love is dangerous

Love is dangerous. Love threatens everything we are, threatens to break the world open.

There’s this great two-piece post by thejgatsbykid and Foz Meadows about Kylo Ren as a romantic figure; it suggests teenage girls are reading him as romantic because they’re taught to read abuse as love.

Abusive behaviour isn’t a new topic in the romance community. The first romance-only bookstore in the US doesn’t stock Fifty Shades of Grey because they think it depicts an abusive relationship.

I really liked the post about Ren because for the first time it made me think personally about how I’ve been trained to read romance. I have absolutely experienced what Meadows describes when reading intentionally abusive characters: ‘At times, I’d even feel frustrated that a particular story wasn’t doing what I’d anticipated – why wasn’t the heroine together with that guy? Why had the narrative set them up romantically, then dropped him off the board?’

I read romance first and foremost for an emotional experience. My adult life is so much steadier, emotionally, than my teenage life. I’m more focussed, more sure of where I’m going, who my affection and loyalties lie with, what my faults are. But my god, there is still an ocean of teenage longing in my soul. So: romance. I experience the beautiful, painful warmth of love and brand-new lust, without the chaos of being a teenager. It’s catharsis.

I wrote in my last post that the person having the sexual experience in romance is the reader. I also think it’s the reader who has the romantic experience.

All the discussion around the alphahole that I’ve seen has been about whether he’s abusive and whether it’s anyone’s place to police other readers’ sexual and emotional desires. But what about the alphahole as a literary function? What emotional experience does he give to readers?

Love is dangerous. It has an edge that cuts deep – it’s why it feels like nothing else on earth. The dark and dangerous romantic hero isn’t just a stand-in for a real-life boyfriend: he’s the embodiment of the emotional threat that is love.

Of course there are other ways to evoke the same experience, but when Edward and Bella head into the woods and they know he’ll either kill her or find some control, I didn’t experience that as abusive, I experienced it as true. In the moment of all-out love – not the resolved moment, but the moment when your blood is burning with it – it feels 50/50 that you’ll survive it.

The romance community is criticized all the time for giving readers unrealistic expectations of relationships. Our tired answer? We are grown-assed women who can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

As one of those teens who absolutely learnt to read dangerous, violent characters as romantic, I don’t feel that ever informed the choices I made in reality. I stayed away from people who made me feel afraid, and was attracted to people I liked.

(Obviously that doesn’t guard against abuse in real life – all I mean is that I wasn’t looking for the patterns of abuse I read in romantic books.)

So I fell for a couple of wonderful people – and that lust and crazed adoration didn’t feel good or kind. It felt dark. It was untrod ground that took me away from my parents and my bright childhood. It stole my breath. It made the world catch on fire. My need to possess that someone made me feel violent.

What the Ren article showed me about myself was troubling, and I hope we keep having these conversations that shed light on our subconscious influences – and on the social assumptions we write into our books.

But I also don’t want to lose sight of romance as literature. We tell stories to reflect the deepest truths about ourselves. A romance hero isn’t a template for a real-life boyfriend – he’s a literary investigation into the emotion of human love.

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

on Having It All

I never wanted the accidental housewife to turn into an internet wasteland – who ever wants that for their little corner of the internet? But even though I firmly believe what’s online is real life, it turns out the bits of real life that are offline have a way of asserting themselves. My real life offline is demanding everything I’ve got, right now.

For those of you who feel like I just announced the birth of my daughter, let me update you to the sixteen-month-old spark that fills my hours, my senses, my mushy mum-brain:

And let me also announce the expected birth of my son, in March. The body is truly a terrifying and miraculous thing! Didn’t that womb, like, only just finish building a whole person???

Before I began my second baby, I spent the first half of last year writing the beginnings of a new book. The hero, Merryweather St Acre, turns up at the heroine’s door in one scene and she sees him thus: She had thought perhaps she’d invented or exaggerated his beauty. That the circumstances of their meeting had made her imagine that extra quality to him – the something naïve and ardent and easily broken. But there he stood, too close and without speaking, and he may as well have been the virginal unicorn in human form.

The virginal unicorn in human form. It also has the heroine murdering a man in cold blood, the hero ruining some cheap pornography in the throes of pleasure and lots about the tender horror of motherhood. It’s kind of a hot mess, and I think my agent might have cried a bit when she read it because I will obviously never write anything marketable.

