Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 5

In this concluding installment, I’m going to play the role of the thought police.

It is inevitable that your H/H think about each other.  And they should.  But remember, do not duplicate real life here and write long scenes where nothing goes on except somebody reliving events that had already taken place.  We know what happened already. Move on to the next set of events.

But what about the non-POV character, you ask?  We need to know what the non-POV character’s reaction was to the kiss/screw/crisis.

It’s okay.  Move on with the story, have the hero and the heroine do what they need to do, and then to have them think what happened or think of each other only when triggered.

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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.

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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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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In which Meredith interrogates Sherry on craft

Meredith: Look at any forum devoted to writing and you’ll find a few topics dedicated to the “standard questions” that writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you find the time?  How do you figure out what happens next?  How do you manage to actually finish a story?

These questions may be standard, but the answers are anything but.  Every writer seems to have a slightly (or drastically) different way of working.

Some of the methods I’ve come across make me white with terror.  For example, covering my entire living room wall with color-coded 8×6 Post It notes. Or outlining.  Others turn me green with jealousy (ahem: the Shitty First Draft).  All of them fascinate me. There may, in fact, be something a bit neurotic about the avidity with which I read explanations of methods that I know won’t work for me.  It reminds me of that phase in eighth grade when my friends and I used to get together to bake brownies, drink milkshakes, and watch exercise videos.

Anyway, there’s a specific reason that craft — and in particular, craftly excellence — is on my mind.  I’ve just reread Sherry’s new release, Not Quite a HusbandNQAH effortlessly blends superb prose, incredibly nuanced characterization,  sizzling chemistry, very hot sex, and other manner of high drama (rebellions! potentially fatal illnesses! death-defying treks! many whizzing bullets!) into a moving, dare I say epic romance that traverses a not-so-familiar but altogether fascinating part of the world.  It’s a tour de force, and since I share a blog with her, I get to ask how she does it.  Sherry, brace yourself for interrogation!

(Sherry: When I first joined RWA–after finishing the first draft of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS–and heard people mention the RWA craft-loop, I used to think it was women more dexterous than me talking about their macramé.  That should tell you how much I know about craft.  So read at your own peril!)

Sherry, I understand that the idea for NQAH was sparked by a viewing of The Painted Veil.  How do you proceed once you’ve got the seedling of an idea?  Do you outline, do you daydream, or do you simply begin to write?

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Confessions of a Former Special Effects Junkie

When I was a kid, I was a special effects junkie. I loved them. I just loved them. I would watch sci-fi movies with even the most ridiculous premise if it meant I got to see futuristic vehicles and technologies. One time I even watched a horror movie by accident because the poster looked as if there might be some interest special effects.

The first time I realized that special effects wasn’t enough for me anymore was at a movie called Lost in Space. It had some cool effects moments, but the story was so ridiculous, the characters so cardboard-y, that I came out of the movie theater shaking my head. But nothing drove home the limited effects of special effects like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The trailer of the movie gave me shivers. The imagery was beautiful and fantastic. I read every article about the movie leading up to its release, tried to download a second trailer onto my desktop on a dial-up connection, and saw the movie the second day after it opened, late at night. The whole theater exploded into applause at “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” There were only a few half-hearted claps at the end of the movie.

When I watched the first trilogy again, I marveled. How was it that the mere image of Tatooine’s twin suns setting could affect me so much? And why was it that a Death Star made of plastic toy parts felt so real while Jar Jar Binks, despite his photorealism and painstaking details, was a stupid cartoon who only wished he were Roger Rabbit?

I’ve come around full circle in a similar way about on-page sex in romances.

I think I am fairly typical for someone who cut her romance teeth as a teenager on books by Rosemary Rogers and Johanna Lindsey. I like that heat. I expect that heat. I’m a firm believer in that you can talk all you want about metaphysical true love, but sustained physical attraction has to serve as the foundation to any successful relationship.

In other words, I’m all for the hot. But the more I read, the more I realize that unfortunately on-screen sex ≠ hot. A lot of times on-screen sex can be as dull as PCAOB Standards, and a jumble of pink parts madly attaching, detaching, inserting, squirting about as arousing as stray dogs in rut–I’d stop to look for a moment, but I certainly wouldn’t be fanning myself.

