Category Archives: on writing

eyes open is better

I wrote a while ago about the Big Misunderstanding – that romance trope by which identities are mistaken, kisses are seen and misunderstood, words are overheard out of context, etc. Any circumstance, basically, which could be rectified with a conversation, and isn’t.

I’ve thought more about it since then, and decided unequivocally: Give me characters who talk, any day.

That’s kinda an obvious thing to say – the whole romance community groans when a Big Mis just makes the characters look stupid. But I also mean – give me characters who go into a difficult circumstance, eyes open, and come out the other end changed.

The idea that birthed my novel was this: imagine a man hidden in a gaggle of women – made to sleep in their beds and gossip with them and become intimately acquainted with their female world. Not an entirely traditional Big Mis, because my hero was doing it on purpose, but certainly a circumstance that could have been rectified with one (very embarrassing) conversation.

In my original draft the big reveal – “I was the woman who shared your bed!” – was the thing that broke my couple apart, before they had to make their way back to each other. The closer I came to this moment in my second draft the worse I felt about it. It felt so disingenuous somehow – not to mention, as a reader I could feel it coming from miles off, which is a particular kind of awful. It made my hero look like a dick, and my heroine had to forgive a lot, for their Happily Ever After to be convincing.

Around the time I was considering getting rid of the big reveal, I read Julie Anne Long’s amazing What I Did For a Duke. It starts out with a revenge plot, then about a third of the way in the hero and heroine have a really honest discussion that not only outs the revenge plot, but makes their relationship about a hundred times more interesting.

I went well into despair, and started rewriting the whole book without the cross-dressing. Then Valerie, fairy-godmother extraordinaire, suggested my heroine could be in on my hero’s secret the whole time.

It left me without that one central source of angst between them – and gave them a whole world of crazy to navigate together. In draft one, my heroine captures a duke’s heart by accident, because she doesn’t know his real identity and can therefore be honest and genuine with him. How much more interesting is it though, to have a woman who knows exactly what he is, and speaks directly anyway? Who sees clearly the kind of man she’s dealing with – the kind of man who would shatter himself just to get what he wants from her – and finds her way to understanding him anyway?

The answer you’re looking for is “much”.

The best, most concise illustration I’ve seen of this idea was in a Vampire Diaries episode recap on iO9. One of the only solid, dependable adult characters on the show had just begun manifesting a dark side. He has no control over it, and it wants to kill the vampires who have become like family to him.

Charlie Jane Anders pin-points exactly why this isn’t interesting:

Alaric didn’t get to decide to start taking matters into his own hands, which would have been an interesting character arc. Instead, he just got controlled/possessed by a magic ring that already turned Elena’s ancestor into a serial killer. Seeing Alaric actually make a choice would have been way more interesting.

If someone chooses the difficult path, eyes open, there’s a whole internal world of choice and consequence that is endlessly fascinating. If someone is walking a difficult path unaware that they’re doing so, all you get is the annoyance of waiting for them to fall, and the one heart-stopping moment when they do.

husbands are insightful beasts

Special k has this remarkable ability to see narrative. I think it’s part of his assurance that things are as he understands them; if a story doesn’t match up to what he thinks it is, he can say quite clearly, “This is why it isn’t working.”

It’s pretty remarkable, and entirely enviable, though I suspect it’s the natural instinct we ruin when we study writing in-depth. We gain other skills, obviously, but that gut instinct, that surety, we lose. Er, I lose. I should stop generalising my own experience as the experience of all writers everywhere.

Last night we were watching the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. This is a tiny bit spoilery, so skip to the next paragraph if you watch the show. Arya, an important political hostage, is hiding in plain sight as the cup-bearer for her family’s enemy, Tywin. Another powerful political figure, Littlefinger, comes to take wine with Tywin. He has met Arya before, and might recognise her, but she is made to serve him wine while he and Tywin talk about the war and political machinations.

Special k paused the show when the scene ended (I don’t think I could watch normal TV anymore – we’re constantly pausing what we watch to chat about it. Especially when it’s a murder mystery.) and said, “That was a really tense scene.”