But. Then motherhood visited a second time.

So this isn’t a mum-blog post, this is a writer-blog post. But it’s about being a mum, because the two have collided in my life, and I made the decision that being a mum wins this round. I decided this because being a writer really, really wanted to win, and all that did was make me feel bad about everything. 

A friend said to me recently, “In the scheme of things it’s not really that many years out of our lives.” She’s right. What’s 5, 6, 7 years in a whole lifetime? But it’s not just 5, 6, 7 years. It’s the difference between being 30 and having my first novel published, and being 38 with almost no work experience, and qualifications in a shrinking industry.

Before becoming a mum I had the vague impression that huge strides had been made into supporting women to be mothers and also have careers. Being a mum, I now know that to even begin to keep up you have to be motivated and organised. Two inadequate words to describe what it takes.

I also don’t think you can really know, until you’ve experienced it, how even though you are taking on half the work of your family life, somehow it’s the invisible half. And no matter how you tell yourself that what you do is important there is a subtle shift in the way your family relationships work.

This is the contradiction that bothers me. There’s an assumption that our babies are the best of us, our greatest achievements; and yet we are somehow diminished when we embrace motherhood fully. This is the risk I take in choosing motherhood: that it diminishes me. How sad that it’s not an easy, obvious choice to make. How especially stupid when it’s the hardest thing I have ever done, the steepest learning curve, forging something true and tough from whatever wibbly stuff I brought into my thirties with me.

I’ve spent a long time trying to write this post, and it’s this contradiction I keep bashing my head against. If I describe the deep sense of completeness and contentment that comes from holding my daughter while she curls an arm around my neck and pulls my hair in a short, gentle rhythm – I feel like I’m reinforcing the idea that she’s my greatest achievement. If I describe my frustration that being a mother necessitates me also becoming a dependant – I feel like I’m misrepresenting my situation as awful.

And at the heart of it is this inescapable biological difference. I don’t know how exactly motherhood would look in a truly equal society, but this isn’t it. When being a woman and wanting a child throws you into playing a certain role, this isn’t it.

I’m not removing myself from that inequality, either. Much as I dream of being a working, autonomous adult, when it comes down to it I’m not prepared to give up being the primary care-giver. I covet being the safe harbour in my daughter’s life. I covet the comfort only I can give, the intimacy we share that only hours upon hours upon years can create. I wouldn’t give up being the final word.

So.

It’s an intense experience of living with compromise, making a good life out of unequal parts. There’s something about the physical nature of motherhood – the body used as an incubator, the labour of birth, the bovine lactation – that cannot be easily sorted into an equal or even a common experience between men and women. It’s the first truly immovable experience I’ve had – more complete than heartbreak.

It’s not really just one or the other, though: writer or mum. My decision has had a slow, positive, exciting effect. I’m not one of those mums who can suddenly do a day’s work in an hour, haha, no. But I never did get that second book out within a year of my first, so now it’s like – the pressure’s off. Now I have time to think again about the kinds of books I want to write and the kind of career I want to have. Now I have the experience to understand that overnight success in the American market doesn’t necessarily equal a fulfilling career. Things take time. I like being able to – having to – let things take time.

So really, all of this is to say, to any wonderful readers out there waiting for my next book: I’m so sorry. It’s going to be a long wait. And also, hopefully, it’s going to be worth it.

 

 

the fetish object

Most romance has explicit sex in it, but where “explicit” sounds – I don’t know, naughty? sexy? breathless? the sheer volume actually strips sex of its appeal. Nowadays when I read about a hero sucking a heroine’s nipple, it’s as bland as drinking milk. (Wait – milk is delicious.) It doesn’t move me in the slightest.

Nipples are quite amazing in real life. Nipples, as a body part to be checked off some foreplay list – not so amazing.

Some writers, of course, can make the same sex acts feel new and thrilling and touch some nerve of recognition. I just read The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas – a seriously freaking amazing book – and she has this particular superpower. For the rest of us, I think we should take a step away from the naked human body and look at other ways to bring sex in.

