Appropriately Attired

I did not go tearing into the office this past Monday morning, but instead opened up my WIP (work in progress) and set to work on a new scene. This WIP is giving me fits—most of ‘em do, though a few have not—and I have the sense if I don’t beaver away at it, the story will evaporate from my imagination, along with the motivation to write it down.

Phone rings, and whoopsie, there’s a good possibility I’m going to be called into the courthouse. Foster care laws are written so if the state should snatch your children, you at least get a judge to look the situation over in short order. Sometimes, I get an hour’s notice that I have a hearing, sometimes a day. When the holidays loom, business always picks up.

Scheduling court hearings is like trying to make a Rubik’s cube come right. Certain matters can only be heard in certain courtrooms (with a jury box); others have to be proximate to the holding cells or have AV equipment for evidence presentation purposes. For a foster care case, as many as four attorneys have to be rounded up (for kids, mom, dad, and local child welfare department), along with social workers, witnesses, parties, and supervisors.

So there was a good chance Monday’s case would not be heard Monday, and an equally good chance it would. I live more than twenty country miles from the courthouse…

So, you ask, why not just change into courtroom attire, hop in the truck, and work on the WIP at the office, which is twenty steps from the courthouse? Makes perfect sense, right?


One cannot wear jammies to court. Not only is it frowned upon (the courthouse has a dress code), but an offended judge can hold counsel in direct contempt, which involves a one way trip to the local hoosegow.

I’ve written fiction on the office computer on occasion—romantic fiction, that is. I’ve spent many and many an hour trying to be productive while waiting to find out if a hearing is going forward. Sometimes this means I judge contest entries, draft blogs, or even work on the WIP at the office.

But having a tenuous hold on the current story, I did not want to change out of my writing clothes unless I had to.


Writing clothes? I was utterly bumfuzzled to learn that writing Regency romance has come to mean, for me, that I’m wearing yoga pants, tie-dyed Maggie Moo organic wool socks, a fleecy top, and Nike slides rather than outfits that flatter me or present me as a courthouse professional. And somehow, these clothes make it more likely (in my mind) that what I’m writing will be Good Stuff, as opposed to words produced in an effort to feel productive at the law office.

When did this happen and what’s the significance of it? I know I can’t lawyer in my jammies, but when did I decide that I can’t be a romance author in my lawyer duds? Because, apparently I have.


Do you have wardrobe quirks that surprise even you? Favorite socks? A laundry sorting hat?

To one commenter, I’ll send a pair of Maggie Moo Organize wool tie-dyed Writing Socks, and a signed copy of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” my first Scottish Victorian romance, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012.


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.

Contested Winnings

We come now to the time of year I think of as “contest time,” meaning the time of year when chapters of Romance Writers of America are holding writing contests for aspiring authors. Some of these competitions are fierce, with as many as 300 entries in a single category, and all of them take tremendous effort to coordinate.

I am published in part because of these chapter contests, for two reasons. First, when my prospective editor asked, ‘What ammunition can you give me to set you apart from all the other unpublished Regency authors?’ I could point to a fistful of contest wins and finals. I had no idea they were significant, but they got me the all important boost out of the slush pile.

Second, many contests are judged by published authors, and friends and neighbors, I am telling you, when a published author sets out to ‘splain what you’re doing wrong, she’s usually accurate, articulate, and ferociously determined to get her message across.

I got comments along the lines of, “I’m being so hard on you because I believe in your voice.” That after, three pages of solid, relentless critique. Another author told me I was going to end up in the missed-it-by-that-much category if I didn’t tend to the things she pointed out, and that would be TRAGIC, given the potential in my writing.

Yikes! I paid attention. I buffed the goods and now it’s my turn to judge a few contests.

I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing the wonderful creativity awaiting publication, I enjoy knowing I might be able to sand off a few rough edges on somebody’s writing, and give them the boost so generously given to me. The world can never have enough well written love stories, after all.

And that would be motivation enough to accept the judging packet, but a funny thing happens when I get into judging mode: My writing improves.