Well, yes. Obviously it was a tense scene – she might have been recognised AT ANY MOMENT.

But then he said, “It was tense, because I wanted to concentrate on what they were saying, and I couldn’t.” See? Uninterrupted narrative sense.

Of course that’s why it was tense. It wasn’t only working on the one level of Oh no, she might be found out. There was also an important, intricate political conversation going on that, as the viewer, we really need to pay attention to. But there’s this background static – this other layer of the scene happening with no dialogue at all – that makes it impossible to concentrate.

*tucks away for future use*


what’s in a name? (quite a lot, as it turns out)

I finished my structural edit last week, and have moved on to a line edit (this is where I get to just read through and fix single lines, or delete single paragraphs that aren’t quite working. Hopefully it’s not the bit where I find whole bits of the book that still aren’t working).

The oddest, most enjoyable part of the process has been changing the name of almost every character in the book.

I don’t tend to agonise over character names when I begin – but that being said, every name has a distinct feeling to me that has to match the character. I’m one of those odd people who sees the week ahead as a 3D object in my mind, and attributes colours to numbers. So I have a feeling about a character, that’s a mix of colour and tone and shape and random adjectives, and I cycle through names until one fits.

The name-changing process has been much more conscious. The first to change was my heroine, Beatrice Sutherland. She’s most often called Bea, and thinks of herself as Bea. I started to notice, as I wrote the second half of the novel, that my hero always calls her by her full name – and he’s the only one to do so.

This felt important. She begins the novel as a tough country girl who works hard all day to keep her family afloat. Her journey is realising how narrow she has made herself, and beginning to see how powerful she could be in the world if she just lets herself think big-picture. I wondered whether I could make a better distinction between her pet-name and her full name, so that one would represent her as the country girl, the other as the powerful woman. Then, when the hero calls her by her name, he’s really calling her to be great.

The very first construction to occur to me was Kit/Katherine. I have a fondness for the name Kit, partly because it was my grandma’s name, and partly because it’s such a perfect tom-boy name. It really seemed to capture who my heroine is to begin, and how spare and tough she is. There are many, many K(C)atherines in my life, so I was a little hesitant to use it, but it’s such a grown up, strong sort of a name, that I kept coming back to it.

The second change was easier, and more mercenary. Kit’s mother was called Lucy, but my eye kept confusing it with Kit’s sister, Lydia. I cast around a little – with some of Lucy’s history in mind, her aristocratic, possibly-of-German-descent family – and came up with Gretchen. It has the same girlish tone as Lucy, which is important for her character.

Then came my favourite change so far. Lydia’s husband is the Scottish Earl of Danes. Danes was never a particularly Scottish sounding title, and Cat pointed out long ago that it was slightly confusing given that it describes a whole nation’s people. However, while I was writing I could only think of him as Danes, and couldn’t change it. In editing it became clear that I have a total love affair with the letter D – my hero is only the very alliterate Duke of Darlington.

Special k and I started talking about what makes a Scottish name, and he mentioned “Ben”, meaning mountain, instead of the more common “Mac”. I eventually came to what I think is the coolest title ever: The Earl of BenRuin. Even special k liked it, so big gold star to me.

The thing about all the changes I’ve talked about so far is that every single one of them deepened the character for me. They added a new facet – made them seem more real and interesting. They allowed me to read my own characters as though I hadn’t created them, but they existed somewhere beyond me.

The last change, though, I am finding almost impossible to make.

My hero has been, from the very first moment, Roscoe, Duke of Darlington. The name came from the song Roscoe by Midlake which is just a killer song, and make me fall in love with it. For me, it had no other context than that. As I’ve been getting more and more feedback, though, I’ve started to notice that Americans read the name Roscoe with a context. Then I read the hilarious review over on Dear Author of Hot On Her Trail, which is some truly awful sounding cow-ranch erotica. The P.I. the cowboys keep on retainer is called Roscoe. I knew it was time to face my suspicions.