A fetish object is something that’s imbued with power – often power displaced from something else. A sexual fetish object is something that’s imbued with sexual power, again often displaced from the more common, everyday fetishisation of the body (although it can itself be a body part, of course). According to Freud, a fetish object is the mother’s castrated penis so that dudes don’t have to deal with vaginas or something.

In the narrative examples I’m thinking of, the fetish object has some sexual power for the characters, but acts far more strongly on the reader. The sexual narrative that’s drawing the reader in is redirected through this object, which makes it more powerful than if it had remained in the everyday body.

Here are the ways this method’s really worked for me as a reader:

The first is from Ember by Bettie Sharp. The story is a retelling of Cinderella, where Cinderella is Ember, the wicked witch and her sisters and stepmother are courtesans, dearly loved by her. Prince Charming has been cursed/blessed that all who see him love him. The first time Ember sees him is at a parade when she’s nineteen. She’s destroyed by lust. Charming smiles and throws coins into the crowd that are stamped with his likeness; Ember finds one between two cobblestones once he’s passed.

His profile winked sunlight at me from the silver surface of the coin. I raised it to my lips and kissed his likeness’s metal cheek. Licked it. I slid the coin into my mouth, tasting the tannic flavour of his glove above the metal and beneath the grime.

With the silver likeness of the prince clamped between my lips, I turned and hurried back inside. I could not close the door fast enough to suit the drumbeat of desire in my blood. I hadn’t the patience to climb to my chamber and dream of him in private. Indeed, I barely managed to squeeze into a broom closet and shut the door before my hands were pulling up my skirts and parting the hot, slick folds of my sex.

I ran my tongue across his likeness on the coin as I thought of him. I thought of his eyes on me, his hands on me. I imagined the sublime joys of his touch, the taste of his skin, the feel of his cock between my lips.

She goes on to imagine dying from the force of having her maidenhead taken, and him weeping over her because he’ll never love another. (She gives the reader permission to laugh at her youthful fantasies.)

As sad as it is to admit it, I must tell you this melodramatic imagining was the thought that gave me my first taste of womanly pleasure. My body seized, climaxing with a ferocity that made me stumble to the floor. I gasped for air, only to feel the cold bite of the silver coin lodging in my throat.

I panicked, coughing and gagging, trying to force a decent breath around the silver barrier imprinted with the prince’s face. My death flashed before my eyes and in this scenario, I was not a noble virgin sacrifice, but a silly girl, crumpled on the floor of a broom closet with her skirts rumpled and her hands stinking of sex.

There are a couple of reasons this worked so well for me that it’s stuck in my mind ever since. The prince’s curse has already powerfully disrupted the sexual narrative. Ember doesn’t look at him and feel a natural response which she can choose to act on or not; his sexuality is a force that makes objects of everyone who sees him – it is already displaced.

This sexual power is then concentrated in one small object: the coin. For me as a reader, there’s something so much more unexpected and exciting about Ember pressing her tongue against a likeness of his face and experiencing the full force of her desire, than if she’d had access to his person.

Maybe it’s because he can be fully “objectified” – it’s a purely sexual transaction. Charming is present, but the scene isn’t really about him. There’s something powerful about the coin generating her florid sexual fantasy – and then choking her at its climax, which utterly changes how she perceives herself in that moment. Both feel sexual to me, the arousal and the shame.

Probably the crux of why the coin works for me, actually, is that it means Charming is so freaking hot an inanimate imprint is enough to bring Ember to her knees. Is that bad?

The second example comes from a real source: the diaries of Maud Rittenhouse in the late 19th century. I haven’t read her diaries in full, just Jodie McAlister’s wonderful recaps at Momentum Moonlight. Maud chronicles her romantic adventures and disasters and refuses to let romance define her. Her thoughts are almost hypnotically charming.

In the penultimate volume she’s just met Earl Mayne who – well, in her own words:

Mr Mayne. Everybody in town knew him but me. He is deliciously bright and well read and talks like a fairy story set to music…

He’s younger than her and you get the feeling he’s a bit rough around the edges. Her infatuation burns up the page, and then there’s this:

Well and the Adorable came, and dined with us, and oh! oh!! he eats with his knife. Positively it gave me a queer feeling way into my hair. I was so afraid he’d cut his lovely mouth or jam one of his white teeth. His knife! The “one altogether lovely”, eating with his knife! I know he must have some real good scientific reason for doing it, but it made me look the other way. How can such an Adonis do anything so plebeian even with reason.