Many a time I’d wished that George Lucas didn’t have a practically unlimited budget to diddle around with special effects when he was making The Phantom Menace. When you watch the Star Wars prequels on DVD and listen to the commentary, only the effects people are there–the visuals so consumed Uncle George that character, story, and everything else took a backseat. Similarly, all the emphasis on hot in recent years has produced some reading material that’s taboo, derivative, and boring all at once–committing the unspeakable crime of sucking the fun out of hot loving.

Hot loving, like fab visual effects, should not be an end in themselves. They should exist only to serve the story. They should be an AND, not a BUT, as in “The movie rocked, AND the visual effects were kickass,”–The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, anyone?–and not “The sex was hot, BUT the story made no sense and the characters were made from soggy construction paper.”

The story always has to come first.

No pun intended. I swear.

Many Delicious Beginnings

DELICIOUS is the world’s hardest book to write. [And if you don’t think so, you can come write it for me. :-)] Fortunately, many, many months after I first set out to write a book of Victorian food porn, I’ve finally stumbled onto the story at the core of it.

I know perfectly fabulous authors who say that they don’t know how a book begins until after they have written “The End.” I don’t work like that. I can’t work backwards or write chapter 26 when I haven’t written chapters 1-25. So for me, the beginning of the book is always crucial. It tells me how the rest of the book should read.

This is the first beginning for DELICIOUS.

It was a truth almost universally acknowledged that Madame Durant’s cooking killed Bertie Somerset. The proponents of this conjecture intended it to be a moral lesson—Mr. Somerset, having paid for his gluttony with an early demise, would dine for the remainder of eternity where steaks were perpetually charred and soufflés everlastingly flat.

But the fortunate few who had actually been invited to Bertie Somerset’s fabled twenty-course spreads pondered that same theory with awed envy. Lucky chap, to have feasted upon Madame Durant’s delectable food for more than a decade, and then to have departed this earth with his face buried in a bowl of the silkiest, densest mousse au chocolat known to man. Lucky chap indeed.

While England’s dozen or so gastronomes reminisced fondly over tarte au citron and escargot en croute, the rest of Society, master and servant alike, regurgitated old rumors concerning the special relationship between Mr. Somerset and Mme. Durant—namely, whether she slept with him and how often, though more intrepid souls went so far as to speculate on depravities involving pastry cream and rolling pins.

Long time readers might remember that I blogged about the demise of this opening back in November. I really adored it, but I decided to go with a more utilitarian opening, to help me grope my way in the dark. So for a month or so, the novel began thusly:

The kitchen door burst open and slammed into the wall, rattling rows of copper pans, startling one of them off its hook. The pan hit the floor hard, bounced and wobbled, its metallic bangs and scrapes echoing in the steam and smolder of the kitchen. Verity looked up sharply. No one made noises while she worked.

“Madame,” Dickie, the second footman, gasped from the doorway, sweat dampening his hair despite the November chill. “Mr. Somerset—Mr. Somerset, he be not right!”

Something about Dickie’s wild expression suggested that Bertie was far worse than “not right”. Verity motioned Effie Briggs, her lead apprentice, to take over her spot before the stove. She wiped her hands on a clean towel and went to the door.

“What’s the matter?” she said, walking in long strides to keep up with the second footman as he scrambled in the direction of the house.

“He be oot cold.”

“Has someone sent for Dr. Mead?”

“Mick from the stables jus’ rode out.”

She’d forgotten her shawl. The cold in the unheated passage between kitchen and manor made her shiver. They pushed open what seemed an endless series of doors—doors to the mud room, the warming kitchen, another passage, the butler’s pantry.

Her heart thumped as they entered the dining room. But it was empty, save for an ominously overturned chair. On the floor by the chair was a puddle of water and, a little away, a miraculously unbroken crystal goblet. A half-finished bowl of onion soup still sat at the head of the table, waiting for the lunch to resume.

As I said, utilitarian. And I can’t do dialect to save my life.

Somewhere in the first week or two of December, I was doing some work with the A&E Pride & Prejudice DVD playing in the background. As the mini-series ended, and the happy newlywed couples got into their carriages, I suddenly realized that my hero and heroine had met before. (This is the one big trick I have up my sleeve. Whenever I can’t think what to do, I make my h/h old lovers.) The “Aha” moment led to this beginning:

A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, Stuart Somerset had once read. He’d always supposed it to be a rallying cry for the crush of young ladies swamping London every spring, each seeking to marry and marry up. It wasn’t until he came into some successes of his own that he began to understand that Miss Austen had, in fact, penned an astute observation of the male psyche.