On Saturday I put the call-out on Twitter: What do you think of, when you hear the name Roscoe? The answer was not encouraging.

It mostly consisted of fond reminiscences over Dukes of Hazzard and this guy:

A frighteningly intelligent duke – who can also totally pull off wearing a dress – he ain’t.

The problem is Roscoe is – Roscoe. He’s the one to whom only that name seems to fit. However, I have found a pretty great baby name website (which is gold, there are so many crappy ones out there) and I’m working my way through the alphabet. I’m currently on D. Wish me luck!

the ugly hero

I’m not sure when exactly the trend tipped, but at some point in the past couple of decades, romance heroines started to become more…normal looking. More like the kinds of ugly ducklings most of us are: we’re not gonna turn into a swan or anything (that would just be weird), but we will become more interesting, more self-possessed, more sexy and intelligent.

The traditional “ugly” heroine in Romancelandia has – gasp! – red hair and freckles, or a too wide, too generous mouth, or luscious, sexy lips that she hates because she doesn’t have the fragile beauty that’s so in right now. You know, beautiful ugly.

But now there’s room for heroines female readers could recognise themselves in. Not ugly, but not front-page material. Plump heroines, short heroines, big noses, flat chests. I’ve yet to see anyone attempt the monobrow, which Georgette Heyer pulled off so flawlessly in The Convenient Marriage.

One thing, however, remains constant. The heroes are, to a man, gorgeous. They may be nondescript at first sight – but trust me, there are a nice set of muscles lurking beneath that shirt!

It makes sense, of course. Romance novels are a variety of female fantasy, and a fantasy doesn’t get much more basic than this: I would never make the cover of a magazine, but a hot, wonderful man will see that I am more than my looks and love me. And did I mention how hot he is?

As Loretta Chase put it: If you have the power to make all your heroes tall and gorgeous, why on earth wouldn’t you?

Being the perverse creature that I am, once I realised this, my first thought was writing an “ugly” hero. Someone with a bit of flab around the middle, or less height than is to be desired, or no bum to speak of. But every time I pick the idea up, I discard it again. I can’t think how to make the reader fall in love with that kind of hero.

It’s shallow – so shallow, now that I’m typing it out – but that’s my reaction.

And then, ladies and gentlemen, I watched this movie trailer and thought – Oh the French are so cool:

Not only is it just stupendously brave to pair Audrey Tatou with a bald, weird-looking, pudgy hero, it works. The first love interest is young, gorgeous, cheeky. They obviously have something great. So when she looks up, and the cheesy voiceover has made it clear she’s about to meet her second chance at love, I was thinking, “Okay, so this guy’s going to have to be even more gorgeous and charming,” and I already had charm fatigue. I didn’t care. I felt the kind of despair that comes from consuming Hollywood fairytales (and I love me a Hollywood fairytale).

So when the man stepped into frame I was first surprised – and then delighted, and shocked, and intrigued. I sat up and paid attention. I could see, just from the preview, what this man might have to offer her that other men wouldn’t, and I wanted to see more.

So if the hero is a product of female fantasy, here are some things to consider: In this one life, as me, I’d rather be surprised and challenged and admired than have something pretty to look at. If I truly believe that, then it’s worth writing. It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but I think it would make a stupendous love story.

the Valerie Parv Award: a minion’s tale

The Valerie Parv Award 2012 opened for submissions today, and it’s inspired me to write about my experience winning a year’s mentorship with Valerie.

First things first: I never intended to enter the competition. I had just joined the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild and was still dealing with the abundance of chocolate and enthusiastic applause, much less wrapping my head around contests and such. The one other girl who writes Regency asked me to read over her entry for the VPA.

That in itself was a fantastic experience – reading what someone else was working on in my genre. I gave her a (way too in-depth) critique, but she didn’t end up submitting it. At the last second I thought, Hey, I’ve got the word count. Can’t hurt, right?

