Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Writing Backwards

Maven Jacqueline BarbourNo, I'm not talking about writing from right to left (that's way too hard); I'm talking about writing the beginning of your book after you've written everything else.

You see, I'm in the throes of rewriting the first three chapters of Unbridled. And while I do need to make revisions to the remainder of the book, those changes will be on a much smaller scale than the ones I'm making at the beginning. I'll be adding a scene here and taking away a scene there, layering in some new backstory and motivations, and reworking portions of the sub-plot all the way through, but the beginning? It's like a whole different animal.

When I embarked on this project right after National, I figured it would be relatively easy to do this. I knew more or less where I'd gone wrong in the previous iterations of the beginning (there was too much plot setup and backstory that made the romance drag, and the romance is the point, right?), but I've found it surprisingly harder than I anticipated.

Part of that is no doubt because we all know the beginning is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the book. Contests emphasize this. Agents and editors emphasize it. Everyone emphasizes it. Hook us in the first five (or ten or twenty or fifty) pages or it's all over for your manuscript.

This means the compulsion to aim for perfection in those first X pages (depending on whether you're doing a first 10 pages contest or a first chapter contest or prepping a partial for an agent or editor) is overwhelming, even though we all know perfection is unachievable. After all, what makes those pages "perfect" for one reader may not work at all for another.

Here, I have a confession to make. I've never read a single Harry Potter book. (Ducks raw eggs and rotten tomatoes.) Yes, it's true. And I even have not one but two copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (one hardback, one paperback), so it's not that I haven't tried. But I have never been able to get beyond the first few pages of the first chapter. To me, they are unremittingly, unfailingly dull. I know that there must be something worthwhile, even amazing, that happens after that first chapter, but I've never been able to bring myself to keep reading and find out what it is. (Hangs head in shame.)

The point I'm making here is that even though I didn't like it, the first chapter of that book works. Her agent and editor liked it enough that it hooked them. They kept reading. They bought the manuscript. They published it. And then millions of readers worldwide got hooked by that chapter. They kept reading. And they've continued reading to the tune of six sequels and millions of copies sold. Just because the odd outlier like me didn't love that chapter doesn't mean it was bad. It just means I have bad taste :-).

Okay, so I know the first three chapters will never be perfect, right? It should be easy, no?

Well, no. It turns out there's another pitfall to rewriting the beginning of your book after you've written the whole story, and I have to thank Maven Darcy for pointing this one out, because I didn't see it myself. Quite simply, it's that you know the characters too well. How is that possible, you ask? Shouldn't it be easier to write a good introduction to your characters and story when you know them inside and out?

Maybe it is for some people. But here's the thing: usually, when you write the beginning of your book, you're still getting to know the characters yourself. Oh sure, you know their goals, motivations and conflicts (or you should). You know their backstories and personality traits. But you don't know them the way you will be the time you write the words "the end." And that's a good thing for the beginning of your book because it forces you to explore your characters as you write in a way that reveals them to the reader. But when you go back and rewrite the beginning after you've come to know them so well, it's easy to make assumptions about what the reader knows about your hero and heroine because those qualities have become "givens" in your mind. This means you can leave out crucial pieces of information that will help your readers to sympathize with your characters and want to keep reading your story.

I'm finding this problem of knowing the characters too well also extends to the Mavens as they're reading my new scenes. They, too, know my characters inside and out, to the point that they interpolate information I haven't actually written into the scene and don't see what's missing. It's not that they're not great critique partners. But they're suffering from the same familiarity bug I am.

Which is why I need fresh eyes to read this partial when I get finished. The story starts at a much better pace now, but I suspect there are huge gaps in it that neither I nor the Mavens can see.

YOUR TURN: How many times have you rewritten/revised your first chapter (or first three chapters)? Do you find it easier or harder the better you know your characters? And do you have some spare time on your hands? I've (almost) got a partial I'd like to sell you :).

Monday, July 30, 2007

Daisy le Fey and the Half Binder Princess

Maven Erica Ridley Ack! Monday Maven is late!

Can you believe I totally spaced I was the Monday Maven? (Oops!)

This means you don't get an insightful, well thought out post today. It means you get my meandering thoughts. Much like the drivel on genres, web sites, and branding I posted this morning on my blog. (Where I did remember I was supposed to post, and yet still ended up winging it.)

While Maven Darcy and Maven Lacey were busy being super-productive and actually reaching their goals, what did I do this weekend besides see Ratatouille with a six year old and take a long-awaited visit to Dinosaur World?

The first adventure I had was printing out all 400 pages of Trevor & the Tooth Fairy for my editing pleasure. (Seriously, "editing" and "pleasure" do not belong in the same sentence.) The adventure part began when I ran out of black ink and my printer decided to eat random papers in such a way as to have half a page on one sheet and half on another. It was awesome.

