Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 4

In fun news, Not Quite a Husband has been picked by two of All About Romance’s reviewers as their top read of 2009, which quite thrills me. But even more thrilling is the news that the big winner of this year’s AAR reviewers’s choice award (with a grand total of four votes, which, given the diverse tastes at AAR, constitutes quite a landslide) is none other than Bound by Your Touch, by Plotters and Manipulators United’s own Meredith Duran!

And I do apologize.  I completely forgot that I hadn’t quite finished the series yet.  But we are almost there.  🙂

Do your H/H affect each other’s growth?

Character growth can come from many different places.  But since we write romance, presumably our readers are most interested in growth that come from the events, realizations, epiphanies, and choices that originate from the core romantic relationship.

Pride and Prejudice–and I will totally challenge to a duel anyone who says P&P is not a romance—is beloved for precisely this reason.  [Well, and beautiful Pemberley too, but I will try to keep my shallowness in check here. 🙂 ]

Read what Mr. Darcy says to Lizzie at the end of the book:

“Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me.”


“My object then was to show you, by every civility in my power, that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to.

In more modern parlance, Mr. Darcy basically said, “Honey, you were so right.  About everything!  And I’ve changed because I recognized just how doggone right you were.”


Long live Mr. Darcy.

Kristan Higgins in Da House

When I’m not reading Kristan’s books, I obsessively pore over her blog. I have New England envy, especially in summer, which lasts from March to November in Austin, Texas and grows hotter every year. So I lose myself in Kristan’s chronicle of her life in Connecticut, in her tales of late snow, cool summers, and fall foliage. Her family makes their own maple syrup. How cool is that?

And when I can treat myself to a new Kristan Higgins book, what strikes me the most is always the community that she builds: family, neighbors, friends, townspeople, a cohesive and caring whole. Her stories are affirming, without being treacly; funny, but still full of substance; and they always put a big smile on my face.

Not Quite Enough about Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins Photo

Kristan Higgins lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband, two lovely children, their devoted dog, and a regal and somewhat elderly cat named Cinnamon. They spend as much time as possible at their family home on Cape Cod, swimming in the Atlantic, shivering on the beach, swatting horseflies and watching fish evade Kristan’s lure at Higgins Pond. It’s as close to heaven as it gets.

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I have a major drawback as a professional writer: I can’t think and write at the same time.  Or rather, I can’t think and write and judge my own work at the same time.

I have a non-drawback as a professional writer: I don’t get blocked.  I can get words on paper, lots of words, if they are what’s required.

Combine the first two, you have a delivered first draft of somewhat questionable quality

I have a possibly unusual aversion: I ban anything that is remotely true–or even reminiscent–of my personal life from the pages of my books.

I also have rather definite tastes in what I like as a romance reader: characters who have lots of legitimate beef with each other; characters who won’t make anyone else happy but each other.  I.e., somewhat strange, off-kilter relationships.

Which means that a lot of time when I’m just writing–and not thinking–I have no idea where this high-stake, grievance-laden, completely-unfamiliar-to-me relationship is going.  Who the heck are these people?  And why are their lives so eff-ed up?

Which means a first draft that goes entirely off the rail at some point: halfway, two-thirds, last quarter–maybe all of them.

Now let’s add one more somewhat strange aversion: I don’t like plot.  I don’t have anything against plots per se; I enjoy a good mystery, thriller, and SF as much as anyone else.  And one of the reasons I adore the first Harry Potter is precisely for the beauty of its impeccably woven plot.  I just don’t like a lot of external plot in a historical romance.  What I prefer is to place my characters in a situation, hopefully of their own making, and then just sit back and watch them dig their way out.  (Which in a first draft they typically end up tunneling directly into a sewer main, but hey, that just means they have to start over again.)

But HIS AT NIGHT had to have a plot, what with the hero being a secret agent and all.  But I resisted–oh, how I resisted.  In the first version I did away with the villain by chapter two–not the falling off a cliff only to come back at the end kind of doing away.  Dude was really, really dead and gone.  Buried.  Feeding maggots.  In the second version I offed him midway through the book.  Just have no interest in stand-alone villains.  Much more fun letting hero and heroine be their own worst villains.  And the hero is a secret agent?  Well, who gives a crap about the rest of his case once he has met the heroine.  Time for moody angst!