This moment gets at me viscerally the way any amount of “he’s so wonderful” doesn’t. She’s repulsed by him eating with the knife, but as a reader I feel the depth of her sexual attraction within her repulsion. Like Ember’s shame on swallowing the coin, the shame and fascination around this object feels decidedly sexual.

His “lovely mouth” feels so much more significant when it’s threatened by his knife.

It also happens to be one of my favourite romantic mechanisms: his action breaks the social mould through which she perceives everybody and everything. This sets off an overwhelming sensation in her that she doesn’t know how to interpret. She interprets it as embarrassment; I don’t.

The last example is from The Luckiest Lady in London. My favourite part of this book was how explicitly honest the hero and heroine were with each other – and how that didn’t leech the tension at all. It’s an electrifying, exciting kind of honesty.

But – ahem. Before I get carried away fangirling all over the place, I’ll get back to my point. Felix has asked Louisa to be his mistress, and they’re playing a kind of game of chicken with their attraction and what they each want. In this scene they’re alone in a carriage.

He lifted his straight rod of a walking stick and, holding it near the base, set its handle on her lap, a frightfully intimate, invasive gesture that made flame leap through her.

The terrible thing was, the more he revealed himself to be dangerous and warped, the more she fell under his spell. And the more she fell under his spell, the freer he felt to reveal even more of his true nature.

His eyes met hers again. “Let me give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”

But he couldn’t. Or at least, he wouldn’t.

For she could no longer be satisfied with an expensive telescope, an exemplary spinsterhood, or his sure-to-be-magnificent body – or even all three together.

She was a woman in love and she wanted nothing less than his unscrupulous and very possibly unprincipled heart, proffered to her in slavish devotion.

She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand. At first she thought it was but a knob made of heavy, smooth-grained ebony, but as she traced its curve with her hand, she looked down and realized that the handle was actually in the shape of the head of a black jaguar.

“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.

She was *caressing* the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.

“You like it?”

They throw some double entendres back and forth and get extremely lustful about each other. Then:

…she raised the handle of his walking stick, leaned forward, and kissed it on the tip.

“You make me do such unspeakable things,” she murmured, looking at the jaguar’s head.

Slowly, he pulled the stick from her grasp. He examined the handle closely, then glanced back at her, his gaze heated yet inscrutable.

The walking stick is quite obviously standing in for his man bits in this scene, but that’s not where I think the sexiness of it comes from. In fact, I would find it even sexier if the parallel weren’t drawn at all.

What I love is the “intimate, invasive gesture,” and the “part of himself he’d chosen to extend to her”. It’s in his character that he wouldn’t just give himself over to her, so instead he does something he thinks will be safe – he touches her with an inanimate object. But she makes that object part of him, and so he can’t remain unaffected by her touch. It becomes incredibly exposing.

Gah, it’s awesome.

This method is more about the reader than it is about the characters themselves. I’ve become somewhat desensitised to sex as a reader, but diverting it through an object makes me feel it again – it becomes unexpected, a pleasure.

It also happens to be a powerful tool for writers; it means we can bring sex into any scene, without being explicit. If Maud were a romance heroine, watching her hero eat from a knife, I would believe her when she kissed him later.

we’re all wooden horses

I’ve been waiting until I had time to write this post. Then I realised I’m probably not going to “have time” for the next decade or two, so I’m snatching twenty minutes of Robin’s sleep to say, Hi!

Robin is my daughter – the little, glorious, tiring, hilarious reason you haven’t heard from me in such a long time. The last time we spoke I was tying things up, getting ready for her arrival. There was, as it turned out, no getting ready for her arrival.

I suppose all new mothers react differently. I reacted first with a kind of sated smugness and soon after with absolute terror. In those first incomprehensible weeks I just wanted her to be big and robust – and now she’s almost six months old. If I could have seen her now, then… Gah, time becomes a bit weird with a baby. I’m a little obsessed with the timeline of a life and how different it is now that I’ve seen one begin – and now that the end of mine will mean grief for Robin.

Here’s the difference six months makes!