When I’m beavering away at a Work In Progress, I’m usually struggling to get the story on the page, struggling to figure out what the story is, so I can get it on the page. I lose sight of the old chestnuts:

1)      Avoid starting a sentence with ‘there are,’ or ‘it is’

2)      Cut the words, ‘just,’ ‘very,’ and ‘that’ whenever you can

3)      Establish the setting with sensory details that are either symbolic or have significance to the Point of View character only

The list of shoulds and oughts is long, and as Voltaire observed, when it comes to writing, the list cannot be learned quickly no matter how talented or dedicated the student. I’m reminded though, of the efficacy of the one room school house approach to education.

Once upon a time, somebody took a bunch of students from a public school setting, and instead of having each grade taught by a separate teacher, they went back to the older method, of having the students in each grade teach the students below them in one-to-one or nearly one-to-one sessions. The result was an improvement in everybody’s performance, and with much less effort on the teacher’s part (though I assume the process took more time, at least).

So I get to help out some aspiring writers, but I benefit as much as anybody else. Pretty cool.

Has a generous impulse ever yielded an unexpected bonus for you? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of “Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight,” or, if you’re an aspiring author, I’ll critique three scenes of your fiction writing–let me know in the comments if that’s your preference.


Happily Ever Grateful

“It will never hurt your career to help another author.” Julia Quinn included this admonition in a recent speech to a group of romance writers, myself included. She had other gems to impart, but this one stood out to me and garnered immediate applause.

I haven’t been writing that long, but I’m confident of my facts when I say there is an ethic—not just a habit, not a tendency, but an ethic—among romance writers of mutual support. When I go to writers’ workshops, I hear the science fiction/mystery/thriller/literary writers complimenting the romance writers on the extent to which we encourage each other, share what we know, and go a long, long way to get each other published.

This attitude of shared endeavor was an enormous surprise to me when I started writing. I’m a lawyer, and maybe that predisposes me to adversariness. I’m also used to figuring things out for myself, relying on myself, and generally making my own way—and those characteristics were present before I studied law (says my mother).

So when a book of mine hits the shelves, and somebody emails me offering to give me a guest slot on their blog, I’m surprised and thankful.

When I sit down at a signing, and the authors on either side of me immediately introduce themselves and admire my book covers, I feel bashful.

When readers shoot me “enjoyed your book/keep ‘em coming!” emails, I am shamelessly flattered that they’d take the time to appreciate something they paid hard earned coin to own.

When my editor spontaneously gathers up all her authors for a meal at a conference, and gives us a chance to hear from one another about what we’re working on, I forget the food on my plate.

Having my books for sale is encouraging for somebody who does not view another twenty years in the courtroom with boundless glee, but being in a healthy community of writers is… well, it ought to be the last item in one of those credit card ads, the one described as priceless. People pay money to spend time in groups where they’re listened to, encouraged, mentored, made welcome, and supported. Short of family and the occasional church group, that kind of interaction is rare and precious.

All of which is to say, I’m grateful to write romance novels. In the greater world, and the literary world in particular, romance novels are not considered a significant contribution. Our readers feel differently, because, as Julia Quinn also said, “we make people happy, and that matters.”

I’m proud to associate with the people I know who write romance. The overwhelming majority of them are generous, courageous, kind and honorable. Maybe it’s because we believe in the love we write about, maybe it’s because writing is a fundamentally humanizing pursuit.

I don’t know why I’m privileged to associate with such a group, but I’m profoundly grateful to call myself one of them.

What about you? What was your first experience with being part of a group you were proud of and grateful to?

To one commenter below, I’ll send a signed copy 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.



She Who Hesitates

While waiting for my mom to get ready for a trip to the grocery store, I passed the time by perusing the San Diego Union Times. I saw an article go by that described a book touting the idea that in addition to everything else our hurry-up, go-go, do-do lifestyle is costing us, it’s also tempting us into more and more stupid decisions.

I regret I cannot recall the name of the book, but it purported to be a well supported, scientific case for the idea that the best decisions are the ones made with the greatest deliberation, just short of waiting too long. This flies in the face of much that we hear:

Go with your gut.

Your first choice is usually correct.

He who hesitates is lost.

Just do it.