Have I mentioned that the first complete draft of HIS AT NIGHT was an EPIC FAIL?

Yes, it was.  *nods head sagely*  And this was  WITH my editor reading along the way, so as to avoid another first-draft fail.  Somehow her repeated advice that I give the story a backbone of a strong plot fell on deaf ears–or blind eyes, I guess, since we communicate almost exclusively by email.  I should have known, as in the final weeks before I handed in the first draft my head shattered in excruciating pain every time I worked on the damn thing–and my head never hurts while working on a book unless things are going horribly wrong.

At–thanks Jessica RRR–there is a de-motivation poster that says, “PERSEVERANCE: The courage to ignore the obvious wisdom of turning back.”  That would be me.

So…the overhauls.

No need to talk about the versions that had been discarded along the way.  Following the first complete draft, the overhaul centered on that backbone of plot–for the events of the book to cohere.  It was a 60-70% rewrite.  Which did improve the plot very much but when the line edits came back, it became obvious–after my editor pointed it out left and right–that the book had lost a lot of its urgency and sharpness.  So at the line edit stage, which should be the writing equivalent of sprinkling the chopped parsley and maybe a bit more of freshly ground pepper on the finished dish, I cooked the darn dish from the beginning again–another 40-50% overhaul.

(I was hoping this would be NQAH amount of work, but it turned out to be DELICIOUS redux–ack!–and in half the time, no less.)

As I progressed through this final rewrite, whenever I refinished a portion of the book, I would send it to my beloved Janine, who was reading it for the first time, for copyediting–the amount of changes I’d made meant that the official copyedits, which was made on the same line-edited manuscript, weren’t as useful–and critiquing.

It soon became clear from Janine’s copious and meticulous comments that in all that wrestling with plot and coherence, I’d 1)forgotten how to properly structure a sentence and 2)far worse, largely neglected the emotions in certain key scenes.  The two stem from the same source, i.e., trying not to sink too much time on prose when the larger structure of the book remained unresolved.  But at some point, especially in a book about the matters of the heart, one has to sink into character and feel, and that is impossible with pages upon pages of just dialogue and action.

It was like learning to write all over again: delving into character emotions, developing insights, ratcheting up the tension, making scenes matter.

Everything was working beautifully up until the beginning of chapter 20.  As my deadline neared again, it dawn on me that I still hadn’t properly resolved one of the major issues near the end of the book, when secrets and lies burst open, past and present collide, and LOTS OF STUFF hang in balance, because my God, who the hell are these people and why are their lives so fucked and how am I supposed to know how anyone would do in such a FUBAR situation?  The last time I led a double-life and my lies exploded in my face was when I was in fifth grade, when it was finally discovered that I, the model student*, had stopped doing my homework weeks ago.

I stopped sleeping.  At one point, so sleep-deprived, I started writing a farce of an ending, giggling all the while.  My critique partner, Janine, who stayed up one whole night and half the next day with me–I can never be grateful enough–sagely put down her foot and told me to stop and take a nap.

I did managed to get down a non-farcical version and turn it in to the typesetter.  But less than 24 hours later, I realized how I really should have written it.  So, over the holidays, I went over most of the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, and then took a ball-wrecker to the last 2.5 chapters.

Now I’m finally happy–ecstatic, actually–with the book.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard.  I have hated all my books during the writing.  All of them, passionately.  But somehow, by the magic of creative alchemy, by the time I get to the end, I am just in love: This book and I, we have come through so much, we have quarreled, fought, and battled through innumerable problems and now we have finally reached OUR happily ever after.

I often hesitate to recommend my books to people, because I never know how any given story of mine will interact with any given reader.  But this I can say: Whenever I look at one of my books on the shelf, I sigh and go, you are so perfect–for me.

And now HIS AT NIGHT has joined the ranks of those books that are perfect for me.

*Actually, by Chinese standards, I was a somewhat problematic student, but my grades kept my teachers from targeting me too hard.

