Author Archives: Anna Cowan

About Anna Cowan

I am the author of the passionate historical romance Untamed.

EMOTIONAL SHIFT

This is the sixth of six observations on writing craft

This thought is a new one, but I’m finding it a powerful tool in my writing, and in critiquing. I’ve been noticing what creates a moment of emotional shift.

We all know that in romance the characters should start in one place emotionally and through the journey of falling in love, they should grow and change and end up in a new emotional place. But where do those moments of change happen? Something new or different has to occur – otherwise the character would simply continue on as they have been.

So what creates the environment for an emotional shift to happen?

My feeling is that nine times out of ten it’s vulnerability. Vulnerability opens up this tiny space, this suspension of all the usual crap, and in that space anything could happen next.

That one moment allows something new to begin.

This is what allowed the nuanced conversation between Lauren and Hannah in The Split which I discussed in the previous post. Hannah realised Lauren was looking around for her ex, and being caught in the act made Lauren feel vulnerable, like Hannah had seen something she maybe didn’t want her to see. Instead of pressing her advantage, Hannah used the shift between them to be kind.

When I’m not moved, emotionally, by a kissing scene or a sex scene, it’s often because there’s no vulnerability. I see a lot of sex positivity and characters responding with enthusiasm and arousal, but that doesn’t give me a sense of what it means to them, to be touching this person and be touched by them. I don’t feel like anything has changed because of the kiss.

This goes back to my notion that complex characters feel multiple things at once. Kissing someone you want for the first time is arousing, but it’s also strange and terrifying – because of what you’re admitting by kissing, because of how much you want it, because it’s a sudden shift in intimacy.

The stimulus doesn’t have to be as obvious as a kiss, though. Maybe the characters are talking about something really ordinary, and suddenly one of them realises how much this person means to them – this specific person – and it’s terrifying, and they probably respond in the last way you’d expect (or at least the fifth, or eighth). As soon as you want something, you have something to lose.

The romance lives in those emotional responses.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS IN CONFLICT

This is the fifth of six observations on writing craft

 When reading contest entries I often find myself impressed with the character conflicts the writers have developed. They are deep, simple conflicts rooted in character and in the premise of the story.

But I also find that once the characters meet on the page a whole lot of extra, superficial conflict is chucked at them – misunderstandings, inexplicable assholery, snap character judgements, overwhelming instalust etc.

I think this happens when the writer either doesn’t trust the inherent conflict to carry the scene, or hasn’t clearly identified what the conflict is. The effect is messy, confusing and unbelievable. The characters often have to act in irrational, self-deluded ways to allow for these superficial conflicts, and so I find myself liking them less and finding it harder to suspend my disbelief.

My feeling is always: Let these two characters meet, and give their conflict space to play out.

What a fantastic opportunity for us to learn more about them as characters. People are interesting and unpredictable in conflict. It brings out feelings and behaviours that we don’t see at any other time. And if you have built a solid conflict, your characters can both come across as self-aware adults and still participate in a tense, unresolved scene.

I say all that as though it’s obvious, but this, of all my observations, is the one I struggle with the most in my own writing. I find it difficult to slow down into a scene and allow the characters to speak for themselves. I’m writing a scene at the moment where two characters are in a tense negotiation and I had to tell myself to let one offer the other a cup of tea. They are completely opposed, but the refusal of one to offer the other sustenance isn’t where the conflict resides.

I saw an outstanding example of character conflict done well recently. I’ve been watching the British drama The Split, which I loved. (It’s currently on iView, for Aussie viewers.)

The scene I’m going to describe has some mild spoilers, so stop reading now if you don’t like to be spoiled at all!

The protagonist, Hannah, is a family law solicitor and she comes from a family with tense, entrenched, contradictory dynamics. She is married with children, but has a decades-long attraction to one of her co-workers. He had been married, but was divorced two years previous. We find this out when his ex-wife Lauren is the solicitor opposite Hannah in a pre-nup settlement – and that’s also when we find out Lauren is pregnant, and that they split up because he never wanted kids.