By contrast, the author pointed out something I think should be obvious to everybody who’s ever started doing the homework assignment before the teacher finished explaining it (only to find when they get their grade that they did it wrong): Good decisions are made based on good information. Ergo, the longer you sit with a choice, gathering data about the options, pluses and minuses and your reactions to them, the more likely you are to make a good decision for you.

My editor may be on to the same reasoning, because she has challenged me with my next book (about Sebastian and Milly, whom you haven’t met and I’m just getting to know), to up my craft. Madam Editor says to take my time, to nibble and nosh my way through this book, not set the world on fire with a land speed record.

The result so far (about ten percent done), is a process I’m enjoying very much. I made myself figure out the entire general plot before I worked on the opening scene (thank you, Kansas). I don’t start a scene until I know what makes it an “uncuttable” addition to the book. When I write the scene, I’m mindful to put that uncuttable aspect as close to the end of the scene as I can, and I’m trying to make the writing vivid, precise and wracked with tension.

This is fun. Instead of telling myself, “If I average 3000 words a day, I can finish a draft in a month,” I’m telling myself, “It’s not done until you say it’s done, so take your time, and write the heck out of it.”

We’ll see if I can sustain this approach for an entire book, and what the results are. My next step is to figure out what about impulsive decisionmaking is so attractive, and how I can slow the process down to improve its results.

Do you have any rules of thumb regarding decisions? Do you wait twenty-four hours if it involves money? Always consult your spouse if it’s kid-related? Put off until tomorrow if you can?

To one commenter below, I’ll send a signed copy of the Advanced Reader Copy for “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” or the Grace Burrowes book of their choice.

Dedicated to the Ones I Love…

Invariably, I’ll be writing along, writing, writing on some book or other–my current work in progress (WIP) is Lady Jenny’s story, which will be published October 1, 2013, and be my third Christmas tale–and I’ll get an email from Skye or Susie at my publisher’s office telling me I haven’t yet done a dedication and acknowledgements for a book much closer to publication.

I lift my head up, feeling like a clover-drunk moose staring at two bright oncoming lights. “Which book is that? Who’d you say it’s about? You’re sure I wrote it? Hmm.” Writing the acknowledgments is easy. By the time one of my books hits the shelves, it’s fair to say “I didn’t write that,” in the sense that the book would be a file on my laptop (a large, not so very readable file), but for the efforts of a zillion dedicated professionals who spin my straw into your gold.

The dedication isn’t so easy. Jenny’s book will be dedicated to my brother Dick, who is one of two brothers thirteen years my senior My first distinct memory of Dick was when I was five years old and he was eighteen. I’d gone to a first grade practice day as the kindergarten year ended, and the experience was horrifying (from my perspective). The “guests” sat at the back of the room on the hard floor for hours while a nun in an all black traditional habit batted off at the front of the room about things I could not understand, much less see.

When my brother Dick arrived to take me home at mid-day, I RAN to him, and he swung me up on his shoulders right there in the classroom. After flirting a little with Sister, he took me away from that bad, scary place, and got me home. Even at that age, I understood  that if my brother treated me specially in front of all those people, two conclusions followed. A) They would think I was special, and B) I was special, at least to him.

How do I embody that memory in a few line at the front of a book? This is the same guy who told me the best way to create an arc for a romance hero was to make him choose between the competing demands of honor–which is brilliant, also the modern adult male’s dilemma in a nutshell.

I have some time to work on that particular dedication, which is good because I really want it to shine.

If you were going to dedicate a book to someone, what would you say? To one commenter, I’ll send out a signed Advanced Reader Copy of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” the first book in the MacGregor Brothers trilogy of Scottish Victorian romances.


My Favorite Line

I have a lot of favorite books. As a kid, I loved the Uncle Wiggly series, mostly because my dad read it to us at bedtime, and seemed to enjoy the Skillery-skallery Alligator more even than my brothers did. Dad also referred to my mom, a registered nurse, as Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy, which probably endeared the series to us further.

I adore certain passages of the Bible as translated in the King James version. Regardless of any theological inclinations, this is gorgeous, vintage English employed in the expression of some beautiful sentiments.

