracy, and many people around the globe throughout history haven’t had the freedoms we do. With the freedoms, and representative government, goes an obligation to remain informed about what our society is up to, and to contribute knowledgeably to the decisions it makes. This duty to remain informed has been parlayed by some, or constricted by market forces, into a presentation of the nightly news that grabs the viewer’s attention, chokes it viciously about the neck, and flings it thoroughly overwhelmed and wrung out into the corner at the end of 48 minutes of programming, and twelve equally predatory minutes of advertisements.

And what do those 48 minutes consist of?

A race among the horsemen of the Apocalypse for top story. A tour de force of misery and mayhem, and we’re told this is what it’s important to know about the world around us (though I suspect, these are the stories most likely to raise viewers for the advertised products which now support the entire journalistic endeavor—alas for the fourth estate). Yes, there are journalists who focus on the positive, occasionally, and there are human interest stories, but when are they ever at the top of the hour?

Romance, to me, is about the belief that if you love yourself and others with integrity, if you take responsibility for your personal growth and maturation, your relationships will be healthy, and your life will be blessed with love. This is a hopeful outlook, not always easy to maintain. There are big black moments in life, and they’re hard as hell.

When I face them, I do not want to be pounded with all the times my species has failed this very day to meet the challenges of living together with respect and cooperation. I want to be reminded that love does conquer all, human kindness is a quiet and powerful tide all around me, and the path of life need not be lonely even at its narrowest points.

It is important to be informed regarding current events; it’s more important to be reminded of the eternal verities.

Web In-site by Grace Burrowes

A new author is warned that publicity will be a significant part of her responsibilities post-publication, and a website is one of the cornerstones of that publicity. I’m not a cyberphobe, but I’m not a techie, either.

And I am a Warp Nine introvert, the same as most other writers. I crave long solitudinous hours filled with only the sounds of my fingers tapping on the keyboard and my bull mastiff snoring contentedly at my feet. This business of building a website loomed for months as the nearest thing to housework: Necessary and a relief to get done, but hardly satisfying.

It will astound you to know my prognostication was wrong.

Having the talented ladies at Waxcreative, Inc., develop a website for me has meant I had to take a look at my author bios, and tell the thumbnail version of the Story of Me yet again in a way that might connect with readers. It means I’ve had to go sifting through my first two books looking for those few paragraphs that will best grab the reader, those snippets of dialogue that surprised me when I first reread them because, what do you  know, they’re good.

This is like looking at baby pictures with a younger version of me as a writer in the background. It shouldn’t be fascinating, but to me it is.

I’ve had to look at the earliest versions of my books for the scenes I deleted, some because they just didn’t propel the book forward, others had to be cut to make the almighty word count. The whole time I was on a scene-cutting revision—killing my darlings!—in the back of my mind, I consoled myself with the thought: I’ll have plenty of material for the website this way.

And of course, some of the scenes I had to cut felt as well written as anything elsewhere in the books. I loved those scenes and cutting them was painful.

Then too, I like websites with interesting little quotes sprinkled around on them, so I pawed through my Bartlett’s, hunting for the perfect words from the great and powerful, and what writer would not enjoy that exercise?

With my website up and running (soon!) I’m going to have my own blog again (to wit), and that means hunting up books to blog about. There is so much good writing out there, so much creativity and graciousness…. With my nose buried in a WIP, I forget about the pleasure of browsing among the websites of the authors who’ve comforted and inspired me as a writer.

And if that’s not enough to change my mind about the fun of developing a website, I hear from other authors how nice it is to be so directly accessible to readers. To get those encouraging emails and to be able to respond, almost real time, with the dog still snoring contentedly at my feet.

Hmm. Suppose I’ll go goggle at the pages under construction. I’ve done enough on the WIP for today and nobody is going to steal my dust woofies. What a wonderful thing it is to have a site under construction.

And how wonderful too, to be so pleasantly surprised by life, once again. To inaugurate the re-emergence of Her Grace Notes from developmental hiatus, I’ll give away a signed copy of “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish” to one person commenting on this blog. Just leave some version of your email, and I’ll contact you for more information within the next week if you’re our winner.



Reviser’s Block

It has been my happy fate of late to have a lot of revisions to work on. This is good news—it means a book is on the way to publication and it means my editor has spotted places to gild the lily. I’m fortunate in that my editor—Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks, Inc.—will call me first and discuss the needed changes, then send me a follow up email summarizing our conversation.

The email is particularly helpful because ten seconds after we hang up, I am completely at a loss to know what we decided about that pesky adolescent secondary character (whose idea was she, anyway?), or the tweaks needed to make the finale just a trifle more resonant with the opening lines. I know we talked for twenty minutes, I know Deb had some good ideas, I know I have a deadline to make the changes, but other than that…. duh.