I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win, that I didn’t even bother going to Sydney for the awards dinner. I was out late at a different conference, and when I got home special k was snuggled all sleepy on the couch and said, “I have to tell you something.”

I sat down beside him and was all, “I didn’t win, did I.” He looked at me, long and mournful, then broke into a grin. “You won!” (Serena, who called my mobile to let me know and got special k instead, thought it was hilarious that he didn’t really get the significance. He was all, “Oh, alright, that’s cool.”)

Valerie emailed me about a month later and described the mentorship thusly:

How the mentoring process works is pretty much up to the individual winner, depending where you are in your writing journey. I’m happy to answer questions on the business side of writing – working with editors, agents, what to expect, etc – as well as creative aspects depending on what you feel is more useful to you. Any suggestions I make are just that, suggestions, which you can take or leave as suits you. [This was easily the best thing about Valerie – she had an abundance of suggestions and was completely unfazed whether I took them on or not, which made brainstorming with her a free, generous experience.] Other helpful info – I don’t bite. I love the process of working with what have become known as my “minions”.

I replied by basically saying, “I would like to talk to you every day, and have sold a best-seller in six months, and is there a special diet writers should go on? Maybe we should just move in together.” She gently reminded me that she, too, had a life.

I didn’t have a lot of industry questions at the time, but when I wanted to re-query an agent Valerie helped me judge whether I was ready, and she helped me work through a problem I’d run into at the time with my crit partner.

After we discussed her initial feedback of my entry, I went away and worked on some new ideas. One day I kinda cracked, and wrote this whole new, mental first chapter. It felt extreme, and great, but extreme. I was so nervous sending it to her, because it was such a departure from the story that had won me the award. Her reaction was:

I was very keen to read this and wasn’t in the least disappointed – to me, what you’ve done is wonderful. The depth and complexity of the characters in this brief glimpse is impressive. I love Roscoe’s awareness of his flaws and strengths, and that exquisite moment when Danes sees what’s beneath the contrived surface of the man. I got the distinct impression they are somewhat alike, and could even be friends in some other reality. I do hope you’ll get chance to explore that aspect in future, either late in this book or in the next.

You’ve definitely transcended farce and moved the story to a whole new level, frankly unlike anything I’ve read before. The challenge will be to keep the story at this level because I have a feeling it could be the key to unlocking your story. Not an easy task ahead by any means, but worth the effort.

Sweet feedback, huh? It was entirely unexpected – and gave me the confidence to continue in this new direction. It’s all well and good for writing buddies to say they love your work, but when someone with Valerie’s experience gives you the green light, it’s an affirmation you can build a book on.

In the same email she made a suggestion that Roscoe could be a spy, or involved in some political intrigue. At the time I was all, “Yeah, that’s not my book.” Sometime later, struggling through Roscoe’s motivations, it occurred to me that what he needed was a political sub-plot. Moral: When your fairy godmother suggests something, you should probably listen.

The feedback she would give me chapter by chapter was useful and specific, like:

Ch 6

When he thinks he miscalculated this badly, do we need any details? I found myself curious.

Ref. To the silence – we’ve already done this. Could you nod in that direction by having him think of “that damned silence again” or some such?

P2 – I momentarily had to think who Liza was. Perhaps a very brief refresher?

P6 – laughed at her in the dark is a reminder it’s not daylight yet. Might need a little clarifying so we know how much they can see of each other. Gloom? Pre-dawn light?

P6  – starts in omnipotent POV again, something to look at

Very good – he pulled everything into a slow orbit J Some lovely writing in these chapters.

P8 – a piece of a whole family…may be me reading in stages, but I couldn’t recall how they came to be as they are. In the polishing, might check back and ensure we have enough info. to follow this.

P9 more lovely writing in Bea thinking nothing in LE’s imagination could be safe J

P12 – beleaguered machinery – are we in Roscoe’s POV here? Should “her” be “him” if so?

P13 – this is an amazing scene, need to be careful when Bea washes his face that she takes care not to touch his skin. Otherwise she’ll feel the five o’clock shadow?