   

It’s quite amazing how quickly things change. It’s less than half a year since I felt like my life as I knew it was gone – and now I’m writing again, and the new book is taking shape. I’m totally enthralled. The hero, Merry, just had this thought about the heroine: Merry smiled grimly at the idea of Mrs Blunt and poetry. The poetry that could describe her had not been invented yet. She was romance’s antidote.

Oh how I love to bring two people together who appall each other!

While I’ve been away on planet baby, Untamed has been quietly making me proud. It’s been nominated for the Australian Romance Readers Association’s favourite historical romance of 2013 – what an immense honour! It was on iTunes Australia’s best of 2013 list, as well as the lists of many bloggers who I admire. It was also a surprise hit with the Melbourne Men’s Book Club. Success!

I’ve been invited to read an excerpt at the Wheeler Centre on March 31st, so if you live Melbourne-side please come along! It should be good fun. Booze and Darlington – a heady mix.

It took me a while to be able to read again after Robin’s birth, but once I got started you couldn’t stop me. Standout reads include my first ever Judith Ivory, Black Silk (I loved it right up until the hero likened the heroine’s bush to a kid goat’s bony butt, but more on that later) and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy. I long to go to the movies, but haven’t managed it yet.

I’m sure if I “had time” this post wouldn’t be quite so blah blah all over the place. (I don’t know why I’m using quotation marks in this weird way.) Welcome to my brain!

In order to write the next book (yay!) and be a mum (yay!) I’m going to be online less often, but I am, tentatively, BACK. I’ll be writing wee posts and hopefully having some of those fun twitter chats.

Before I go I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who reached out to me about Untamed in the past six months. Every message/comment/email has meant a great deal to me. Thank you, thank you!

 

 

baby hiatus

Dear regular readers (oh how I have neglected you!), and newcomers (welcome!), and random stumblers-upon-my-blog (also welcome!),

As previously discussed, I’ve been a pretty rubbish blogger this year. I’ll put it behind me, though, if you’ll be generous enough to do the same. Because right now I’m declaring myself on official maternal leave from being an Online Author Presence! I will still be an author, and still dream up worlds with lady-gliders in them (it’s really a thing, I can’t stop thinking about it), but you won’t be hearing from me for a couple of months – possibly even until next year.

If you’ve just come to my blog for the first time and want to read some amazing essays on Romance, may I recommend the guest series I hosted last year. I particularly recommend Cecilia Grant’s passionate defence of romance as a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair, Scott Pearse’s meditation on masculinity and death, Cath Crowley’s description of moving from one book into the next… Look, just go read them all, okay?

If you’re interested in my Regency romance Untamed, you can find all the buy links on my books page. A print edition will be in Australian and NZ bookstores from 21st August – huzzah! It’s very heavy and pretty-looking, and the pages just beg you to jump right in.

It’s a bit weird to be on the other end of geo-restrictions, and I’m really sorry that readers elsewhere around the globe won’t have easy access to the print edition. You can probably source it online, but you may faint in horror at Australian book prices…

If you want to know more about Untamed – what it was like to write, how I feel about the characters, and the all-important question of who would play Darlington in the film version – here’s an interview I did with my publisher, Carol George:

And here’s me reading a short excerpt from the scene where the hero and heroine first meet:

I’ve been thrilled that so many readers are looking forward to seeing what I write next. I am too! I won’t be writing in earnest again until next year, so the book is still a little way off. But here’s a sketch of my murderous, debt-collecting heroine, if you want a sneak peek of what I’m thinking of writing.

I will be keeping an eye on blog comments, emails and twitter mentions, so if you leave me a message in one of these ways, please don’t feel you’re yelling into a void if you don’t receive a reply. Your message will be heard and appreciated!

In the meantime – happy reading, everyone!

A Woman Entangled Giveaway

Cecilia Grant’s third book, A Woman Entangled, is out in the world. Huzzah!

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Cecilia on this blog, because her writing is an inspiration. She also wrote one of my favourite posts from my guest series last year – the one that called romance fiction “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”.

I’d read quite a few mixed reactions to A Woman Entangled, so I wasn’t certain whether it would grab me the way A Gentleman Undone did. In the end it was a completely different reading experience – and I loved every minute of it.