The precipitous drop in writing IQ and memory persists throughout the revision process. A new scene that should take an hour to write takes all day; some thread I was supposed to clarify in the dramatic arc becomes invisible to me. I drink more decaf tea, play more solitaire, check my email more frequently when I’m working on revisions than I ever do when I’m creating a rough draft. Revisions for me are daunting and painful. My only consolation is that the sense of rolling a boulder uphill befalls some other writers in the rough draft stage. Instead of having to spend a few days pushing through procrastination and brain fog, they have to suffer for 100,000 words at a time.

Still other writers must struggle interminably to come up with a plot, and most of us—I’m convinced—did not get the synopses-are easy gene. But my guess is that the revision process is largely responsible for improvements in my writing. I can’t view my own books with the objectivity of an editor, if for no other reason than after a 100,000 words, I’m tired of looking at the bleeping things. In the same vein, I think synopses are hard for me to write because I’m not an intuitive plotter. I have to work very, very hard to structure my stories so they fit into a tagline. Holy cow, do I honk at coming up with taglines.

There’s hope, though. I’m working on my sixth manuscript for contracted publication, and the synopsis is already germinating. I’m scanning my prospective secondary characters with a view toward their credibility; I’m watching for threads that go nowhere so I can pull them out before they get knit into my prose. I conclude the revision process is supposed to be a challenge for me because as I’m learning how to make one book better, scene by scene, I’m also learning how to make my writing better, and that will benefit however many books I’m lucky enough to write.

What about you? Is there an aspect of writing that once daunted you more than any other, but now shows signs of coming under control? What helped? What made it easier—or what might make it easier in a perfect world? Reprinted with the kind permission of

The next time you hear, “Whatever…”

The term, “Whatever…” is said to be among the most irritating comebacks in the language, lazily connoting complete indifference to every possible outcome  and eventuality on the planet.

It means something different to me. Christmas day the heavens gifted us with freezing rain for the duration. It came down for a good while, leaving accumulations of ice in its wake. For those of you who don’t have ice storms, consider yourselves blessed. Snow, you shovel. Ice, you wait for it to melt, hoping it doesn’t take down too many power lines first.

You can’t go anywhere in an ice storm, and if you must go outside (say to feed your horses every stinkin’  twelve hours no matter what), then you will be both frozen and soaked. But it’s good writing weather. The urge to cozy up to any heat source, including a lap top, is irresistible. A day like that brings to mind bleak moors, long lonely afternoons, mind-numbing boredom, cuddling-up-on-a-bleak-day sex, all kinds of scenes and weather driven plot twists. Hurray for freezing rainy days.

I keep a journal, and a few months ago, I got up to a fall-is-coming day. Low humidity, temperatures in the high seventies, glorious, perky weather that fills the body with joy. And that is good writing weather too, for the energy it imparts, the restless glee, the churning mental enthusiasm for life itself. Weather like that brings to mind outdoor sex, picnics, reading in tree houses, and the innocent joie de vivre of many a character at the beginning of many a romance.

A few months before that, I got up on a sultry, still, mid-summer morning. The mercury was headed past 100, it was so hot the bugs didn’t make a sound. The sky was white with humidity, and all I wanted to do was write about parched throats, summer light, and the ease of moving around at night in high summer. That was good writing weather too. In other words, it’s all good writing weather, good painting weather, good child rearing weather, good weather for whatever your creative process is.

The trick for me is to take whatever comes my way—whatever—and smack it off my bat in a productive, meaningful direction. Weather, people, cases at work, flat tires, new dishes, long road trips, whatever life tosses at me, it’s all a gift for the purpose of inspiring my writing, or my legal strategies, or my ability to love my family and friends honorably. Life sucks sometimes, and there are experiences I haven’t found any inspiration from yet, at least that I know of. But determination counts for a lot too, and waking up each day expecting to be given some nuggets of inspiration by the weather, the shopping list, the telemarketer, means I am more likely to find inspiration. Which means I am more likely to look hard for it tomorrow.

This is not a skill I was born with, mind. It’s a product of maturation, not something I consciously set out to work on. There are other names for it besides determination, like ingenuity, optimism, cleverness, resourcefulness. I don’t know about all that, I just know that after years of watching the sky, I’ve learned that it’s all good writing weather if you give it the chance to be.

Plotting Along

The most difficult aspect for me of writing commercial fiction is coming up with the story itself, more specifically, coming up with the external conflict. I have characters galore in my head, swilling brandy, flirting, waltzing, thundering across the countryside on their noble steeds.

I have settings, Regency, Victorian, and contemporary settings that I can see, hear, taste, touch and smell (in my head). I can come up with relationship troubles by the long ton, but current wisdom (with which I will take umbrage some other day) is that a romance novel must have an external conflict, a force keeping the lovers apart even when—somewhere west of page 350 and a whole lot of hanky panky—they realize they are fated to be together.