A man blessed by Fortune wanted a wife because he could brandish no greater, more visible symbol of that good fortune. His prowess and competence was measured by the fineness of her eyes, the music of her speech, and the elegance of her figure gliding across a ballroom floor. Her desirability augmented his stature; her virtue, his respectability.

These two elegant paragraphs opened the book in the version that went to my editor. A 16-page, single-spaced revision letter came back, promptly much soul searching. I wrote yet another new beginning.

Verity Durant was famous in Paris and infamous in London.

Her Gallic celebrity was the result of her culinary prowess, reputed to rivaled that of the great Auguste Escoffier. French gastronomes who had feasted upon her twenty-course spreads carried home with them reverent tales of her remarkable discipline, her impeccable technique, and most of all, her divine food–so potent that old men dined with the gusto and hunger of adolescent boys, and so alluring that even new lovers forsook each other, at least for the duration of the meal, for the pleasures she proffered.

The English public, largely uninterested in food but extraordinarily titillated by sexual improprieties, knew her mainly for her torrid affair with Bertie Somerset, her patron and employer. After all, it was repeatedly whispered that she ruled her kitchen with an iron fist, that she received an exorbitant salary per annum, that she threw pies in old Bertie’s face without fear of dismissal, and that in person—not that many had seen her in person—she was the most underrated beauty since Cinderella.

Now here, for pedagogical purposes, allow me to present the first three paragraphs of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS.

Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society’s stamp of approval.

Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Frau Von Teese’s special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.

No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life’s vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.

Yep. With DELICIOUS, I was very much trying to recapture the mood that I had set in those three paragraphs for PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS. And in doing so, I forgot two very important things. One, DELICIOUS is a very different story, not same but different, but different different. Two, in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a few paragraphs down, I had this:

Therefore, when Lady Tremaine filed for divorce on grounds of Lord Tremaine’s adultery and desertion, chins collided with dinner plates throughout London’s most pedigreed dining rooms. Ten days later, as news circulated of Lord Tremaine’s arrival on English soil for the first time in a decade, the same falling jaws dented many an expensive carpet from the heart of Persia.

And that, was no empty atmospheric mumble-jumble. It set up the conflict and immediately pushes the story close to the brink–passion, Anger, SEX! Thud. None of my DELICIOUS openings had this crucial storytelling component, despite all the wordsmithing that went into them.

Finally, after much more soul searching–okay, I can’t lie any more, I never soul search. I was just sitting on the bus to school, thinking about the test I had to take, and suddenly I knew how I should begin DELICIOUS. It goes a little something like this.

In retrospect people say that it was a Cinderella story.

Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the story seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.

There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand—a man who would very likely one day, fifteen years hence, occupy 10 Downing Street and pass such radical reforms as to provide pensions for the elderly and health insurance to the working class.

There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. For others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that new lovers forsook each other, as long as a crumb remained on the table.

There was a ball, not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evil Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.

A Cinderella story, indeed.

Or was it?

It all began—or resumed, depending on how one looked at it—the day Bertie Somerset died.

Is this opening truly superior to all the others? I haven’t the slightest idea. But it drives me. It tells me exactly what my characters would do, exactly how each scene should read, and exactly how much flab I should cut out from what I’ve written so as to achieve the desired emotional intensity.

And so I think I’ll stick with it.

P.S. PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is now available for pre-order at Amazon.

The Element of Style—Blades of Glory

My friend Janine wrote a heartfelt entreaty a few weeks ago at Dear Author, wondering why we don’t see more breathtaking writing from genre fiction in general, and the romance genre in particular. Her opening example was a bit unfair, being that it was only from the greatest American novel ever penned. But Janine’s lament on the dearth of style and gorgeous word-smithing has long been my own.

As I read the elegant examples she gave, my mind turned, not to words, but to something that has occupied a special place in my heart since I first saw it fifteen years ago.

