Tag Archives: writing romance

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.

heartbreak remakes the heart into a different organ

I just finished reading Meredith Duran’s At Your Pleasure – and though the cover was as gorgeous as ever, it was the first book of hers I didn’t love.

The prologue and first chapter made me feel fizzy and dark with, well, pleasure. It was brimful of the kind of romantic angst that’s been missing in all these lovely, nuanced, thoughtful romances people have been writing. It begins:


Adrian had abandoned the lathered horse a mile behind. He ran now, his feet no sooner striking the ground than lifting again, all his instincts and memories combining to aid him, directing him sure-footedly and safely over the darkened field where he had played as a boy and later loved her as a man.


This woman can write. Which is why my overwhelming feeling is “puzzled”; I can’t entirely figure out why this book did the opposite of wowing me.

The most convincing reason I’ve been able to come up with is that the “childhood lovers reunite” trope is incredibly difficult to do – and Duran didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The premise: Adrian and Nora were neighbours and lovers in their youth, but as one was Catholic and the other Protestant there was no way they could marry. Their families intervened and helped cause one hell of a misunderstanding between them – major heartbreak included. They spend six years at court pretending not to notice the other exists – until Nora’s husband dies, and Adrian turns up at her country estate to arrest her treasonous brother.

The problem was, the heartbreak had changed them both irrevocably, but I never felt they got to know each other now well enough for their love to be convincing. It seemed to all stem from that earlier love that was clearly juvenile and careless, if also true.

I wanted them to just be in a room together and talk. Then talk some more. In fact, the most riveting scene in the whole book is when Adrian practices sleep-depravation torture on Nora, trying to get answers from her. They’re both worn down by it until they can’t help but be honest – and it’s not the treason that comes out, but the truth about their past.

The thing about first love is this: To get over it – to truly accept that you’re not magically going to be allowed to have that person because you really really want them – you have to change. It’s the only option. You have to become a person who doesn’t need them.

You have to outgrow them.

So it’s a lovely daydream that you might one day be thrown into a situation with that person where you can’t avoid each other or help but sort your history out – but that’s all it is: a daydream. It feels wrong to me to see it happen, because all my own experience disproves it.

When you’ve had to go through that moving-on – if you’ve ever attempted to go back to a lover and discovered the heartbreak of no longer fitting – you don’t forget it.

I needed conversation. And more conversation. I needed them to experience how ill they fit, compared to the dream of how well they fit. I needed to watch them surprise each other – and when the past turned up at unexpected moments to hurt/delight them, I needed it to be a complex thing that didn’t fit easily into the present.

The fit was so wrong, for me, that I ended up shipping Nora and the young spoilt nobleman in Adrian’s company who was obviously going to end up doing something villainous. He at least, I thought, would be something new for her. Something she didn’t know she wanted for herself. And she would have shown him the gulf between who he was and the man he might be.

Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.

on female body hair

I made the decision a little while ago that my heroine has underarm hair. Then I spent a couple of months thinking I’d probably change my mind; there’s such a strong aesthetic against body hair.

The first time in my life that I saw underarm hair as not only acceptable but sexy as all hell was when I was eighteen years old and working on a farm in Germany. (I should at this point note: the misconception that German women are hirsute is a hangover from the 20s and not at all accurate.) These two twenty-something-year-old women who worked on the farm were taking a break by the side of a tractor shed. They were tanned, grimy and muscular, and their arms were flung casually out. They had armpit hair and it looked strong. It made them animal and vital. I thought, “Oh, so I don’t have to hide it.”

Ever since then I’ve been happy to have underarm hair, so yes, some of my decision to give my heroine the same is me writing myself, as writers do.

But what does that mean, writing myself? In this case, there’s an aesthetic standard I don’t agree with. I express my disagreement in life, and I express it in fiction.

This brings me to a question I’ve been avoiding for a while: Do my politics belong in my writing? And possibly more to the point: Do I have an obligation to express my politics in my writing?

As soon as I think it in those terms, “politics”, my reaction is a violent No. I’m not writing issues books. I don’t want characters parading through my books trying to teach my readers important life lessons, or giving long speeches about how things should be.