Do we need to know the Doctor’s diagnosis? I was curious.

I spent a whole two days of a writers retreat struggling to write the second chapter, and in the middle of my desperation it occurred to me: I have a mentor! I called Valerie, and about seven and a half minutes later she’d solved the problem.

Valerie taught me something about the reality of writing. I learned that in this business patience is not optional. She would tell me in the one email that my writing was nearing a publishable standard, and in the same email would remind me that being publishable wasn’t the same thing as being snapped up by a publisher (especially when your hero wears a dress for half the novel).

As I neared the middle of my draft, I started to realise that my original plot wasn’t going to hold my new characters. Much plot-related panic ensued.

I decided to rewrite the whole book from a certain point of the narrative. I sent Valerie the first few chapters of this new version, then we had a phone call. She sounded worried, for the first time, and said, “I think you’ve lost what’s charming about Roscoe.” This email exchange followed:

ME: So, you may have been able to tell that our phone conversation was a little challenging for me. I had that classic moment of being quite sure I was ready to give it all up. HOWEVER! I have recovered, and started to re-think those chapters and give them some more structure.

VALERIE: I’m sorry you felt daunted by our phone discussion. I’m glad you had a rethink and decided against giving up. We all go through that stage many times during our careers. And truth to tell, when things look least hopeful is often when we’re nearer to succeeding than we know. As always hindsight is wonderful.

The truth is that she’d given me excellent feedback to work from. There was no narrative traction in my chapters – what was this story, and where was it headed? But most importantly, she made the one suggestion that let me shoe-horn my previous plot back in. Mostly. Except it still all needed to be rewritten.

I was reaching the last couple of weeks of the mentorship, and worked desperately on the new chapters. I sent them to her, and:

Firstly congratulations – truly – this is a whole order of magnitude beyond what I would have expected in the time you’ve had. The characters and their motivations, their behaviour and the undercurrents are beautifully balanced and compelling to read.

It says something for your story that I started to take a quick peek when the email came in (I was working on a short story of my own), and now it’s after midnight and I was looking for more pages after the end. It’s exciting to see this coming together so well. I hope you feel the same. Talk soon.

Whew! I cannot describe the relief of having this positive reaction to move forward with, past the end of the mentorship.

In the year I worked with Valerie my novel became a whole new beast that’s barely a second cousin thrice removed to my first draft, and a couple of thousand times better. I began to see patterns of lazy writing that I learned to catch as I was doing them. I had confidence in the risks I was taking, because Valerie believed in what I was doing. I left the mentorship with a strong sense of what I was doing, and where I was headed.

As of right now, 45 out of 80 entries have been received. So, what are you waiting for?

Love is selfish

Here’s where I admit that I look down on the kind of hero who stays away from a heroine “for her own good”. As far as I’m concerned, the species of human love that romance novels deal with is a selfish beast. I find it much more romantic if a hero knows he should stay away, and comes closer anyway.

This is a personal preference – and in no way “how romantic love is”. But it’s a rather strongly held preference.

It comes partly from the experience of dating a budding Buddhist (ha!) in my early 20s. He was attempting to let strong emotions wash by without attaching to them, and I was attempting to grab onto passion with both hands. His goal was to love everyone  on earth equally, and I wanted to be loved the most, reason be damned.

Needless to say, we did not last. My vague annoyance with Eastern religions lasted, though, as did my less vague sense that it is not a good or selfless thing to say, “You. Above everyone else, you”, but it was the only kind of love I was going to settle for.

And I don’t think it was only a histrionic, vain kind of a wish. Because there are days when knowing that I matter the most to this one person gives me something to hold on to. It makes me necessary. It enforces meaning onto what can sometimes seem painfully arbitrary.

So. That’s my take on romantic love, and I have no time for heroes who stay away.

Now to qualify that statement, though, because I’m not a maniac. Heroes who stay away because of some condescending belief that they know what’s best: No. But of course there are good reasons to stay away.