The first thing I love is how Grant evokes a sense of time and place. I’ve said before that my favourite kind of historical fiction creates a character moving into their own projection of the future that is based in what they know of the world, not what we know of the world.

The first time we meet the barrister hero, Nick, he is standing in the Inns of Court, and–

Actually, let me interrupt myself and say that the first time we see Nick is thusly: Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake.

Then he stands out on the street and thinks:

Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here – he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.

But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.

To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here.

Gah, the loveliness and depth of that passage! The historical writer in me despairs. The reader in me rejoices.

The next thing I love about A Woman Entangled is that when we meet Nick we’ve just come from meeting our heroine, Kate, who also aspires to greatness – she intends to marry into the aristocracy and lift her family back to their rightful place in society. And it is so heartbreaking to see the difference in what she is allowed to aspire to, compared to this grand dream of Nick’s that stretches back through time and all the great men that came before him.

Grant has done an extraordinary thing in this book: she has embedded it deeply, and without overt commentary, in the sensibilities of the time. Kate isn’t a feminist heroine placed anachronistically back in time to fight against all the constraints placed on women; she is an intelligent, warm-hearted woman living unselfconsciously within the world she knows. Nick respects and admires her – and treats her accordingly. But he also hands down judgement (and advice) on her actions in a very Knightly-ish fashion, because as a man he naturally knows more of the wider world and how it works.

What an incredibly fine line this is to walk! To fully evoke the sensibilities of a time that was more constraining and unequal than ours, and to believably write a man and a woman meeting as equals.

As far as I’m concerned, Grant succeeded.

There are many, many more things I loved about this book, but I’ll just discuss one more before proceeding to the giveaway.

I utterly adored Grant’s previous book, A Gentleman Undone. It grabbed me in some visceral, emotional place and left me feeling scrubbed clean and quiet. When the heroine of that book, Lydia, says to Nick in this book, “The first thing I want you to know, Mr. Blackshear, is that I love your brother. My attachment to him is fiercer than my attachment to life.” I believed her without hesitation.

But A Woman Entangled shows Nick suffering because of his brother’s decision to marry a courtesan. Almost no briefs come his way anymore, and he doesn’t feel welcome in the society he needs to impress, in order to become a politician.

The unequal marriage is a romantic notion – the duke and the serving girl, the countess and the steward. But in romance we never see the cost of these marriages, because then we would have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: is love worth this? It’s a question that runs counter to the whole premise of romance.

Grant didn’t back away from that question. She forced me to wonder whether Lydia and Will – who I believed in so thoroughly – should have put family before love. Not a comfortable feeling. But one that feels closer to the real choices we make around love – and the real triumph love can be – than I usually find in romance.

Fortunately, she attacks the same question from the other side in the romance between Nick and Kate, and comes to – no surprises here – a happy conclusion. Not easy, but happy.

Neither Nick’s aspirations nor Kate’s are served by them marrying; each has connections that will cast a shadow over the other. But as they fall in love, each comes to feel how genuine, fulfilling human relationships make up the real stuff of life. They are still driven by what drives them, but they come to understand that aspirations are dreams that don’t take into account the daily living of life.

It’s a joy to read about the difference real human connection makes – and Grant answers her own question about love by suggesting that fulfilling relationships not only make life bearable, they give us strength to see ourselves clearly and pursue, in the long-term, what we really want from life.

I’m giving away a print copy of this wonderful book to one commenter! (All countries welcome.) Leave any comment you like, from “Gimme” to a thesis on literary analysis. I’ll be drawing the winner’s name on Monday morning, Australian time.

ETA: I have just done my usual, highly scientific names-from-a-hat, and the winner is Londonmabel! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy this wonderful novel. Thanks to everyone else for entering your names. I encourage you all to get your hands on the book without delay :-) .

the one about pregnancy

So I am pretty much the worst blogger ever.

Part of the reason for my craptastic blogging is, of course, that launching a book out into the world has taken a surprising amount of brain/heart/creative energy. I was not prepared! Hopefully next time I’ll be amazing and organised. I’ll have all sorts of interesting things to say. Huzzah!

The response to Untamed has been incredible. And it’s been so crazy-varied that Jessica from The Hypeless Romantic actually wrote a review of all the reviews. It’s a pretty good overview, if you’re curious how it’s been received by the wide world.