But when I take the word politics out of it, and when I think of it as entering a discussion about femalehood, my reaction is a pretty clear Yes.

Special k and I got into a great discussion the other night (while, irony of ironies, I was doing the dishes and he was standing about not helping) about the way pop culture reflects cultural values, and to what extent pop culture has a responsibility to engage with cultural critique.

Or to put it less obliquely: We were disagreeing about the extent to which people should criticise Beyonce for wearing no clothes and high heels in her amazing “All the single ladies” video. (By the way, some absolutely brilliant trivia: one of those dancers is her male choreographer. My cross-dressing duke approves.)

I started to talk about the cultural responsibility of romance writers, and it brought home to me again what a powerful genre I write in. When I started reading romance I felt empowered by the portrayal of female sexuality as a purely positive thing. I cautiously opened myself to the idea that sex should be all about pleasure, with no shame attached. It allowed me to think about my sexuality in purely heterosexual terms, without attaching shame to that either.

When I read heroines who learn to deal with conflict, I feel encouraged to learn to deal with conflict. When I see heroines who learn to ask for what they want even when it feels uncomfortable, that becomes a possibility to me.

Romance speaks powerfully to women about what it means to be a woman.

So when I wrote the first sex scene between my hero and heroine I thought very carefully about what I believe about sex – and about the ways I would like to see women empowered.

I’m only just beginning to understand all the ways our sexuality is constructed for us, our whole lives. It’s impossible to get the whole picture, because we’re trying to make visible the invisible structure through which we view the world.

One specific idea I’ve been talking and thinking about (and, if I’m honest, confronted by)  is the idea that women are taught to be the object of desire, not the person who desires. (See Beyonce and her high heels.) Men are taught to see us this way, and we’re taught to see ourselves this way. Good sex = turning a man on because we succeed at striking the right poses and making the right noises. It’s not about feeling and chasing pleasure, or desiring and taking what we desire.

Of course, I have put this in hopelessly simple terms, so please forgive me that.

When my heroine and my hero first have sex, he is described in the language of desire, not she, and she pushes for what she wants from him. It’s still a very “female” want; she demands emotion, as well as sex. But she doesn’t ever doubt that she knows herself and her desires, and she doesn’t doubt her entitlement to feeling them.

I hope that women will read it and think, I can do that too.

So when it comes to body hair – and is there anything worse than that word “pube” – I didn’t want to back down either. I didn’t want to assume that women have bought so fully into the no-hair aesthetic that it wouldn’t intrigue them to see a hero stroke his thumbs up into the dark, warm fur and for it to be right, and without commentary.

I recently watched a documentary about the great French brothels of the 1920s, which was rather creepily told through the memories of a bunch of old men. One of them spoke about how the prostitutes would grow their body hair, and they would only have to raise an arm for the men to go animal, wild. (Have I just contradicted myself by turning body hair into another object of desire? Er. Hold on.)

Here’s a good place to stress that I’m not saying we should all go about hairy. I’m not even saying you’re betraying your womanhood if you shave. God, no. But I do think the no-hair aesthetic is learnt, and that there’s room to transform it.

Because my body grows hair, and every time I hate my body for it – stare helplessly at myself and think I did something wrong – it’s exhausting.

I’ve never really become comfortable with leg hair. It makes me feel like a footballer, or, I dunno, a lumberjack. But recently I really can’t be bothered getting my legs waxed. And because of that, I’ve been noticing a lot of women walking about with hairy legs: The girl in front of the state library; the schoolgirl on the tram, standing with her friends; the waitress at my local cafe.

Every time I see another woman walking around with hair on her legs as though it just doesn’t matter, it matters to me less.

My heroine is poor and she works all day long. When it comes to pure, historical fact, she wouldn’t have had the time or resources to shave (or whatever they did back then – I’ve been having trouble getting any solid info, so if you know anything about 19th century depilatory habits, please speak up!).

I made the decision not to change the facts just to suit a modern aesthetic that I don’t agree with anyway.