If the heroine is in actual physical danger because of her association with the hero, staying away seems reasonable. And I like the more nuanced approach of a hero who hasn’t yet made up his mind what he’s prepared to give up for the heroine, or what he’s prepared to take on. This is a variation of selfish love. It’s more like, “I stay away for my own good. For now.”

At the end of my novel my heroine stays away from my hero, but only because she’s building certain assets for herself so that when they meet again she’ll be able to fully claim him. She knows she’ll do more harm than good if she claims him too early, so in a sense it’s for his own good – but she’s busy making up the difference. She’s not off somewhere wallowing in how bad for him she is.

The eternally moving last paragraph of The Thorn Birds says all this better than I can. I’m literally going to quote the last paragraph of the book, and it’s the best ending I’ve ever read, so if you haven’t yet read the book DO NOT READ ON! (And if you haven’t yet read the book, get cracking.)

The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.

choice makes you human, human makes you interesting

I’ve seen two examples recently of a character exercising their human autonomy through the act of choice. Both of these characters were in complex circumstances that they could have used to explain away their actions. In both cases, doing so would have weakened their position.

The first was from Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. When Martha first proposes to Theo that she’ll pay him to get her pregnant, he questions what her options are.

“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?” Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.”

The effect of her autonomy is strengthened by the fact that we’ve been in her head, and know that going back to her brother is a desperate, claustrophobic thought to her. So often in fiction characters give their exact thoughts in argument – or they purposely misdirect, or simply avoid answering. She doesn’t feel the need to either confess or lie. It is enough for her that she knows her reasons, and she trusts herself to choose her own path.

Particularly for a female character, I found this to be a powerful declaration of independence.

The second was in the final Matrix movie. Neo is having his arse handed to him by Mr Smith, but he will not stay down. This enrages Mr Smith, because it’s a lack of logic particular to living things, and he cannot understand it.

MR SMITH: Why do you do it, Mr Anderson? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? I believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only the human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr Anderson, you must know it by now, you can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr Anderson? Why, why do you persist?

NEO: Because I choose to.

This is such a great line. I admit that in the rather dated trilogy it took me wholly by surprise. It’s especially excellent because Mr Smith has already torn down every single reason Neo might be expected to give. He harps on about love, and as we’ve just seen Neo sacrifice love for the good of mankind, you could forgive him for taking love as a reason to keep on fighting.

But Mr Smith is…kinda right. All those noble human emotions and ideals for which humans go to war and broker peace and push themselves beyond their abilities – depend on perception. They’re not true across all contexts, and for all people. Choice was the only irrefutable reply Neo could have made.

Choice doesn’t depend on morality, or truth, it just is. It is a personal action, a declaration of human autonomy.

Of itself, choice is incredibly simple. It’s always the context that makes it interesting. I think that’s probably why I’ll always root for the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences. You have to be a particularly powerful sort of a human, to do so.

My Lady Untamed blurb

I’m in the red pen stage, and will soon be in the beta stage, after which I’ll need a damn good query letter, to make sure agents want to see my manuscript. I will love and adore you all if you give me some feedback on the blurb I’m putting together for My Lady Untamed.

Any reactions you have are great: did you want to read the story? Was any of it confusing? Was there too little of my heroine in it? (Actually I can probably answer that now with a yes. This is a very hero-centric blurb!)

As it stands:

The Duke of Darlington is playing a dangerous political game in league with Liverpool. When he trades his own reputation to further the game, it’s critical that he doesn’t lose focus. Only he’s been having trouble breathing of late, and he fears he’s become a danger to himself.

For distraction he spies on his lover’s sister – the rough-mannered girl from the country who thinks she can warn a duke away. What he doesn’t expect is a girl who sees him clearly, and says awful, true things to his face. He follows her back to the country, determined to be cured by the sharp edge of her tongue.

Too late he realises his mistake: in the country he’s no longer in his world – he’s in hers. He hasn’t reckoned on having to face the darkness in himself before he can banish it. Or of meeting the one girl who’s strong enough to take him on.

