Whether you consider writing an art
or a craft, or something in between, it involves skills that can always
be improved. Over the years, I've learned a few things that help me out.
I've tried to pass those on with these articles.
At the Feet of the Masters:
Twelve Things I learned from Reading the RITA Winners
Breaking the Rules: In Defense
of Flying Body Parts
From Lust to Love: Creating
At the Feet of the
Masters: Twelve Things I learned from Reading the RITA Winners
Every year, the professionals of stage, screen, and
television honor the best offerings of their peers. Glamorous award ceremonies
give us mere audience members snippets of production numbers, clips of
films, and scenes from television programs and movies of the week. Sometimes
I’ve actually seen the movies or programs; alas, living far from
New York, I have rarely witnessed the theater performances.
But if I were a writer for stage, screen or television,
I would do more than watch the awards program on television. I would make
sure I saw the nominated plays, films, or programs. I would analyze the
finalist entries to see what made them the choices for “best,”
so I could try to incorporate those elements in my own writing.
I am not a writer for stage, screen, or television.
I am a writer of romance fiction. And we romance writers have our answer
to Tony, Oscar, and Emmy – the Rita™. And so, each year, I
sit down and read as many Rita finalists as I can get my hands on –
and reread any I’ve already read. And by hook or crook, I make darned
sure to get a copy of the winner!
In fact, reading those twelve novels is a bit like
taking a course in romance writing. Here are twelve lessons I learned
from reading the 2002 RITA winners.
1. RITA winners have great heroic characters.
Well, duh. Of course they do. Great stories have
well-thought-out heroes and heroines that jump off the page and into the
readers’ hearts. But does that mean all the RITA winners have heroes
in the truest sense, warriors who, must save all of mankind sense of the
word, and do so without effort, mental or physical? Are their heroines
always beautiful beyond compare, and possessed of every conceivable virtue?
No, it just means they have memorable, believable, true-to-life characters
who struggle with important issues, but manage to live their lives as
In Fay Robinson’s Coming Home to You,
the hero struggles to keep his past from catching up with him. This lost
soul tries to isolate himself from the heroine who uses every ounce of
her intellectual giftedness to dig deep and learn the truth about secrets
long buried. These two are not superheroes, yet they manage to loom larger
than life. Far from perfect, each also reveals an inherent goodness that
touches and inspires readers.
The lesson – RITA winners use well-drawn characters
that evoke sympathy.
2. Rita books have great characterization.
Nope, I am not repeating myself. There is a difference
between great characters and great characterization. The creation of true-to-life,
imaginative sympathetic characters is crucial to a good story, but it
is something that writers do behind the scenes, in their plotting, planning,
freewriting, character sketching, brainstorming, or whatever, phase. But
once those characters are developed, the writer must somehow convey those
personalities to the reader.
Lisa Kleypas’ I Will reveals the character
of the hero with a few choice sentences – none of which seem intended
merely to describe the character because they also move the story along.
The book begins: “It was not easy to ask a favor of a woman who
despised him. But Andrew, Lord Drake, had always been beyond shame, and
today was no exception.” In the space of a few pages, trickled here
and there, we learn more about this rakeshame. We discover “it was
probably the first time he had ever been sober around” the straitlaced
heroine. When she criticizes that his “hair is too long” and
his “boots are unpolished” and the way he dresses reminds
her “of an unmade bed,” he replies, “Does that mean
you’d like to lie atop me.” Remember -- this is the way he
speaks to a woman he hopes to persuade to help him! His words, his thoughts,
his appearance, his actions, and of course, the opinions of others deftly
reveal this bad boy of a hero so readers quickly understand him.
The lesson – RITA winners show, rather than
tell, their characters’ personality.
3. RITA winners hooks their readers.
A great hook sucks you right into the story. A great
hook also keeps you reading from chapter to the next. A hook is something
that keeps you reading, makes you want to see what happens next. RITA
winners start with them, and keep using them though out the book.
In Tempt Me Twice, Barbara Dawson Smith
teases readers with the following opening line: “Not for the first
time in his life, Lord Gabriel Kenyon discovered a lovely girl waiting
in his bed. But for once he was to stunned to relish the sight.”
