Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Make Sure They ALL Like It Hot by Grace Burrowes

The Rockville 8 welcomes steller historical author Grace Burrowes! She shares some excellent confidence-building advice on how to approach writing your loves scenes and make them memorable time after time. One lucky commenter will receive an advanced reading copy of her November release, "The Virtuoso, " book three in The Duke's Obsession trilogy!

Let me start by saying that I write traditional historical romances—not erotica, not romantica—so my approach to intimate scenes is predicated on certain assumptions. First my characters are going to grow as people from the beginning to the end of the book, and second, their intimate encounters will take place in the context of a mutually caring relationship.

The third assumption I make about the steamy scenes is that they are going to be some of the toughest for me to write. Now why is that?

Plenty of reasons. For starters, readers may not have ever driven a race car, they might not have trekked in the Mojave Dessert (or whatever your protagonists are up to), but erotic intimacy is a fairly universal adult experience. Readers will catch us if we stumble logistically in these scenes.

Then too, as authors, we’re going to have to write several steamy scenes per book, book after book. Considering that I’m on the seventh book in an eight-sibling series, the twentieth hot scene to flow from my pen is a tad more challenging to make novel and riveting than the first three were. Consider too, that my readers have probably buzzed through at least a thousand hot scenes before opening my book, and you begin to see the magnitude of the problem.

But before you decide writing thrillers is your true calling, here are a few tricks to tuck under your romance writing pillow.

First, make SURE your intimate scenes advance plot or character, and preferably both. There has to be something admitted between the characters, a purloined letter spied across the room, a little bruise revealed, that makes the scene valuable to the dramatic or character arcs. If you can advance both, then chances are your scene will be “uncuttable” and that’s what you want.

Second, do not focus on the usual sequence of actions in an erotic encounter. Yes, of course, you will describe foreplay, coitus and afterglow, (or the absence of same), but these are the scenes where using the senses and dribbling in the telling details really come into play. Except, don’t dwell on the erotic details. If she’s staring at the canopy, make her wonder why all the Cupids are boys, and what they’re doing grinning like idiots when there are no girl Cupids. You will of course add in that hero’s beard stubble scratches her neck, but the Cupid issue is unexpected and will pull the reader into your heroine’s heart, not just her bed.

Strut your ability to use show writing rather than tell. Don’t tell us his iron self-discipline is slipping. Have him, for once in his miserable life, toss his boots half way across the room and leave his cravat draped willy nilly over the escritoire. His waistcoat goes on the floor, and then—while she watches, fascinated—his shirt and breeches are flung onto two different chairs.

Show, show, show.

And finally, do not focus on desire, arousal and the predictable biological agenda at the expense of the emotional landscape unique to your characters. This is the secret handshake, friends. It isn’t just the sensation of penetration that can make your scene sing, it’s also the impatience that crashes through her when he’s trying to be so dratted considerate. It’s the last minute insecurity she feels because the portrait hanging across the room confirms that his first wife was beautiful. It’s the cat sitting on the nightstand, whose inscrutable gaze accuses the hero of taking advantage of a lonely woman.

Move your camera around to the non-erotic details, make your characters ‘fess up to what feelings lurk under their desire, and make the scene advance plot and character arcs. Tough to do, but pull it off and your steamy scenes will turn into some of your best writing.

I heard a rumor that the Earl of Westhaven, Lord Valentine Windham, the Earl of Rosecroft and perhaps even their respective ladies will be joining us for the comment portion of the blog… assuming they can take their eyes off each other long enough to read our questions and comments.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writing Away

I wonder if you are like me. As a child, I believed it was my shoes that would make me run fast. Only I didn’t have those shoes. So I didn’t run fast. If I just had the right work out outfit, I’d be at the gym everyday. Or at the very least, jogging. Of course that called for the correct sports bra (one that gave support but wouldn’t garrote me when I tried to take it on or off). With writing (or being creative in any way) it was work space. If only I had a desk. If only my desk were cleared off. If only I had the right jar/mug/vintage planter to hold my pencils and pens. And finally, if only I had the right computer. Fast enough, comfortable enough, new enough, with extended battery life. Oh, the list goes on.

And my critique partners would be the first to remind me that I often write long hand first. Barefoot. On the couch.

But I have discovered something. It is another secret that I am telling from the R8 blog.

Even in the perfect bra, at a hot springs spa, with a fox in a box, on a train in the rain, with my new MacBook Air, I still sit and stare at a blank page. Because the damn words won’t write themselves.

I know, I know. When you tune into Marjanna day at the R8, you often read about how writing is hard work and how I am forever surprized by that. Completely. I mean, I am totally and completely convinced that there are words out there, floating around, like the flotsam the Little Prince fell through on his way to earth, just waiting to be plucked out and strung together into sentences and paragraphs and etc. I’ve read things that are meant to be written. I’ve talked about this before, whether it is Stevie Smith or JD Salinger or Loretta Chase. They used the words as they are meant to be used.

And of course, I think in my head (as opposed to thinking in your head that would seem to imply), it must have been effortless for them. It must have been a noble moment of yes. And like Hemingway who stood at his desk to write, they must have had their perfect spot to write. Maybe like one of Wilbur Robinson’s relatives, they had on their Brain Augmenter to help them Think Deep Thoughts.

(Or maybe they just sat down and wrote, either plotting it out ahead of time or not. It doesn’t matter. Really, when you plot doesn’t matter. Having a plot is what matters. Unless you write Post Modern novels; then you might as well not even bind the pages but shuffle them about every morning and read a new book every day.)