The pre-nup settlement becomes emotionally charged when Lauren’s team leaks detrimental information. Hannah confronts her outside the court, but Lauren doesn’t give an inch.

Then, incredibly, the conversation turns away from professional things into personal. Hannah asks about the baby and they connect on a mum-to-mum level. But like, not in the lame way that sounds on paper. They are grown women who contain multitudes – who can fight their professional fights one hundred and ten percent and still relate to each other as people outside that fight. It’s so unlike almost all other TV that it’s just electrifying to watch, this concession to the complexity of people.

But because it’s an excellent show the professional dynamics do leak into the personal dynamics in subtle ways, and vice versa. Hannah gains the upper hand in the pre-nup settlement and is righteously indignant – but Lauren, who has been slowly percolating information, is devastated by the realisation that she’s that Hannah. The reason her ex never wanted to have kids with her.

The conflict in these scenes didn’t land because the characters were at odds with each other – it landed because they were both acting in good faith, from the most mature, professional place they knew how, and they still couldn’t resolve it or protect themselves against the way it hurt them both.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS

This is the fourth in a series of six observations on writing craft

Another note I find myself writing on almost every contest entry I judge is some variation on: Take the time to think more deeply about your characters.

More time. Always more time. Ugh.

Everyone drafts books differently, but for most people I would imagine that characters are less distinct in the first few drafts than they will eventually be. I find out a lot about my characters by writing them, and then looking at what I have and drawing them out of the clues I find there. It’s one of the great joys of working on a book – feeling these characters become deeper, more complex people.

But I’m always aware, when I write that feedback, that it’s a simple note for a difficult process. Easy to say ‘think deeply about your characters’, but what on earth does that look like? And once you’ve figured out how to do it, how do you bring what you’ve found back to the page?

The answers to those questions will be different for everyone, and I think it’s worth thinking about it – maybe even trying to make a process for it.

Something that occurs to me when I’m reading contest entries is that the writer might feel more free to explore the character if they took them out of the plot. The plot – especially if it’s a tight, romance-trope plot – often feels like it’s dictating the character, rather than the other way around.

So one way to approach it could be to have your character perform a simple task and write their stream of consciousness as they do it. Follow every little thought, no matter how trivial. Let them bitch and concentrate and worry. Toni Jordan used to ask us to write our characters peeling an orange. Then you have to figure out how your character peels an orange. With a knife, or fingers? Messy, fussy, annoyed? How do they experience the sensations? Are they even aware of them, or are they thinking about something else? How do their body and their mind relate to each other?

My feeling is that once you’ve done this work, you’re writing from a place of greater understanding and it will be quite natural to bring the more complex elements of your character into the scene.

However, I have one excellent shortcut to suggest: The simplest way to make a character feel complex is to have them feel multiple, even contradictory things at once.

I notice this when it’s done well, and I notice when it’s absent. If a character feels only one thing, they feel simple – especially if that one feeling is the obvious response to what’s happening in the scene. If they feel multiple things they begin to feel realistic. Intimacy is wonderful and scary. When new opportunities enter your life they often take you outside your comfort zone. Or going back to the last post about family: You can love someone and be frustrated by them at the same time, or want them to succeed and feel jealous. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human.

Another effect it has is that it forces the character to have an inner dialogue about themselves. To feel multiple things at once you need a level of self-awareness that allows you to feel something and understand why you feel it, but not give weight to it or act on it. Or to watch yourself having the worst possible reaction to something even while you understand that you’re behaving badly and making things worse. We don’t always act in our best interests, and we don’t always enact our worst impulses.

I’m not saying every character should perfectly understand themselves, because so few of us do. But even when we wilfully misunderstand ourselves, it’s in the context of an inner dialogue that has developed over a lifetime of being in our own head.

Seeing this inner life makes characters feel multi-dimensional, and it makes them feel like grown-ups.

RELATIONSHIPS: SHARED HISTORY

This is the third of six observations on writing craft

One of my reader catnips is family. Found family, real family, doesn’t matter. Give me those deep relationships that matter more and can cut deeper than any other relationship. Give me unconditional loyalty and conflicted love.