That’s enough to get the reader intrigued. But Smith keeps the reader
intrigued, ending each chapter on an “uh-oh” note that makes
the reader put off turning out the light for just one more chapter, and
then one more, and still one more....
The lesson – RITA winners never let the reader
off that hook.
4. RITA winners use secondary characters to advantage.
Heroes and heroines rarely make up the entire population
of a book. The miniature world of a novel generally needs a few secondary
characters to fulfill important functions – act as antagonists,
serve as sounding boards for the protagonists, give needed advice or admonition,
provide a bit of comic relief, and much more. These additional characters
add to the realism of the story. But these useful characters do not come
without risk. Expose too little of the secondary players, and they seem
little more than caricatures. Reveal too much, and they take center stage.
Present too many characters, and the reader becomes lost in a sea of names.
In Much Obliged, Jessica Benson gracefully
walks that fine line between too little and too much. No character fails
to serve an important plot purpose, but none seems obviously placed soely
for plot devices. Austere Gentleman Jackson adds a familiar face to the
Regency scene, while gently mentoring the heroine into a relationship
to her advantage. Hypochondriac Wallace not only offers eccentricity reminiscent
of a Heyer character, but also creates an obstacle to the romantic resolution.
Sidekick presents a buffoonish foil to the hero, yet also manages to give
sage advice. In all, a rich cast fills the story.
The lesson – RITA winners have secondary characters
crucial to the story as a whole.
5. RITA winners have and sustain meaningful conflict
that impacts the romance relationship.
Conflict is at the heart of a story. A romance requires
conflict that creates both external and internal reasons the hero and
heroine cannot be together. To keep the reader reading, conflict must
be sustained right up until resolution.
Elizabeth English’s The Border Bride recognizes
that while conflict must continue, it need not be the same issue that
keeps the hero and heroine apart. English begins with a clan feud to keep
Alyson and Jemmy apart, but gradually uses Jemmy’s desire for a
different life, Alyson’s desperate submission to blackmail, painful
secrets, and ultimately, social class concerns to throw additional obstacles
in the path to true love. As each measure of trust is gained, the stakes
are increased, resulting in heartbreaking choices.
The lesson – RITA winners never let the conflict
melt away before the final kiss.
6. Rita winners invoke a willing suspension of disbelief.
A great book takes you away from your own living
room and transports you to new social settings, new countries, even new
worlds. Those worlds Sometimes they those worlds look a bit like yours,
and sometimes they are wildly different. In either case, you must believe
in the world exists, or the story falls flat. Touches of realism, of rational
behavior, of logical reactions to
In HeartMate, Robin D. Owens has literally
created a new world, populated by our own descendants. Celta was (will
be?) settled by humans who left Earth to find a home more open to their
psychic abilities. Thus, the reader must believe in an entire society
revolving around senses beyond our everyday experience, yet still retaining
the range of human emotions. The small touches of familiarity create this
realism in an unreal place – the feel of a cool wood floor, the
persnickety nature of cats, the scorching heat of jealousy.
The lesson – RITA winners gives readers reasons
to believe beyond their own experience.
7. RITA winners maintain tension.
Face it – most people are not willing to plunk
down their hard-earned dollars to read a book that tells the whole history
of the characters within a few pages. No information dumps in the first
chapters of RITA winners. Sure, we want to know a bit about them, but
the backstory has to be trickled in on a need to know basis, or –
well, there just won’t be any reason to keep reading.
Tess Gerritson’s The Surgeon keeps
those pages turning. Every scene gives just a bit more info, just the
barest amount necessary to progress the story, to add another piece to
the puzzle, and to keep you wanting on the edge. The traumatic experience
suffered by the heroine, Catherine, is not even alluded to until several
chapters into the book; the complete description of that horror is not
revealed until near the end. Drawing out the information, letting bits
and pieces be sprinkled here and there, letting the picture slowly develop
– those are the elements that prevent the reader from putting down
The lesson – RITA winners use drawn out revelations
to keep tension high.