I cracked the Moment of Capitulation!

yesterday I had an epiphany about the moment of capitulation – to my mind the hardest part of a romance to write well. It is the moment when the hero/heroine give in to being together, which means it’s also the moment when all those conflicts you’ve worked so hard at to keep them apart for a whole novel are no longer enough to keep them apart.

You can see why is so often feels contrived and unconvincing.

When my hero’s deception becomes clear to my heroine, things fall out between them. Trust is broken. And here’s the difficulty of capitulation – how do you come back from that? In a convincing, this-love-is-forever kind of way?

So here’s the epiphany: That crisis does break something between them. It does make it impossible for them to be as they were. So what it has to do instead is make it possible for them to be together in a new way – the experience of the crisis has to transform them into the people who can love forever.

I know. I should be knighted or something.

happy happy happy

I have been talking a bit about my new novel teacher – the strange creature who understands my genre. After tonight’s class she deserves yet another mention.

My teacher is Toni Jordan, a Melbourne-based writer whose first book, Addition, did extremely well here and overseas. Her second book was released last year. We studied Addition last year, and I didn’t love it. But Toni’s “I’m going to turn you all into professional writers” attitude I do love.

So tonight I workshopped again, and she asked me to see her after class. I walked up to her, she put her hands on the desk, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “What’s your plan for this book!?”

She went on to say that it was just right for the genre, “You get that this is really, really good, don’t you?” and just wanted to check that I knew what I had on my hands, and that I had a game plan for it.

I know this doesn’t mean I’m getting published, but the positive reinforcement is bloody brilliant. I’ve fought my way through the learning curve of last year, and I feel like I’m just re-emerging with the dedication and motivation that come from feeling like getting published – actually in real life – is a real possibility.

(If you’re curious about the piece that I was workshopping, it’s the first chapter of my novel, which you can find here.)

“would they really do that, in a romance novel?”


Last year was chockers with questions like that, for me. Most of my workshopping time had to be used defending or explaining paragraph lengths, word choice, POV, character traits…

I did my first workshop of the year, the other day, and I still had those kinds of questions. Only this time, my teacher stepped in and answered on my behalf. And then asked the class if they knew who the most successful Melbourne writer was – by miles.

Stephanie Laurens, of course.

Ah! My work has ears that understand its conventions! Still, it also made me realise that hard as last year was, it improved my work immeasurably to be always writing beyond myself.

1st v 2nd draft

It just occurred to me the other day that I should put some info about what I’m writing up on the blog, just so’s the stuff I go on about – strong, virginal throats, for instance – makes some sense.

I’ve created a new page, romance in progress, and posted some thoughts about writing the novel/how I started writing it etc.

I’ve also posted the blurb and first chapter for the draft I’m working on now, and the blurb and first chapter for the first draft [I’ve now removed these pages; 2/04/11]. It’s quite amazing actually, to look at them both, so some thoughts about the differences:

The major turning point in my huge rewrite/redraft (see, until this point I actually thought I was already up to draft 3!) was Susannah Taylor’s feedback. Her main critique was that whilst the story was fun, it fell too far on the side of farce – i.e. the reader’s just along for the situational humour, not to see the characters progress in an emotional way.

This is immediately obvious in the title of my first draft: The Three Loves of Miss Beatrice Sutherland. Doesn’t that just sound like a Regency romp? (Which is a great thing – the title prob. quite inspired by Quinn’s The Secret Diary of Miss Miranda Cheever. But she had emotional intensity set up from the beginning. I didn’t.) Oh, and in the fact that my hero’s hiding in a linen box, letting his lover protect him.

Which brings me to ST’s other major point: he’s a hard sell as a hero.

My new and improved Roscoe, who suffers panic attacks and is seen in chapter one totally owning the toughest, deadliest Scot that side of the 20th century, comes whole and perfect from my old Roscoe.

Everything he is, I teased out of his predecessor – from things I’d written into him that I wasn’t even conscious of at the time.