Something I notice in most of the contest entries I read is that the dialogue between family members or old friends doesn’t have a depth of shared history to it. They don’t sound like people who have known each other forever – they sound like they’ve just met.

Honestly, I understand how this happens, and I feel like it’s even appropriate for a first draft. In a first draft they literally have just met. There were points in late drafts of Untamed when I would suddenly realise whole sections of the siblings’ history with each other was a giant blank to me. They existed only in the bits of their shared past that were recounted or referenced in the story.

It strikes me as a really good place to focus attention, thought and work as a story is developed beyond the first draft.

I think we all know that feeling of being an adult until you go home, and then you’re straight back into a family dynamic that was cemented when you were eight years old and you honestly can’t believe some of the ways you’re behaving. You have a professional job! Where people look up to you! And you’re smart! And mature! Until you’re with your family.

Showing this dynamic is a powerful way to give a sense of history (these people shaped each other) – but it’s also a powerful way to draw your character and make them feel complex. We see them behave differently in different contexts.

When our heroine’s talking to her little brother does she immediately start mothering him and organising things he’s probably entirely capable of doing by himself? Does he enrage her more quickly and effectively than anyone else? Does she not expect him to have a complex inner life? How does she deal with it when she sees signs that he, in fact, does? Do they always joke with each other – a habit that becomes painful when they have something devastating to deal with together?

Dialogue is, I think, the primary place to do this work. The ways family talk to each other – the things they say and don’t say – are going to tell us almost everything we want to know. This goes back to my previous posts on writing for an investigative reader: The inconsistencies between what they say, feel, and don’t say will give the reader room to begin drawing the shape of these relationships.

It’s also a good chance to make the dialogue work harder. It’s a framework for asking: How would this specific character say this thing? What would they say in this circumstance, to this person? If the characters are all in relationship with each other, then they need to speak as their particular self for the dynamics to work.

Another simple but effective tool is thinking about the shorthand they would have developed over years and years. If someone brings up something that happened years ago is it a story they bring up all the time, God, Jenny, we know! Do they all have different positions on what really happened that need to be relitigated every time it comes up? Is it a shared story they can reference with one word in order to illustrate a point? Do they use the name of one particular sister to reference certain behaviour (Don’t Donna me over this!)?

There’s almost no new information you can tell your family – only continuing, evolving conversations, decades long.

THE INVESTIGATIVE READER: OPENING SCENE

This is the second of six observations on writing craft

In the previous post I focused on dialogue, because that’s where the power of leaving space for the reader is most immediately apparent to me as a reader. However, another place I’ll notice whether I’m invited to participate in the story or not is in the opening scene – the opening lines, even.

We all want to nail the beginning of our story, because we want the reader to stick with us. I think writing for an investigative reader is a useful tool for doing this.

The beginning of a story is when we have to introduce a lot of brand new information to the reader. With every solid piece of information we tell the reader – the markers that give them a sense of where they are – we have a choice about whether we give them room to start putting the shape of the world together themselves, or whether we draw it for them.

There’s a fine balance between statement and question in writing, which I don’t fully understand, but which I’m aware of navigating while I write. When is it more powerful to make a statement – to ‘just say the thing’ – and when is it more powerful to ask the reader to figure it out? But for this post I’ll say, simplistically: Each question arises from and is anchored to a solid fact.

An example:

Stating the fact and the answer together (and thus leaving nothing for the reader to do) might look like: She needed to feel bold today, so she wore her brightest lipstick.

Stating the fact that gives rise to a question might look like: She’d chosen her boldest lipstick.

Readers will immediately start to think about why she’s wearing her boldest lipstick. The most obvious reason – that she wants to feel confident – will occur to the reader, almost unconsciously. Even just working on that level, it’s a detail that will invite readers in, rather than shut them out.

But what if she’s meeting her mum and as soon as her mum sees the lipstick she becomes disapproving? The reader connects those two pieces of information and comes up with a world of detail.