So, getting back to me. Because I don’t write Post Modern anything, I was surprized to come up to Berkeley Springs, open up my new MacBook Air, and discover that Mac does NOT have an app for Writing Fairies. Quelle surprise! You can imagine my surprise because I just exclaimed in French, what a surprise! (I still want to put a z in that word.) Anyhoo, much to my shock, I found that even on a MacBook Air, I am the one expected to write my stories. At least on my MacBook Air. I don’t think others would truly expect me to write my stories on their MacBook Airs. Quelle surprise to them to!

So, the interesting thing is, getting away, with my MBA, with a few authors I don’t generally spend time away writing with, with very loud cicadas and the occasional squirrel, I actually did write. Not long hand, but barefoot and on my Mac.

Now, why why why couldn’t I do this in my own flat, on my own couch, with my own music playing in the background instead of the cicadas? Why do I have to join with other writers in a cabin in the woods of West Virginia in order to get my novella started?

Because being with other writers, motivated writers, writers with goals, with revision deadlines, makes me sit down and write. There is an energy that says, write. Not watch tv. Not read. And only take a very short nap. Twice. I know my writing ethic is not what it could be. But I also know I want to write. Somewhere, the twain must meet, or I may as well have bought this flipping expensive computer to download other people’s ebooks, stream television, and order my next sports bra to join the others in a drawer.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Each year I celebrate my birthday with 5-6 folks who share the same happy date. Often we exchange small gifts. Last year, a former coworker made cell phone bling and gave us the opportunity to choose among several options. Each had a silver bead with a power word on it. I snagged the one that read “change,” thinking to use it as a touchstone for meditation, for acceptance of that fact that, as Patty Loveless sings in that old song, "Life's about changing, nothing ever stays the same."

I’m not comfortable with change as a general rule. I don’t like surprises, curveballs or things I can’t anticipate. But I knew last year that I’d be enduring a gauntlet of changes in 2011 and I thought: Bring it on. I know you’re coming for me. I’ll be ready.
Some things you are never ready for.

I wasn’t ready for my grandfather to die this spring, even though I knew the end was near. And this summer, I wasn’t ready for two critique partners to choose new paths that lead away from our little band of writers. In a few months’ time, I doubt I’ll truly be ready to say good-bye to my boss of seven years.

Change. It’s hard, dammit.

I think my favorite protagonists would hold a similar opinion. For all the sh** we writers put those poor folks through, it’s a wonder they’re willing to show up on the page to find out what we have in store for them next. Life is swell then, bam, they stumble across an unexpected betrothal, get caught up in the search for a murderer, or learn that humans aren’t the only species at the top of the food chain. Or they are forced to come to grips with all three changes to life-as-they-knew-it at once. But show up they do and watching how they triumph, sink, fight and rise again not only keeps me reading, it keeps me writing.

In 1930s Hollywood W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke (director of The Thin Man among other great films), used to push people into his pool during parties he hosted. How his guests responded to this unexpected turn of events helped him figure out whom he wanted to work with in his next films (thankfully for all of us, Myrna Loy passed the splash test with flying, if drenched, colors).
It got me wondering. My hero, Joe, would likely stay in the pool, naked, the rest of the night. Especially if he could entice his mate, Della, to join him. Della would probably fail the test (she likes change just about as much as I do. Go figure.). She might even try to arrest Mr. Van Dyke for frivolous frivolity. That is, if she were still a cop. And if she could find such a statute on the books. I’d like to think my little touchstone has prepared me so I could pass the pool plunge test like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life.

But it probably hasn’t.

How about you and your characters? How would your favorite hero/ine take to getting pushed into Van Dyke’s pool? How would you?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Bright Black Moment

I confess. Until I started hanging out in writerly circles, I’d never heard the term Black Moment. Naturally, like every kid who’s been to junior high, I’d been taught the major features of the Western novel. These features are (Say it with me, class.) introduction, exposition, climax, denouement or falling action, and conclusion. But Mrs. Daugherty never said anything about a Black Moment and I imagine your seventh grade English teacher didn’t either.

So what the heck is the Black Moment? How does it fit into that spectrum, and where? That’s a question I’ve heard again and again in writers’ workshops and conferences, and seen in articles and blogs. In her workshop, The One Page Plot: an At-a-Glance Method for Building Story, author Christie Ridgway tackles the Black Moment, saying it’s when the opposite of the story goal happens. Renowned Hollywood script doctor and lecturer Michael Hauge teaches it’s the point in the story when all is lost. That’s all as in, everything the protagonist hoped to gain or achieve.

Of course, as readers and as writers, we want more than just a Black Moment that meets these minimum requirements. We want a good one. A real humdinger. So what’s a good Black Moment?

R8er and critique partner extraordinaire, Candy Lyons, recently told me she knows she’s got the Black Moment right when it makes her cry. That’s when I realized what I want in a good Black Moment. I want to cheer.

When I’ve reached the point in the story where everything is stripped from the protagonist, I want to bite back tears, ball my fists and, through gritted teeth, cheer that hero or heroine on, saying, “Come on! Come on! I know you can do it!”

As it turns out, that desire may be hard-wired in many readers as well as writers—particularly those who love mysteries, thrillers, and suspense of all kinds. Furthermore, it may be connected to the reader/writer’s desire to see justice in the world. Theoretically, it doesn’t matter if that justice is meted out by nature (as in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits); chance, fate, or Karma (like in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking); or societal authorities (such as judges and jurors and the likes of Perry Mason and Ben Matlock). Some readers and writers just have to have in their reading experience. The theory snagged my attention at the first writers’ conference I ever attended, and though it’s one of many I’ve studied, I think there’s something to it.

What do you think? When all is lost for that poor protagonist, do you cry, cheer, sigh, or dance? It's your turn to confess. What makes a bright Black Moment?