This program, skated to Franz Listz’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love), was and remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. From the choreography, to the execution, to the individual qualities the skaters bring to the ice—his strength, presence, and flair, her loveliness, fragility, and seemingly inborn sadness, their unusual chemistry of both intimacy and distance—I lose myself in it every time.

It is a dance of poignant longing and stunning intensity. And yet it is more than a dance, it is a sports program that had won world championships and an Olympic gold medal in its time. The skaters—the great and, alas, no-long-together team of Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev—performed all the risky elements required of elite pairs skaters in their era: side-by-side triple toe loop, side-by-side double axels, one triple twist and two triple throws.

Because mere beauty is not enough to make a competitive program work. You have to deliver the elements too. Falls on the jumps and breaks in unison make the audience groan and ruin the overall effect. In this, I feel, an Olympic-eligible figure skating program is very much like a work of genre fiction.

People read genre fiction with some rather specific expectations. SF is about saving the world. Fantasy is about the quest. Mysteries need to bring the murderer to justice. And romance, in my understanding, has to deliver hope and fulfillment.

Ergo, since most genre fiction is driven by factors other than beauty of prose, cadence of language, and powers of imagery and metaphors—as if a figure skating program required only the elements—most genre fiction isn’t known for stylish writing. And what stylish writing we get is from writers who, though they choose to work within the boundaries of the genre and compete on its terms, can’t imagine sending their stories out of the door without having polished their prose until it gleams like the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Meaning, they are doing extra work. Work that may or may not be appreciated by readers who pick up a book mainly for the story—not for splendor of the writing itself. Work that would demand extra time and effort on the writer’s part when s/he already has to contend with the major elements of plot, character, dialogue, pacing, and, if you write romance, character growth and chemistry. Work that doesn’t have a market mandate, given that a breakneck pace or a pair of hotly interacting lovers can sell quite well even when depicted in pedestrian language.

I choose to do that work. Because the stories that touch me most are not only beautiful, but beautifully written. Because I find that lovely writing, when married to an expertly crafted story, adds immeasurably to my enjoyment. Because I want to build the Taj Mahal.

One day.

Give Me Sex or Give me Death

Apologies to Patrick Henry.

Way back—gosh, was it only six months ago?—when I sent off the partial for SCHEMES OF LOVE to Kristin Nelson, I wrote an accompanying cover letter that contained a “one paragraph blurb that summarizes your work and highlights your pitch” that she specified in her request.

Not being shy, I informed Kristin in the cover letter that my romance novel contained the best hook of all: mandatory sex. Yep, in those exact words. The heroine wants a divorce, the hero insists on an heir before he’d allow the divorce to go through. And we’ve got one very hot book.

There is a reason that romances with setups that stipulate mandatory sex—marriages of convenience, girl selling herself to the highest bidder, etc. etc.—remain perennially popular. We are, or at least I am, hardwired to enjoy the frisson we get when we know something steamy is afoot.

And for that very reason, I am usually drawn to write historical romances that take place in what I call a hermetically sealed bedroom. Hero, meet Heroine, meet Four-poster-bed. What do you mean you don’t know what to do? You are married, aren’t you? And even if you aren’t, you’ve signed a deal in blood to boink for three months straight. I have it right here in chapter three, so get on with it. And neither of you are allowed out until your cynical black hearts break a little bit.

I’m sure you see now why I was pulling my hair out over DELICIOUS. No mandatory sex. This couple, for perverse reasons that drive my muse to the opium den, do not need to sleep together. They want to, but they don’t need to, and the reasons against it are legion, and all I’ve got, in my puny armory of writerly devices, is whatever overriding passion I can foment in them.

And then, because I am a charter member of Romance Writers against Deliberate Character Manipulation, I can’t make the heroine run outside during a freezing downpour just so the hero can find her and strip her of her sodden night rail. Or put the hero in a hallucinating high fever, because damn it, she is his cook, not his maid or housekeeper, and she won’t be the one standing by his bedside should he yank someone down on top of himself. And even when I abandon my principles and have her get tipsy, he wouldn’t take advantage of her inebriation. What has the world come to, I ask you?

So what is a writer of reputedly hot romances to do? Write, I guess, and pray, and stake out all the opium dens nearby in case her muse wobbles out, ready to be taken home for some tender loving care.

Stay tuned for irregular future updates in The Mighty Struggle for a Good Shag.