Yes, she needed to feel confident, but she was also intentionally rubbing her mum up the wrong way. It shows us how she feels about that relationship (like she’ll never get her mum’s approval, like she desperately wants her mum to see her). It raises questions about their relationship (what went wrong between them?). It shows that what she tells us and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same thing. It leaves room for some really tender emotion to enter the narrative.

This thought process can be applied to every new detail that is given or purposely omitted at the beginning of the story. Some of those details are character details, like the example above. Some will be plot details, where we have to think about how much solid information the reader needs to feel situated in the story and how much we want to leave for them to guess at – which questions we want them to be asking.

THE INVESTIGATIVE READER: DIALOGUE

This is the first of six observations on writing craft

Here’s a sentence I find myself writing over and over when I’m marking up contest manuscripts: Writers love to investigate – it’s what makes them engaged readers!

(And now you know if your work was judged by me, because I am in love with this concept.)

I started thinking about readers as investigators during the past year or so, and I love how clearly it draws the relationship between writing and the act of reading. It gives me a way to look at my writing on a sentence level and consciously make it more dynamic.

I began noticing it when my attention would wander during dialogue that didn’t ask me to participate in any way.

This is dialogue where two people are responding exactly to what each other is saying. One asks for information, the other gives it. One makes a remark that merits a certain emotional response, that emotional response is given. All the relevant information for the interaction, scene and narrative are given in the text of the dialogue without activating the subtext.

This leaves me, the reader, with nothing to do but passively receive what I’m given.

What I really want as a reader is to be an active participant. I want to be given crumbs to collect, and follow. I want to be required to carry one piece of information with me, and arrive at some new understanding by connecting it to another piece of information. I want, basically, to play connect the dots. The story gives me enough solid points to travel through, but I draw the line.

We’re puzzle machines. If we see two disparate pieces of information we will immediately begin to find the connection between them. This is where we engage readers – by leaving the answer blank and asking them to find it.

(That’s a bit reductive. A satisfying narrative will likely eventually state the answer – it’s just way more satisfying if I, the reader, have already solved for the same.)

There’s an example I always think of that does this so beautifully, from Peter Temple’s Truth. (I’ve written about it before).

The detective, Villani, is out with his dad preparing his property for approaching bushfires. His dad mentions that one of Villani’s brothers is scared of him, to which Villani replies, ‘Bullshit.’ That appears to be the end of it. For half a day they clear the property, and Villani’s internal thoughts are on his dad and their history. That evening they’re sharing a beer and talking about other things when Villani says, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’

There’s so much meaning we can read into the space between these two things. Villani’s initial response, ‘Bullshit’, seemed to be a full-stop. He disagrees, end of story. When he brings it up again out of nowhere, we realise that he’s been thinking about it this whole time. That gives us a new sense of him as a character: That he’s sensitive and defensive. That he acts first and thinks later. That he cares about what his family thinks of him. That it bothers him to think his brother’s scared of him.

Even more, the phrasing of his question, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’ tells us something. If he’d said, ‘Is Gordon really scared of me?’ it would still have the flavour of dialogue that responds directly to what’s been said. However, his phrasing shows us that he’s not only been thinking about it but he’s drawn a conclusion from it: He agrees with his father.

This sense of internal thought and self-knowledge makes him feel complex and real. Like an adult. And none of that happens on the page, it all happens in my puzzle-solving brain, in the conclusions I’m drawing from the evidence presented to me.

The more I’m asked to participate in the story, the more thrilling it is.

observations on writing craft

I have the absolute privilege of judging a number of romance writing contests throughout the year, and every time I feel like I gain insights into writing that help me with my own craft. (And hopefully help the entrants with their next draft. That would obviously be awesome, too.)

I’m going to put up a series of posts over the next couple of weeks that examine the common areas I see again and again where I feel some hard work and consideration will make the biggest difference to the next draft of a story. I won’t in any way reference specific competition entries, just elements of craft.