8. RITA winners balance dialogue with narrative.
Dialogue isn’t just a way to get some white
space into the manuscript. It can and should serve many purposes in story-telling
– moves the story, reveal character and back story, set up action.
In fact, dialogue is action – it is the characters interacting with
words. Give dialogue double and triple duty, and the problem of too much
narrative is easily solved. But of course, narrative can be important,
In True Confessions, Rachel Gibson manages
to make the dialogue work with the narrative. Through narrative, Gibson
shows the reader bits and pieces of the town grocery by by describing
the antlers on the wall, the mixed odor of card board and raw meat, and
the sound of a cleaver whacking on a butcher’s block. Through dialogue,
she reveals that cartons of live fishing worms sit next to the cartons
of milk in the refrigerator case. Character is revealed the same way as
setting, with dialogue building on narrative, and narrative building on
dialogue, the whole creating a seamless flow.
The lesson – RITA winners make dialogue and
narrative cooperate to tell the story.
9. RITA winners make you believe the heroine and heroine
really will live happily ever life.
What makes for a lasting, sustainable relationship?
Read a RITA winner, and you’ll see.
I don’t mind a bit when a romance novel shows
two people feeling a strong attraction before they know each other well.
But it kind of bothers me when that sexual attraction seems to be the
only thing holding the relationship together. I want more assurance that
the hero and heroine have an emotional, as well as a physical, connection.
Connie Brockway’s The Bridal Season shows
the development of a lasting relationship. Of course, Letty and Elliot
feel attracted to each other, despite the distrust inherent to each. But
the story doesn’t just keep them at snapping at each other as they
fall into bed. Of course, that physical attraction does get fed, but the
love scene contributes to the development of the relationship, rather
than creating an artificial conflict. The reader gets to tag along on
the path to love, as Letty and Elliot discover the admirable qualities
in each other, and as attraction turns to respect, and respect to trust,
and finally, trust to love.
The lesson - RITA winners show the steps on the journey
10. Rita winners deliver reader expectation.
Meeting reader expectation is a fancy-sounding way
to say that the book gives the reader what she wants. Our RITA awards
include numerous categories because there are so many different types
of romances – each with a different reader expectation. Word length,
setting, external plot subject matter, sensuality level – these
elements and more may all I hear a lot of talk about pushing the envelope
– but just how far do readers want that envelope pushed? A story
is a promise, and a type of story is a more specific promise.
In Beneath a Southern Sky, Deborah Raney
creates a heart breaker of a situation. The heroine, Daria, learns of
the death of her beloved husband. She manages to go on with her life,
especially for the sake of the child she carried at the time of her husband’s
disappearance. She falls in love with another good man, and remarries.
Another child is on the way, when it is discovered that the first husband
was not dead, after all. As newspapers report, the heroine is torn between
two lovers – both of whom are caring, worthy men. Daria’s
path through this nightmarish dilemma fulfills reader anticipation by
showing the inspiring power of faith .
The lesson - RITA winners keep their promises to
11. RITA winners surprise their readers.
Uh, oh. That sounds vaguely contradictory with the
last lesson. How can you meet reader expectation AND surprise your readers?
Well, it is a challenge, certainly, but RITA winners meet it. They take
the tried and true, and add the twists that make the story unique.
Take Sandra Steffen’s Quinn’s Complete
Seduction, where we have a favorite premise – the secret baby
story. You know that concept – the heroine had a baby that the hero
doesn’t know about. Steffen puts a twist on that popular tale. Instead
of the heroine raising the baby on her own, and the hero finding out about
it latter, this savvy writer reversed the premise. The hero and his now
deceased wife had adopted the heroine’s child. It is the heroine
who gradually discovers that nice teenaged girl with whom she has so much
in common is her own child.
The lesson – RITA winners look for fresh ways
to tell the stories readers love.
12. RITA winners are fun reads with a valuable message.
A great book –that’s entertainment.
And somehow, entertainment has gotten a bad rap. Escapist fiction, critics
sniff, not worth the time. Better to read something that informs and improves
the mind. Fortunately, millions of book buyers disagree. Fiction readers
don’t buy into the lie that learning about life can’t be fun.