One interesting difficulty that arose out of making him more alpha, was that he was suddenly much less attractive and much more awkward in a dress. Roscoe1 was up for anything, and as long as he was being entertained and extreme, he was happy. He was so supremely confident that it wouldn’t even occur to him that he should be uncomfortable. Roscoe2, in being a Machiavel, and aware of every little nuance of every little action he takes, makes the dress a much more conspicuous piece of scenery.

Hopefully it’ll be a little bit fun for you to see a snippet of what I agonise over so much.



Blogger Decadence and I have been having a bit of a mammoth discussion, and it’s come around to what it takes for a hero/ine to break the habit of a lifetime and open up to somebody else.

This really is tricky, because writers put a huge amount of work into making their characters’ motivations for not being together believable. Tthey don’t always put enough work into making the breakdown of those reasons as believable, and it’s often the downfall of a good romance.

The moment of capitulation.

Luckily, there are these things called plot devices that help us out. My favourite kind is the loophole.

Decadence pointed one out in our discussion about Vishous. He knows he’s going to erase his woman’s memories, so it allows him to be and do what he would never normally let himself be and do.

In this draft of my novel, I’m using the old classic: the thunderstorm. Hero/ine (sadly, it’s mostly the heroine) is terrified of thunderstorms for whatever reason, and finds herself somewhere alone with the hero when it breaks. Et voila, he has to step in and comfort her, no matter what their current understanding.

And there was an absolute corker in tonight’s episode of The Vampire Diaries. I’ve made my opinion known, that we watch the show because we ship Elena and Damon – which means, of course, that they can never have consummation or the show will die.

But tonight one of those perfect loopholes appeared and we got a glimpse of what we want but can never have: he caught her without her necklace (the one that stops him from being able to compel her) and could tell her, just once, exactly what he feels.

Just before he wiped her memory and gave her the necklace back.


fairy godmothers are the best

I promised I would keep you updated re VP’s feedback on my re-drafted first chapter, and boy am I happy to do so!

As always, am not sure how much of other people’s letters I can post here, but let’s just say it contained the phrases “to me, what you’ve done is wonderful. The depth and complexity of the characters in this brief glimpse is impressive.” and “You’ve definitely transcended farce and moved the story to a whole new level, frankly unlike anything I’ve read before.”


I have been struggling quite a lot recently with a huge case of self-doubt – no doubt to do with the huge re-writes/breaking apart what I had to try and make something better from the pieces.

This comes at just the right time and makes me realise more than ever how incredible this mentorship is.

hey, I still would have shared if the feedback wasn’t so good, but this is so much sweeter.

i like you, i like you not

The most frequent comment I get from my writing teacher is, “Aren’t romance heroines supposed to be sympathetic?”

It’s a hard thing to nut out, because, on the one hand, yes. But I do so love a bitchy/cold/unpleasant heroine who gets her just deserts (oh poor her, she has to be undone by love). So how to write this, without losing reader sympathies altogether?

For me as a reader, I prefer her to be all the way bad, because I know, because of the genre, that she is going to change. This creates enough tension for me to want to read on and see how exactly that happens.

Two heroine’s I’ve read recently who’ve inspired this post:

Sabine from Kiss of a Demon King. She’s an evil sorceress and she follows through. So how does Kresley Cole keep the reader on her side and reading? Firstly, she’s entertaining. Because she’s not trying to come across as good, she cracks open the boring “good” hero, and we get some sparks. Secondly, we’re made aware that she’s an unreliable narrator, i.e. she thinks she’s heartless, but we know why, and we are given the tiniest glimpses that she doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Thirdly, there is one person on earth she loves before herself.

Rachel from Dream a Little Dream. She’s broke and has nothing in the world but her tiny 5-year-old son who keeps asking “Are we going to die now?” Things get really bad, and then they get a whole lot worse, and she somehow keeps going. All she is is her need to survive. Again here, there is one person on earth she loves more than her own life, that we see her do anything for. There’s also admiration for how she continues in the face of absolute desperation.

I can’t stand wussy writers who write a bad character, but you never really see them do anything heinous. These heroine’s are so brilliant because they are absolute in what they need to do to survive.