So, once I finally got all 400 pages printed in two columns, landscape orientation, I then cut them all in half. Once I'd cut them all in half (and put them back in order, as the cutting process naturally got them out of order) I then proceeded to attack them all with a three hole punch. As I punched three or four sheets at a time, I was then required to reorder the loose sheets yet again.

At last, with a giant stack of 8.5x5.5 neatly punched manuscript pages, I began to place them in my nifty 8.5x5.5 three ring binder (big enough so the pages are book sized, yet small enough to fit inside a purse). Sadly, my 1" binder only agreed to hold half of my manuscript.

Therefore, off I went to the Office Depot in search of a second odd-sized, over-priced binder. I was rewarded with not one but two such creatures (are binders creature? Mine are.) and was lucky enough to find them at a more useful width of 2". (Although was unlucky in that the darn things were over $8 apiece. If a full size one is $1 at Wal-Mart, why is a half-size one $8.49, I ask you???)

I then returned home with said odd-sized and overpriced binder and transferred the cropped and punched pages from the other binder (and my kitchen table) to the new binder, where they all fit quite nicely and even manage to look rather bookish and official.

Thus satisfied, I handed the whole mess over to a friend of mine who is visiting me for a couple weeks (hey, you crit for your breakfast in my house!) along with a pen and a stack of sticky notes.

(Near as I can tell, she has yet to make a single notation, but one can only hope.)

After my houseguests go back to the great white north (okay, really Indiana), I hope to have a chance to read TATTF as a reader (I haven't peeked at Daisy & Trevor's shenanigans in months) before I get my very first revision letter.

And then I plan to lug my binder with me everywhere I go, covering the pages with sticky notes until it looks like a papier-mâché piñata. (Except without the yummy candies inside.)

Following that, I plan to polish TATTF within an inch of its life (evenly spaced 1" margins all the way around, of course) and send it back to my agent for shopping.

We shall see.

Obviously, this is my first attempt at the half-binder trick. I'm still working out the bugs.

YOUR TURN: What's on your plate writing-wise for the next couple weeks? What wacky methodologies have you tried in the name of revision/writing? Please share your secrets/thoughts/tips in the comments!

Friday, July 27, 2007

It Rose From The Slush

Maven Erica Ridley And by "it", I mean "me".

In case you missed the news on my blog, I am pleased to announce that I now have agent representation! Yay!

Very soon, the sexy tooth fairy book I never shut up about will be making the publisher rounds in NYC, courtesy of Lauren Abramo from the Dystel & Goderich Literary Agency.

OMG! OMG! I can't believe it!

Wait--yes I can, because I worked for this! There was no magic handshake. And I am willing to share the secret formula that got me this far.

STEP 1: Take Writing Seriously

When I decided to change my mindset from "writing is a hobby" to "writing is a career", I did several things. First, I made up a rule that said "No more abandoning unfinished stories". If I were a painter, would I get very far with half-finished paintings? Unlikely. Second, I joined Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, Tampa Area Romance Authors and became an active member of both.

STEP 2: Improve Thyself

Now that I was finishing what I started and learning all about the stuff I didn't even realize I didn't know, I discovered I had a long way to go. So, I went to conferences, attended workshops, read books on craft, did online courses, surfed internet articles, and hunted down brutally honest critique partners. I tried at least half the advice I got, and kept what worked and tossed what didn't.

STEP 3: Write

I wrote like crazy. Between fall of 2005 when I first decided to pursue writing as a career and spring of 2007, I wrote four complete novels. I also did a lot of reading and did a lot of critiquing, both of which helped immensely. Time spent analyzing other stories--published or not--is time well spent. But time spent writing is the best of all. You can't be a writer if you don't write!

STEP 4: Write Something Good

I can admit it--my first stuff wasn't so good. Nor did it completely suck. Eventually I began finalling in contests and getting "positive" (ie "send us something else") rejection letters from material requested at writers conferences. But confining yourself to conference pitches is extremely limiting, which brings us to:

STEP 5: Craft A Good Query Letter

I mean, a real good one. And then send it out. Not to just anyone! Do your research. Pick reputable agencies with agents you respect, who represent your genre and love to read your type of story. I actually had a very short A List--less than a dozen names. Your mileage may vary. But it's best for everyone involved if you only query someone whom you'd want to represent your work.

STEP 6: Be Ready to Send the Material

How many times do agents request stuff that never ends up crossing their desks? Do not be that person if you really want to get to the next stage! I sent Lauren part of Trevor & the Tooth Fairy. A couple weeks went by. She asked for the full. I shipped it out Priority Mail that very afternoon.