A Sinkful of Blood

Years ago, I read–listened to, rather–It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong’s memoir.  The book chronicled his struggle with cancer, his subsequent recovery, and the winning of his first Tour de France victory.  I have by now forgotten most details from the book, except for one particularly gory and memorable scene.

Armstrong had been hurting for a while, his body issuing miscellaneous warning signs.  But like most young men, and I would imagine, especially like most young athletes in superb conditioning trained to withstand tremendous amount of pain and discomfort in the pursuit of glory, he ignored his symptoms.  And ignored them.  And ignored them.

Until one day he threw up a sinkful of blood.

If you are sufficiently plugged into the romance world, you already know that it’s been an eye-popping, jaw-dropping couple of days.  Harlequin’s announcement of the self-publishing (or is it vanity publishing) venture it has branded, the riveting threads at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, and RWA’s swift and dramatic rescission of Harlequin’s status as a RWA-recognized publisher this evening.

In a way, you can say that I have no dog in this fight.  Harlequin is not my publisher.  My personal eligibility status at RWA will not change.  And as I am so freaking slow writing for even one publisher, I really have not been eyeing anyone else in the business for potential contracts.

And yet I found myself on the phone this evening–a rare thing as I’m almost never on the phone–groaning together with my friend, who does write for Harlequin, among other publishers.  Her inbox has been inundated with hundreds of emails from the Harlequin author loops to which she belongs–and she gets her mail in digest form.

Afterwards I tried to explain the whole thing to His Hawtness, not just the facts of it, but why I was on the phone groaning.  And it was difficult.  The spouse is a very logical man.  He asked a series of very reasonable questions.  If there are already other vanity publishers, how does it make any difference that now there is another one?  If Harlequin Horizons tells people that they are paying for only possibilities, not concrete promised results, how does that hurt its current authors?  And how does anyone even know whether the venture would be a success, since the rates listed on the Harlequin Horizons website are, if not exorbitant, at least quite outside industry norms?

HIs Hawtness is not the only one asking such questions.  Jane of Dear Author, I believe, is also trying to nail down the exact source of the outpouring of discontent.  These two people have never clapped eyes on each other, but they have something in common: They have both long been aware of the decline and oncoming death of publishing as we currently know it.

We do too, we authors.  We see the unsustainable business model, the erosion of profits, and the stagnation of reading as a form of entertainment.  We prepare ourselves mentally for what news might come.  But we, in a sense, are Lance Armstrong: We are still ignoring the symptoms as much as we can.

Harlequin Horizon is that sinkful of blood that can no longer be ignored.  For me, it’s unease turning into anxiety.  For many other authors, I imagine it’s anxiety turning into near-panic.  How bad are things if Harlequin Enterprises, much envied and admired for its nimbleness, market penetration, and profitablity, not only turns to vanity publishing, but puts its vaunted brand name on the venture?

I understand business cycles.  I understand the changes often happen in bursts.  I even understand that Harlequin might NOT be pressured by its struggling parent company to produce maximum cash to help the entire conglomerate’s bottom line, but simply decided on its own to respond to a changing environment by trying something unprecedented.  But that does not alter the fact that the formation of Harlequin Horizons and the subsequent reactions to it together comprise the most visceral signal I have encountered thus far on just what kind of convulsive, likely cataclysmic changes there will be.

Let me make myself clear.  I am not saying that Harlequin Horizons will bring down publishing–far from it.  Publishing is already going down.  If publishing is the Titanic, then the current brouhaha surrounding HH is not the iceberg–not at all–but the scraping sound and the jolt that alert the passengers after the fact that something has gone awry.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happened.  Pandemonium.  First-class passengers got on the lifeboats while steerage passengers drowned.  And a lot of us authors, not to put too fine a point on it, are steerage passengers on the good ship Titanic.  What is going to happen to us now?

To me, that, more than anything else specifically about Harlequin Horizons as a venture, is the reason for the hundreds of email digests my friend is receiving from her fellow Harlequin authors.  It is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  It capstones all the worries and jitters that those of us who still have contracts have been experiencing–and fighting.