The place-holder blurb I have here (copied below) showcases very different elements of the story. It’s not in the structure of a blurb, but are there any elements from it that you would like to see brought into the blurb?

Roscoe is a brilliant, troubled duke who follows Bea to the countryside dressed as a woman. He’s very particular about his wardrobe and his pet pig. Bea has agreed to help him sort himself out if he’ll stay away from her sister.

He’s extreme. She’s strong enough to take anything he can throw at her. Love ensues.

sexual attraction doth not our enmity unmake

There is a notion about female sexuality, that sex is (or should be) about intimacy. Before I go into whether it’s true or not, I first want to add that this ambiguous little gem applies equally to men, they’re simply less quick to claim it. Most of the time. We watched 50/50 the other night, and the two friends have a conversation that I think perfectly sums up what my post today is about:

ADAM: The relationship I have with Rachel is – it’s about more than sex.

KYLE *facetious*: What is it about, Adam?

ADAM: It’s about – each other, you know, we care about each other, we talk to each other. It’s great.

KYLE: Uh-huh. Yeah. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that and then bang the hell out of each other afterwards?

ADAM: Ideally, yes, but it’s not a perfect world, okay?

Cecilia Grant’s debut, A Lady Awakened, has been causing a lot of buzz in the romance world since it was published last year – and I finally got around to reading it. Because I’m going to be drawing heavily on the themes explored in it, here’s a quick rundown:

Martha’s husband dies, and she has to get herself pregnant within the month if she wants to keep the estate out of the hands of the Evil Heir. She pays a young man, Theo, who’s been exiled to the country for bad behaviour, to have sex with her once a day. He assumes he will be as a sex god to her. She refuses to take any pleasure from the task. He discovers that her mind is much more susceptible to seduction than her body, and that she loves to talk Improvements. Much talk of agriculture ensues, as do love and orgasms, eventually.

Part of what has made this book so talked-about is the novel approach to sex. Martha isn’t frigid, and unlike most historical heroines she isn’t unaware of her own body’s pleasure. So she doesn’t refuse to respond out of naivety or ignorance. She sees her decision as the best of two bad choices, and doesn’t want to lose the last of her principles by taking pleasure in a necessary act.

But more interesting to me is the simple fact that she feels she can’t be intimate with someone who is a stranger to her. She can only give herself over to pleasure when she likes and admires him.

If she had been naive of pleasure, this would have seemed old-fashioned to me, or like a backward step in a contemporary discussion about sex. She makes her decision fully understanding what it means, however, which complicates things.

Conservative female sexuality, out of which the romance tradition grew, certainly holds that intimacy is more important than sex. The romance is consummated with a declaration of love, not with sex, which will likely be had well before the end of the book.

It’s interesting that in the period when this view of sexuality prevailed, so did the quasi-rape variety of sex, which the heroine only realised she was enjoying once it had been forced on her. I tend to agree with the theory that this was a way for women to express the desire for sex without owning up to desire. A woman couldn’t initiate, but once it was forced on her – once she’d made every feminine objection – she could enjoy it.

This, to me, is not sex that depends on intimacy. It is sex for its own sake.

Then on the other end of the scale there’s Erica Jong’s ideal fantasy: the zipless fuck. She imagines seeing a man across from her on the train, and their desire is immediate, and fulfilled so perfectly that the fantasy isn’t broken for even the space of time it would take to unzip your trousers, and be brought back into reality.

She writes:

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

Once romance began to admit to the kind of female fantasy Jong describes – or at least to the idea that women are sexual beings, and can enjoy pleasure for its own sake – heroines no longer needed to justify their desires to themselves.

This creates a kind of sexuality where sex is what gives rise to intimacy, and leads to love, rather than the other way round.

In which context, you can understand why A Lady Awakened felt like something new. Not a lady denying her own pleasure, but also not a lady willing to find intimacy through the act of sex.

I’ll admit, I found her uncomfortable to read. It made me realise how rarely people voice this need, now, without any irony or shame attached: to know and admire someone before they can feel pleasure with them.