In first grade, I read about Dick, Jane and Sally (though I always wanted more stories for Spot and Puff), and was soon reading every horse story the school library contained. I quickly moved on to anything Hardy Boys, some Bobsey Twins, and a smattering of biographies.

Then, in third grade, we had a story hour one day over in Mrs. Sofranko’s room, and that is when I learned the meaning a “favorite” book. Mrs. Delores Sofranko was cool. She’d done a Peace Corps year in Nigeria, she was pretty, and she had a smile that said every child she ever met was a wonder to her. The lady could teach.

The book she chose to read to us that day was simple, not even a chapter book, though her audience had reached the venerable and smug age of eight. I mean, this was a children’s book, but I gobbled up every word of, “The Dot and the Line.”

A tall, dark, relentlessly straight Line, falls in love with a carefree, happy-go-lucky Dot. She thinks he’s serious, dull and not worth a second look—the mad Squiggle is ever so much more fun— until the Line realizes he can… bend. With some effort and imagination, the line bends to form an angle, and then he contorts himself into increasingly fascinating geometric shapes. As the book progresses, so does the romance, until at the end, the Dot and the Line realize they can live happily ever after.

Put them together as illustrator and author Norton Juster did at the end of the tale, and you get an exclamation point! In the movie version (there was one), the tagline is: To the vector go the spoils.

The subtitle for the book is, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics.” I loved it. When we were given an art assignment to draw a scene from the book, I drew the Dot and the Line eating popcorn on a park bench. They didn’t quite sit next to each other, so we know the scene was from the first half of the book—right?

I loved the cleverness of the book, the utter impossibility of two such different characters finding a way to be together. I loved that the Dot had to realize that the Squiggle was silly and disorganized, while the Line had find the courage for self-expression and creativity. These characters had arcs, they had to risk changing their self-concepts, and they found their Happily Ever After.

When Jo Bourne won her RITA for the Best Historical Romance of 2011, she used her moment at the microphone to thank her teachers. I didn’t start writing romances until I was in my late forties, but my enthusiasm for the genre traces back to that day 45 years ago, when I heard an inspired teacher read a simple book, “The Dot and the Line.”

 What’s the first book that stuck with you? Any idea what made it so memorable? To one commenter, I’ll send a Toby Stephens version of the “Jane Eyre” DVD.

The Big Squee

The 2012 Annual Conference for Romance Writers of America has just wrapped up, and I think it’s pretty much true a good time was had by all. This, to me, is remarkable.

Take 2000-plus, articulate, talented, determined women, put them essentially in competition with each other for very scarce publication resources, add some alcohol (some is a relative term), sleep deprivation, travel hassles, and awards-ceremony tension. Toss in the zipper that sticks just before a pitch session, the room key that won’t work, and the crises at home that MUST pop up when Mom or Wife goes AWOL for more than a day, and…

You get one of the nicest gatherings of any professional association I’ve ever attended. I put off attending any writers’ conference at all until I had nearly two dozen completed manuscripts. I dreaded giving up any of my precious unstructured time to a gathering I was certain would be a cross between Survivor and Sorority Carnivores From Outer Space.

I could not have been more wrong. Maybe I’ve spent too much time around litigating attorneys, maybe I don’t understand my own gender; more likely, romance writers are a culture unique on the planet. They believe in true love, they believe the big prize is a chance to live a life based on honor and integrity, they believe in an abundant universe despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

I was nominated for a RITA award this year, which went to the very talented and gracious Tessa Dare. She deserves it–she deserves several RITAs, come to that–but being nominated made me ponder what I’d say to my professional community if I had their attention for ninety seconds.

I’d say what every award winner said when it was her turn in the spotlight: Thank you. Thank you for being such a supportive, adult, generous, constructive group of people. Thank you for offering a sense of community, regardless of our differences. Thank you for writing all those wonderful books, because the world needs happily ever  afters and the people who believe in them.

OK. Now, over to you. You have the microphone, the spotlight’s on you. If you could tell your immediate community anything, if you could focus their attention in any direction, what would you say?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Joanna Bourne’s RITA award winning historical romance, The Black Hawk.


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?