Everyone receives feedback differently. Some writers are hungry for it, some can’t bear it. I fall somewhere in the middle. For the first few days that a new work is out being read by others, I am unbearably sensitive. The slightest query or suggestion is excruciating. Then I get used to the sense of exposure; I start to be able to separate myself from the project.

And then, the truly magical part of the process: I start applying some of the feedback to my work and see the story immediately improve. Like, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Then all I want is to make it even better.

So aside from the techniques I’ll be discussing in the coming posts, here’s probably the most important thing I take away from judging competitions:

Every single story, no matter how good, will be made better by having more thought and work put into it.

That can be hard to hear, especially when you feel like you’ve reworked it as much as you possibly can. (Seriously. I was certain there wasn’t a single thing I could do to Untamed without taking it into the next stage with an editor, and then a couple of months later I threw the whole thing out and started again. And again.)

We’re lucky as writers that the barrier to entry is low. We all have access to a computer, or a pen and paper. But where we don’t have to buy a suite of expensive equipment to practice our art, we sure do have to pay up with our time. Writing takes time. SO. MUCH. TIME. Even more time than we think. It really sucks.

(Yes, my last book was published six years ago. Why do you ask?)

We can certainly work on ways to make our processes more efficient, but I think it’s a false efficiency to avoid putting the time in. The posts in this series will outline some tools that I feel are useful when developing a first (second, third, fourth) draft into a more interesting, complex story.

a letter to my postpartum self

Dear Anna,

You’re sitting outside in the early spring sunshine and Robin is lying on your lap – the whole length of her no longer than your thighs – wearing a sweet pink beanie and wrapped in the stripy blanket you bought months ago. She is deeply peaceful, looking up at you, and you’re wishing her out of existence.

You don’t want her to die. Now that she’s here, you might not survive her death. But you also can’t bear the sudden death of your adult life, your sense of self, and you want to take back every decision that brought you here.

The fact that motherhood is the first difficult thing in your life that you can’t quit is what will make you a mum, but you can’t accept the reality of it yet.

I still feel deep guilt for these thoughts, and I have nothing but compassion for you, who are thinking them.

‘I just feel like someone else could be a better mum to her,’ you say to your own mum, who is sitting with you, quietly absorbing the fact that you’re in a bad way.

‘Probably,’ she says, and shrugs.

When I tell people this anecdote they’re often horrified, and if it ever occurred to me to respond to a woman’s pain this way, I wouldn’t have the confidence to do it. But the thing is, it was the perfect response. You, sitting there, realise that it’s irrelevant what kind of mum any other woman could be. You are Robin’s mum.

By the time you’re me, you’ll be comfortable with being a mum. You’ve become used to the ways in which you’re the mythical being, Mother, before you’re the person, Anna. But you’ve never entirely exorcised the imposter syndrome – the feeling that you cheated and somehow faked your way here.

Sorry.

There are so many things I wish you’d known or done differently, but the truth is, my advice would all be useless because you simply don’t have the capacity for any of it yet. You’re going to grow the capacity in the most painful way possible. You can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.

It’s the first time in your life you’ve experienced capital-A Anxiety. The way you’ve experienced it before is within yourself – you, an anxious person, moving through the world. This is completely different. This time the world is anxious – it is a dangerous, unstable place where you cannot rest in the familiar. You experience, vividly, that you’re walking a tightrope, but you know that if you look down you’ll see that there is no rope, and you’ll never stop falling.

You don’t want to eat, and every bite you force into your unwilling body is a victory. You stubbornly take care of yourself. Thank you for that.

These feelings are still so vivid, but I read back on some emails you wrote at the time to hear it in your own words, and I had forgotten this particular feeling, which seems nonsensical now: ‘I worry that if I do the smallest thing wrong she’ll die. (Of hunger? Neglect? Crying?) I don’t feel like I know how to keep this little stranger safe and happy.’

You use the word ‘stranger’ a lot, when you talk about her.

When Ken talks about the moment Robin was born, he says it was like all the flowers on every tree burst into bloom.