So after years of wrestling with this deficiency of mine, I’ve come up with two different forms of plotting yoga. (We used to call it brainstorming, but the term has acquired an odor of corporate-speak frowned upon in creative circles.) The first practice involves donning loose fitting, comfortable clothes, sturdy shoes and thick socks. Prior to the session, it’s advisable to stop by the potty, but I try not to read more than one scene while I’m in there because the general premise is that if I move the body, the mind might flex a few ideas too. More than one scene, and well… maybe that’s for another day too.

I go out of doors, I breathe in the fresh country air and hope none of the dairy farmers upwind have cleaned out a loafing shed recently, and I place all my weight on my right foot. Some adepts prefer to start with the left—it’s a personal decision. When I’m confident my weight is securely balanced, I lift my left foot and place it ahead of my right. Calling upon eons of evolutionary engineering, I shift my weight onto the left foot until I am balanced thereupon. Next—and this is crucial—I lift my right foot, and place it ahead of the left. It can be confusing until you get the pattern: left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, lift, shift, lift shift (say it three times fast).

I continue in one direction for about a mile or until I get an Idea, then I execute one 180 degree turn—this takes practice—and repeat the sequence until I’m back in my own yard. I thought up this very blog in the midst of such a session, proof positive that it works. Or proof of nothing in particular. The second form of plotting yoga, which I truly do enjoy, requires a call to the Beloved Aged P’s on the West Coast to transmit a warning that there will be a Grace Sighting in about four days. I gas up Beloved (paid off) Toyota Tundra, lux some undies, say my grandmother’s prayer for everybody’s safety, and Head West.

I do not listen to the radio, nor to CDs, nor even books on tape (unless they’re by Malcolm Gladwell, of the wise, sexy voice). Long about Oklahoma, I’m fairly confident of having a plot. I once dreamed up a whole trilogy on the road, but this required a sortie through West Texas, about which, the less said the better, except it wasn’t a very good trilogy. To write novels, I need to apply the fundament to the chair for long, long hours, but for my process, for my stories, I also have to find the white spaces in my life that generate new ideas, and if I don’t have white spaces, I have to create those too.

Or I could just go for a walk, or maybe go see the folks.

reposted with the kind permission of What are the dull, boring necessary aspects of your process that constitute your personal “writing yoga?”

And yet still more advice…

I don’t consider “writer” to be my profession so much as I consider it one of my identities. Many activities can be considered both—I’m never entirely divorced from my legal leanings, I don’t just practice law, I AM a lawyer. I will be a lawyer to some extent even when I take down my shingle and allow my bar membership to lapse.

This has to do with how I view my life, how I think, how I approach the challenges I face. In the same way, I am a mom even when my Beloved Offspring is thousands of miles away. And so it is with writing for many writers. It’s undertaken when staring at the blank screen or blank page, but it can also pervade the rest of life—this is a wonderful thing.

Driving to an appointment with the acupuncturist one fall morning, I noticed way, way up on the mountainside across the valley a spanking new A-frame chalet with a winding driveway leading to it. I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been there the previous fall, and the views from it had to be gorgeous. By the time I’d reached the acupuncturist twenty miles away, I had most of a book put together: The guy living there was a cop in DC until he took a mostly spent bullet in the behind. It messed up his hip to the point where he could no longer walk the beat, and while he tried being a detective, it just wasn’t his cup of tea.

He started thinking up crime novels while doing his physical therapy and had since become a bestselling author… His neighbor at the bottom of the mountain is a single mom who owns a landscape business, and his new property surely does need some touches of grace and color to go with all that state of the art security. But Ms. Luscious Landscape has troubles, of course she does, troubles such as only a lonely, gimpy, reclusive former cop can solve with her.

I wasn’t in front of my computer when this idea wandered into my head, but I was a writer. I’m a writer when I’m in conversation with a friend, and she uses some lovely, under-appreciated word—fulminate, cogitate, animadversion—there are so many wonderful words. I toss it on the pile of words I’m going to remember to use in my next scene, and though I don’t have a pen in my hand, I’m a writer.

I meet my friend, Robin Kaye, for lunch. Robin has four great books on the shelves, and she’s managed this with three teenagers underfoot, all of whom are arguably special needs (who among us isn’t?). We don’t bring our computers along any more, but we bat around plot issues and parenting challenges, we hug each other and commiserate over the things a hug can’t fix—knowing those are the very things that can inspire really great books. And when we’re swilling our lattes—though not a word gets written—we’re writers.

So yes, put your backside in the chair, write and write and write, but even when you aren’t writing, the chances are good, you’re still a writer. You just are, and this is wonderful too.