Barbara Daly’s A Long Hot Christmas contains
a thought-provoking life lessons especially relevant in this time of corporate
greed. What price do we pay for always putting the job first? Who gets
hurt when companies don’t keep their promises. How important are
those expensive accoutrement of the “good life.” Sobering
thoughts, right? But Daly manages to make that medicine go down oh, so,
smoothly, by adding fun characters like a Texan feng shui expert, and
humorous scenarios, like a showpiece penthouse apartment slowly evolving
into a comfortable home that can be lived in.
The lesson – RITA winners educate and entertain.
Well, there you have it – an even dozen of
important lessons for writing romance. If you are looking for advice Consider
a do it yourself workshop, and read up on the work of the women who’ve
proven themselves the cream of the crop.
the Rules: In Defense of Flying Body Parts
I once attended a workshop that focused on sharper,
clearer writing. The speaker discussed many common grammatical and word
misuses, and offered lots of strong advice to improve writing. But there
was one bit of advice to which I took exception, even though this advice
has practically become a mantra among romance writers.
It had to do with the dreaded flying body parts.
I can’t count the number of times I have heard
speakers tell a roomful of nodding writers “Eyes don’t drop,
they don’t meet, they don’t fly across the room. Gazes drop,
meet, fly, etc.” Everyone gets a good (embarrassed) chuckle at the
exaggerated images painted by the speakers, and rushes home to removed
the offending phrases from their own work.
Now, literally, these speakers, and their agreeable
audiences, are correct. These things don’t really happen. Or, if
they do, we certainly don’t want to be there to see it.
But why do we care about literal meanings? We write
in the English language – why shouldn’t we use it in its entirety?
In the English idiom, eyes DO meet. They do drop. They fly, dart and shoot
across rooms, and sometimes even bug out of heads. What’s more,
other body parts fly, rove, wander, and so forth, metaphorically, if not
According to Merriam-Webster, an idiom is “an
expression that cannot be understood from the means of its separate words.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using one. Or even, in moderation,
more than one. In fact, writers who write in English ought to have command
of the language in all its richness.
We use many idioms in our speech and in our writing,
with nary an objection from our zealous critique partners. For example,
I have never literally “taken” a walk down the street –
that would require me to somehow pick up a walk and transport it. But
no one objects if my heroine takes a walk or ride across town. If my hero
takes a plane to New York, I am not chastised for having my hero steal
things that don’t belong to him. But just let me mention that his
eyes traveling up the heroine’s legs, and boy, oh boy, will I get
pounded by some well-meaning critiquer.
Sorry, folks, but the flying body part rule is one
of those rules that really isn’t a rule – because frankly,
it doesn’t make any sense. These expressions would make it past
any grammar teacher, and, more importantly, past any reader who hasn’t
been tainted by having someone sneeringly point out the literal meaning
of the words.
Don’t believe me? Okay, I can understand your
not wanting to take my word on this. But how about taking Susan Elizabeth
Phillips’s words? Here’s a line from one of my favorites of
her books, Nobody’s Baby But Mine: “He saw that Jane’s
eyes were glued to his mother’s face, and he took in her stunned,
happy expression.” (p. 322) When I read this story, I was caught
up in the emotion of the moment. A horrific vision of the heroine’s
eyes being removed her head and pasted to the face of the hero’s
mother just did not enter my mind. And that’s true even though I
read that book after my mind had been polluted by the dreadful flying
body part rule.
Still unconvinced? Maybe Nora Roberts will be more
persuasive. Here’s a line of hers from Homeport: “His
eyes held hers, and were a dark, rich brown that took little drifts of
gold from the sunlight.” (p. 70). You don’t really think anyone
is going to read that and imagine one pair of eyeballs clutching another
pair, do you?
If bestselling authors can having flying body parts,
so can the rest of us. In fact, I am sure one reason (out of many!) that
Susan and Nora are bestsellers is because they employ our language in
all its rich forms.
When self-editing for clarity, the question to ask
yourself is this – “will my reader misunderstand my words?”