The main reason, though, is that I’ve spent the last seven months growing a human.

One thing I can say for sure about becoming pregnant (aside from the anti-blogging side effects) is it has made me appreciate that evolution is a genius and a drunk.

There’s nothing like growing a WHOLE NEW HUMAN BEING in your insides to make you consider how crazy it is that we still do this shit. I mean, surely there’s some more sophisticated way to take care of it by now? It’s so weird that my body, which for 30 years has been just me – just the way I get from here to there, just motor control and the naïve messenger of emotion – was capable all this while of turning into the perfect incubator.

Then there’s the fact that the best way to give birth is still through the vagina. Crazy evolution.

But the genius is in the 9 months. That is some evolution I can appreciate. I have been impatient at times, but there’s no question I’ve needed every minute of that time to come to terms with all the feelings and also to buy nappies.

There are so many things I didn’t realise about pregnancy until it happened to me. Some ways that knowledge might affect future books:

1)   Even for women who long to be pregnant, pregnancy can be a terrifying, confronting, ambiguous thing. There’s nothing like facing the reality of becoming a whole new entity to a whole new person to make you consider all those tiny, inconsequential details your biology has been shouting down. Like whether you even actually want a kid.

Pregnancy is the hallmark of Happy Ever After, and when previous heroines show up in other books they’re always glowing. Don’t be surprised if I write a previous heroine who’s sick, belligerent and feeling wholly terrified.

2)   It’s entirely possibly to not even start showing until well into the 20-something weeks. A heroine could conceivably hide an unplanned pregnancy for AGES.

3)   Unless she has horrible morning sickness. Morning sickness really is the worst. I felt car sick for about eight weeks straight, all nauseous in my head. I have absolutely no idea how women maintain 9-5 jobs during the first trimester – and especially how they keep their pregnancy under wraps while doing so.

(This is where the Worst Blogger Ever bit comes in. I couldn’t even hold down a Couple of Hours a Week job.)

4)   You don’t necessarily fall in love right away. Especially if you look at images of the first couple of weeks’ gestation and discover your baby is currently in the form of a ribbon of cells that will eventually become its brain and spinal cord. (For the love of god, don’t do this.)

Even when you do start to fall in love with the hard round bit you can feel through your stomach but not name, and the tiny feet that have discovered your ribs, it’s not a very straightforward kind of love. Suddenly you have twice as much to lose as you did before.

5)   Death is thoroughly unnerving because something that was here is suddenly not here. It’s so simple, and so impossible to grasp. Expecting a baby is like and unlike that. It is unlike, because I can already feel her – I already feel like I know something of who she is, because she squiggles and is still and complains and is content. It is like, because it’s impossible to understand that in two months a whole new person will exist who was not here before.

6)   The only aversions I had were to coffee and the internet. Seriously, the internet. (Again with the Bad Blogger.) The only craving I’ve had has been in the past couple of weeks and that’s for ice. Gah, now I want ice.

7)   Growing huge can be confronting. Paired with pregnancy hormones it can make you think crazy paranoid things. Not that I ever for one second had crazy paranoid thoughts about special k hanging out with less huge, less pregnant women. Oh, no. *shifty eyes* But, you know, a heroine conceivably might.

What portrayals of pregnancy, birth and motherhood make you roll your eyes when you read them or see them on TV/movies?

let me read to you, let me give you a book

Dear readers, I have an extract of Untamed for you! I’m reading it aloud, and let’s just say I realise I’ll never be head-hunted as a voice actor. However, it is one of my favourite parts of the whole book: the scene where Kit and Darlington first meet, and are both surprised out of themselves by the strength of their connection.

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Untamed - I’ll be giving one away to a random commenter.

ETA: I’ll be drawing the winner Wednesday 9pm Aussie EST!

ETA: Using the trusty name-in-a-hat method I have picked Anna as the winner of a copy of Untamed. Thanks everyone for your comments!

what I learnt about writing from judging the VPA

I had the great fortune of winning the Valerie Parv Award in 2010, and this year I was finally able to give a bit back by judging contest entries.