Martha is a particularly upright, reserved character, so I don’t think her needs reflect a common female need in its entirety. But talking about it with some friends the other night, I was reminded that there is a kind of loneliness in unattached pleasure – an eventual desire for some emotional fulfilment.

And of course, that emotional fulfilment is what romance is all about. It’s just difficult to find out exactly what relationship it has to sex.

I find this interesting on a personal level, but also as a writer. In romance, sex – and sexual attraction even more so – becomes a short-hand for intimacy. And that’s just lazy writing. Theo had to work for Martha’s admiration, and a writer should have to do the same.

I was struck by similar thoughts reading a Harry Potter fic called Bond. (This is Harry/Draco – you may read ahead if that’s not your thing.) Harry and Draco have been bonded to each other against their will. The bond forces them into close proximity and after a while creates sexual attraction. They need to consummate, but Harry can’t bear being so intimate with a boy he distrusts and dislikes.

It made me realise that normally, in that kind of fic – and in romance in general – once a character feels sexual attraction any objections to the person they feel it for begin to erode at that moment.

I liked that Harry’s attraction only made him less inclined to go near Draco, because it made him that much more vulnerable to him. Draco, like Theo, had to win him over before he would come near.

All that being said, though, sex has a power like few other things to force intimacy. I also think a person is completely different when they’re so physically close, and they’re less words than skin and sound and smell. So for me admiration, fully dressed, doesn’t necessarily equate to intimacy in the bedroom.

But it’s a fair reminder not to use sex, where conversation is needed. (That’s a truism for fiction, but it probably washes in real life, too.)

my finished draft in printed form (an illustrated squee)

Last year when I finished the first draft of Red Robin, I printed out a copy so that special k could read it. This was very exciting to me – considering that the longest conversation we’d ever had about my romance novel at that time went something like:

ME: So there’s this duke.

HIM: Hold on. Do you know how many dukes actually exist in the world? Isn’t that a little farfetched?

ME: So there’s this duke, and his name’s Roscoe.

HIM: Roscoe. Why did you call him Roscoe? I don’t think that was even a name back then.

ME: Never mind.

But Red Robin was an action! adventure! story, though sadly with no laser guns, no matter how often special k brings it up. So I printed off a copy, excited and a little nervous, and not sure he would actually get through the whole thing.

Special k reads slowly (he can take actual months to read a book. I don’t even know how that’s possible), so I knew that even if he did get through it, there was no way a sheaf of 90-odd loose pages would survive that long.

Because I was getting it printed at Officeworks it was the work of a moment to say, “Oh, hey, and can you bind it?” No fancy front or back, just a spine to hold the thing together. Funny thing though – when I held the bound draft in my hands it made me feel differently about it. The success of writing a story to the end was more tangible. I could flick through it and get a plastic sense of the story’s pace and arcs.

Writers will often print off scenes, because you see things differently in different media. This whole bound-draft thing was that – levelled up. It allowed me to see the draft as a coherent whole, which is vital when you’re doing structural edits.

Thus a tradition was born. When a draft is finished, I print and bind it. I love the idea of building up a library of drafts.

That makes it sound like I’ve done this many times over, which I haven’t. Turns out, writing a book takes a long time! Last week I finally got to print out a draft of My Lady Untamed:

and just in case you can’t get a proper sense for JUST HOW MUCH WRITING THIS IS:

The copy of the Robin was for Ken to read, so I never had the satisfaction of taking a red pen to it. This manuscript is all red pen. For example:

It’s a teensy weensy bit daunting, because it’s almost three hundred pages full of red pen. However, the scenes I’ve worked on so far are already so improved, that I’m feeling quite hopeful about this process.

For any writer out there listening, I thoroughly recommend the print-and-bind method.

Also – I FINISHED MY DRAFT!! I was so convinced this was never going to happen that my sole goal going into this year was: Finish The Book. And it’s only March. Whatever will I do with the rest of the year?