If the answer is yes, then change what you’ve written. But if there
won’t be a misunderstanding, don’t change your words just
because you worry that other writers will laugh at the literal image.
After all, you are writing for readers, not writers.
So, in future, if you discover the line “their
eyes met across the crowded room” in your work, go ahead and flinch
at the cliché, but don’t worry that readers will imagine
two pairs of eyeballs hovering just under the ceiling. That only happens
when you’ve had the idea pointed out to you at a writing workshop.
Most readers haven’t had that experience.
From Lust to Love:
Creating Believable Resolutions
In the real world, a lasting romance rarely happens
in the few days or weeks over which a romance takes place. Yet over and
over again we read about the accelerated development of a loving bond
between two people. Why do some books make us happily sigh as we read
the last page, while other make us shrug and murmur, “I give it
a few months?”
More than simple sexual attraction is needed to make
me believe that Jane Heroine and John Hero are going to live happily ever
after. Not that I have anything against good old-fashioned lust, but people
can’t live their lives on bearskin rugs in front of fireplaces.
I need to understand why Jane and John were meant for each other, and
pheromones alone won’t convince me. And won’t convince my
So how does a writer show the progress of the relationship
from lust to love in a believable way? Well, as in real life, once you
start with that nice chemical attraction, there are three more steps to
a lasting loving relationship.
The first step is respect. Something should occur
in the story so the hero and heroine develop mutual respect. For example,
the hero notices her compassion; the heroine notices his bravery. The
basis of the respect can vary depending upon the needs of your story.
For example, think about the movie Romancing
the Stone, a great romantic story where the hero, Jack, and the heroine,
Joan, fall in love over the course of just a couple of days. Remember
the scene where they are in the plane? Joan is berating Jack for his lack
of finesse, and general ungentlemanly conduct. She realizes he's not listening,
and starts to scold him for that too - just as he pulls out his machete
and kills the snake that threatens her. She begins to respect him at that
moment – she realizes that while he doesn’t fit her idea of
a “gentleman,” by golly, he’s one helluva a man. And
Jack looks at the whining writer with new eyes a few scenes later, when
the drug dealers shower praise on her for her books.
This movie has a several other scenes in which their
mutual respect continues to grow. The novelist can add as many scenes
as appropriate to her story.
Next comes trust. Here, the hero and heroine each not only learn the other
is worthy of his/her trust, but also display the trust they feel..
In Romancing the Stone, Joan shows their
relationship has advanced to trust when she agrees to hunt for the treasure
itself, rather than simply focusing on getting the map to the people holding
her sister. Jack shows that same trust when he - already having possession
of the map - puts it back under the mattress when she agrees to go with
him. Her confession that he is the best time she ever had is also an exposure
of herself - a demonstration of trust, which touches him. Joan also demonstrates
her trust by agreeing to meet Jack in Cartegena with the treasure, once
the river separates them.
Finally, comes love. All defenses removed, the hero
and heroine realize and demonstrate their love for each other. In
Romancing the Stone, Jack realizes/shows his love when he 1) gives
up the stone to the bad guys so Joan would not be hurt, and 2) lets the
alligator (crocodile?) that swallowed the stone go so that he can save
her. Of course, she'd already saved herself, but he didn't know that.
Joan’s demonstration of love is subtler. On the one hand, she probably
wasn't the sort to sleep with him at all if she didn't already love him.
But also her entire changed demeanor after this ordeal demonstrates her
love. She is now a "hopeful" romantic - and shows no surprise
when he and his boat arrive outside her building. Just as though she knew
he would come - and I think she did know it.
Even though Jack and Joan fell in love over only
a couple of days, it is entirely believable that they would be happy together,
because we understand why they grew to love each other.
Keeping the progression of a lasting relationship
in mind is a great tool for plotting. At minimum, three scenes are necessary
to show the development of the relationship. But, because you may have
separate scenes to show the progression for each character, you might
have six or more scenes with which to keep that middle from sagging.
So, to get your hero and heroine to the point where
the reader will heave that satisfied sigh, make sure you’ve included
the steps to a lasting relationship in your love story.