I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about writing in a short period of time, just by reading three very different synopses and excerpts. It’s always easier to see other people’s writing clearly, and I’m grateful for what this has taught me about my own writing. I’m going to share very general insights, which don’t apply specifically to any one entry.

Synopsis

Synopses are notoriously difficult to write. How do you condense a whole story down to a couple of pages, all the while ensuring you don’t leave anything important out?

I read the contest synopses not to critique them, but simply as a reader wanting to understand the story as clearly as possible. I think because of this I picked up on one problem in all of the synopses – and I’m absolutely certain this has been my own problem as well: lack of specific detail.

In trying to condense the story down – or sometimes in an attempt to build suspense – we write about plot points in general terms. E.g. “She makes a plan to find out more about him.”

We feel like it’s saving space to be general and brief, but in fact what it does is muddy the sense of story. Whenever I came across a statement like this I found myself feeling frustrated at being somehow locked out of the story. It can also create confusion later in the synopsis. E.g. if the heroine’s plan to find out more about the hero is to break into his apartment and go through his things, there might be a statement later in the synopsis that’s something like, “After he finds out she broke into his house…”, which will make no sense to me as a reader. Even general statements later on such as “When her plan fails” simply add to the confusion, as I still don’t even know what her plan is.

Instead of “She makes a plan to find out more about him,” I could write, “She decides to find out more about him by breaking into his flat.” It takes up slightly more space on the page, but the reader will remain clearly in the story – and I suspect it will save words later in the synopsis when the writer has something concrete to refer back to.

Observations on writing

In every excerpt I read, the author had created two interesting characters from very different worlds and a premise that set up believable conflict that I wanted to see play out between them. All I wanted was to watch the characters interacting with each other in a scene, while their personal differences and opposing goals played out. For me, that is where chemistry sparks between characters – chemistry that doesn’t immediately have to be lust, but will more believably become lust.

In every excerpt, the author began with their excellent premise and characters and then added conflict. It mostly took that classic romance form of “I hate you, I want to bone you, you annoy me, but look at your biceps”.

There’s a very good reason the authors did this – and I know I relied on this form of conflict in my YA romance more than I should have. It’s easier to keep two characters from falling in love if they spend most of their time telling themselves they can’t stand each other. It also creates emotional chemistry between them that can be transformed into love later on. It gives you something to root for: you want them to overcome their aversion; you want to watch them change their minds.

The problem is that I’m not invested in two characters finding each other attractive but annoying. What I’m invested in is seeing these two very different people collide. What’s the point of creating interesting characters, otherwise?

It became so clear to me that the authors had built these characters and premise as a kind of canvas to write the story on. I wanted the characters and premise to be the story. I wanted to watch interest spark reluctantly inside an awful conversation. Or spark immediately and irrationally – and then run into the wall of reality.

I think it’s scary to put that much belief in our characters and premise, that we’ll simply put them in a scene together, let them be wholly themselves (even in the ways they act out) and let the story unfold. It’s less scary to add emotion and conflict, on top of what’s already there.

Which brings me to the biggest, scariest realisation I had while reading the excerpts. I know this is in large part formed by my own experience writing Untamed, but I’ve seen many writers I admire go through the same process, and witnessed the results.

The excerpts felt like they were at the stage my MS was at when I submitted it to the Award, i.e. a first draft that’s had a lot of work put into it. I was convinced, when I entered the Award, that my MS was almost complete. I just had a bit more work to do – another couple of read-throughs, some more edits. But I felt close.

I wasn’t.

What I had was an excellent place to start. I had the concept of a book, and the beginning of characters. I spent the whole year of my mentorship pulling the first draft apart, turning everything inside out – finding the heart of the story I really wanted to tell. And then at the end of the year I threw it all out and started again.

Everyone’s process is different, so hopefully you’ll never throw out as many words as I did. But I’ve seen meticulous writers go through this same process at 30,000 words, or in the world-building, planning process.

I wanted to say to the authors whose excerpts I read: Be proud of this wonderful story you’ve produced. Now break it apart, turn it inside out, dig around until your characters feel almost unrecognisable to you. Dare to turn this massive plot point completely on its head, simply because when you do it makes you go all zingy.

And I knew how it would feel to hear that feedback, because I knew each of those authors must feel so close to finishing, like I once did.