No flowers bloomed, for you.

You took in the fact of her. You absorbed that newborn, raw steak smell. You were vaguely aware of some urgent activity that you found out later was because you had lost a lot of blood. When she cried, you held her tighter and said, ‘You’re alright, I’ve got you. Mum’s here.’

It’s going to worry you a lot, the absence of insta-love. You do love her, but it’s still just a fact at this stage. At about three months it will start to become an emotion. The world will start to steady and you’ll be better at never looking down.

Ken will go back to work when she’s two weeks old, and you’re not going to be able to wrap your head around it. Who the fuck decided you only need two weeks of support? The morning he leaves for work you’ll feel as though you and Robin are in a rowboat together and you’ve just been pushed off from shore.

You’ll get through it. Women everywhere do, amazingly. It still doesn’t feel like it justifies the way our culture leaves women to it.

You’ll get through it by spending whole days on the couch watching a vaguely exploitative British show about teen parents with Robin on you, feeding, sleeping. The closer it comes to Ken’s arrival home, the more impossible it will feel. One of my lasting memories of that time is sitting on the doorstep with Robin, waiting.

You’ll learn to deal with the needs of the moment – even when you feel unresolved, scared and out of your depth, and you’re so tired your ears are ringing.

You’ll learn to put catastrophes down. Not real catastrophes – there will, despite your every worry, be none of those – but the kind you imagine in heart-stopping, gruesome detail.

You will learn to live with the things you cannot change.

The extreme intimacy of your life with Robin is difficult for you. Soon, every time you let down milk you will be filled with a feeling of dread. My best guess is that you respond to the serotonin which is supposed to deepen intimacy adversely, because you cannot take more. You’ll learn to think of this as a chemical reaction and ignore it more or less.

When your second child comes along just eighteen months from now, it’s going to stretch you beyond your limits (you will cry while brushing your teeth, because if you don’t multitask you won’t get to bed) but it’ll be easier emotionally, because among three the burden of intimacy is shared.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, there are some things you did really well.

You were a total champ at asking for and accepting help, and it saved you.

Also, good on you for letting the house be a mess. A clean house always feels nicer, but you stayed sane, which seems like an excellent outcome.

Huge tick for always having TimTams in the cupboard.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sticking with mothers’ group. The first few weeks aren’t going to be great. A woman from Kidsafe will tell you about a toddler who swallowed batteries that melted half his trachea, and another who hung herself on curtain cords. The woman from the library will make you all respond like children would to the picture book she reads aloud in a fake-bright voice. It’s humiliating.

But some of the women in your group are going to become wonderful, life-saving friends to you. Not because you’re particularly alike, but because you’ve stuck by each other, with dogged persistence, through all the shit.

You will invite them into your house when you can’t see the floor for toys and food and towels and the occasional wet nappy. You will feed your kids dinner together on a regular basis and toast the witching hour. They will even help you clean your monster house when you move, because for some reason you thought it would be cathartic and didn’t hire someone to do it for you. (You had to pay for the oven to be cleaned anyway. Hire someone next time.)

I wish you could have felt ownership over your early motherhood, but you will go into your second labour focussed on building the capacity for ownership and leadership – and you will triumph.

I wish you’d had the knowledge and confidence to not entertain large groups of visitors in those first few months. Those visits drained you unbearably and ushered in the first feelings of dread.

To get yourself through one particularly bad evening, when you can’t even imagine making it to tomorrow, you will imagine a three-year-old Robin, in her miraculously robust, independent body, popping her head around the door with a cheeky smile.

You can’t imagine more than a smile – not words, not play, not personality.

Last week she made you a monster out of paper and sticky tape, complete with accessory telescope and binoculars.

You are her mum, and you will do an amazing job. You will give her everything she needs to grow up to imagine star-gazing monsters, and to make what she has imagined with the powerful fingers and mind she grew inside your body.

Take a breath, don’t worry about the green poo, and enjoy that glass of wine.

Love,
Anna

This letter was inspired by the incredible book The Motherhood

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.