Of course, there is still hope.  To go back to the example at the beginning of this post, Lance Armstrong not only survived cancer, he went on to an astonishing athletic career, achieving more than he ever did before.  Who knows, maybe there will be a renaissance of reading.  Maybe the business will finally arrive at a sustainable, responsible, and profitable model.  Maybe we will in the end have less number of books published overall, but a far greater number of outstanding books.

But in the meanwhile, between that sinkful of blood and eventual glory, there were some awfully rough times for Armstrong.  And there will be in this industry for us.  No doubt about it now.

ETA: This post is very much influenced by Lynne Connolly’s post at The Good, The Bad, and The Unread, which I read last week.

German PA & Thai NQAH

And a brief coming-up-for-air update.

It was an overhaul again–HIS AT NIGHT, that is. One of those days I’d love to have only revisions but so far it’s been overhaul after overhaul. It’s still not finished yet, but it’s getting there and of course it was worth it.

Heard briefly from my fellow blogger Meredith at the end of October. She is superbusy in India but will hopefully be able to breathe easier soon. We miss you, Meredith.

And now onto the covers. 🙂

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Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 3

Physical description is a gold mine for a romance writer to heighten chemistry.

Especially when the hero/heroine is viewed through the eyes of the other.

  1. This is a very legitimate way to build physical awareness.  Because as one character is taking in the other physically and processing that information, they are, by the very nature of that act, becoming increasingly physically aware of that person.
  2. We are full of minor, interesting imperfections that if we observe about ourselves, would make us come across as either anal or appearance obsessed.  By having another character do it, particularly if it is a little detail that might not even get noticed by someone paying less attention, underscores that person’s physic al interest in us.
  3. By what he or she notices, you are revealing things about the POV character.
  4. By what he or she thinks as he or she observes the other character, you are revealing even more about the POV character.

And here is a massterful example from Meredith Duran, excerpted from Bound by Your Touch:

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UPDATED: His At Night–Preliminary Cover

Here it is!


The art department will be working to make the dress pop more from background.  I asked for my usual corrections (longer fingers and less boob on the hero).  And then, making my agent laugh her head off, I asked for a daintier foot on the heroine.

But other than those minor quibbles, I love this  cover.  Love the color and the flounces on her dress.  Love that there is more ladyback and less mantitty.   Besides, this cover continues the tradition of putting my heroine in a dress she never wears in the book.  🙂

When I get the final cover, we’ll do a side-by-side (or more likely a top-by-bottom) comparison to see if I get my wishes.

And in other news, the release date for HIS AT NIGHT is now May 25, 2010.

Updates below the fold. 

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Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 2

A critical element to great chemistry is respect.  Your hero and heroine should see each other as equals, and not out of some politically correct we-all-have-the-spark-of-divinity worldview, but because they forcibly strike each other as so.

A perfect example below, from the Loretta Chase classic Lord of Scoundrels:

“Perhaps I had better demonstrate how the thing operates,” said Dain, yanking her attention to him.

In his low voice, Jessica recognized the too innocent tones that inevitably preceded a male’s typically idiotic idea of a joke.  She could have explained that, not having been born yesterday, she knew very well how the timepiece operated.  But the glint in his black eyes told her he was mightily amused, and she didn’t want to spoil his fun.  Yet.

“How kind,” she murmured.

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Chemistry 101–Mini-Lesson 1

Reader Beth had suggested that I make a blog post of the workshop on romantic chemistry that I gave at RWA National.  My immediate response was a demurral.  I had 11 pages of speaking notes–it couldn’t be done.  But then I gave the workshop again recently to my local RWA group, and afterwards I thought, you know, the best part of any such workshop is always the examples.  And I definitely can put up the examples and why I used them as a series of blog posts.  So thank you Beth, and here we go.

What makes for good chemistry?  Great conflict.

What makes for great conflict?  As my critique partner Janine asks, what are the lies that your character tells himself to get through the day?  Who is the person who by the very fact of her existence, by everything she says and does, exposes your character’s lies to himself as just that, lies?

In other words, who is this person who would cause the greatest amount of emotional disturbance in your character?  Who is the person your character most fears for the truth she represent, and yet who cannot be dismissed, precisely because of the truth she represents?

Put these two people together and you have tension, conflict, and chemistry.


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