STEP 7: Make A Good Decision

Trevor & the Tooth Fairy was actually out with four different agents, all of whom were reputable, from well-respected agencies, who had recent sales and multiple clients, and who were at the top of my A List. Some had spoken to me several times about the project over the past few months. The number one thing that made Lauren stand out to me was her enthusiasm for the project. She loves TATTF! How can I not love someone who loves TATTF! *g. Seriously, though, that enthusiasm will shine through. Who would you rather represent you--someone who thinks your work is okay, or someone who thinks your story is tops?

STEP 8: Let the Agent Do Her Job

This is the easiest and hardest step. The excruciating hurry-up-and-wait game we writers face does not stop just because you've signed an agent contract. But remember, your agent is in the same boat! She is gunning for you at all the publishing houses, but she's also got to back off and give them a chance to read your brilliant masterpiece. This is a slow-moving industry. Might as well make peace with that up front.

So, does all this mean I'm on my merry way to being the next Danielle Steele meets J.K. Rowling? Uh, no.

Agent representation isn't a guarantee of publication. Actually, pretty much nothing is--I've known people with publisher contracts and advance money in hand whose book never made it to the shelf due to lines/houses closing or editors leaving, etc.

But it is one step closer, and it's a step I'm very, very, very excited about.

Okay, I've held it in for the whole entire post...


Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's Your M-O

Maven Lacey KayeNew topic. Just kidding. We talk writing, right? Well, over the last week or so I've been trying to remember just how that goes. Conference killed my brain, though it seems to have done wonderful things for my muse. Unfortunately, without a brain the muse is outta gas, so I've just been trying to keep good notes of the crazy ideas I seem to be coming up with lately.

So many ideas, so little time. I have a new name for my hero. Uh, the hero of a book I'm both not writing or dreaming up a plot for. Tack it to the Muse Board. I have an idea for a scene between the hero and heroine of my current wip, in which they duke it out parasol to walking stick. But I'm not working on that book. I have an idea for a mini-black moment for them, too, which will require tons of setup and lots of new scenes. But, you guessed it--that's not my current project.

How do people do it? Not go crazy with all the ideas that seem to assault a writer all at once, when other days...Nothing. How do you handle it when you spend, quite literally, your entire day at work dreaming of going home to work on your manuscript only to fall into bed for a three-hour nap? What happens to your mojo when you plan your entire weekend to center around writing, and then all of a sudden your friends come crawling out of the woodwork wanting to chat?

It seems like writers are at a huge disadvantage to other employees, in the sense that most of us don't operate on a strict 9-5 schedule. If ONLY the ideas came just when we could use them...If ONLY we could clock in to our writing and clock out of the rest of the world...if ONLY we weren't so easily distracted when we SHOULD be writing, held accountable to no one and nothing except ourselves?

But then again, could I really, really sit down in front of my computer for 8 hours a day and just write?

Hm. Work is starting to look pretty good.

So what's your schedule like? Do you write for hours on end? Are you a 15-minute sporadic kind of gal? Do you keep files and storyboards full of notes, or do you bop around from one project to the next?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Revisalator

Maven Darcy BurkeIs there such a thing? Some sort of tool you can purchase from Ronco for $29.99 that revises your manuscript into flowing, economical, spectacular perfection? I’d buy it. In fact, I might buy two at that price. I’m in the midst of polishing up my manuscript to send it out to the requests I received at National and boy, howdy, is it harder than I thought it would be. I’m sure part of it is because I wrote the first third of the ms last November/December and my writing has gotten a lot better since then (I hope!). Surprisingly, that first third was actually pretty good (funnier than I remember and full of some really great scenes), but I decided to reverse the first major turning point (at the end of that first third) so that the hero’s and heroine’s choices are swapped. It ratcheted the conflict in a major way. I also decided to tweak the heroine’s sister’s role a bit. Once again, it ups the conflict for the heroine.

What I’m learning is that the revision is difficult – in some ways more than the first draft – because you really are tying it all together. Like upping the conflict as I said above. I had good conflict before, but this is better. And I didn’t see it until I’d finished the first draft (and neither did the Mavens). I kind of see the first draft as a fantastic outfit and the revision is the shoes to go with it. You can probably find loads of shoes that will work and look fine, but only one or two will be perfect. Okay, that’s oversimplifying things, but you get my drift. (Right?)

Once you get through a first draft, you’re much better equipped to look at the conflict and all of the layers you need from fifty thousand feet. Once you get that perspective, you swoop in close for a scene by scene review to ensure you’ve got everything you need: setting, opening/closing hooks, five senses, GMC, vocabulary, balance (action/introspection/dialogue – can I call this AID and claim it in the name of MavenSpeak?). This seems straightforward, but it’s hard. If only there were a set formula we could use to make sure it all works.

Setting + attention grabbing hooks + one of each senses + varied and colorful vocabulary= framework

GMC + AID = The “Meat”

Framework + meat = Perfect Scene

Ta da! The Revisalator! (I don’t take PayPal, so you’ll have to send me a check.) Ah, if only it were that easy…

So what tricks do you employ when polishing your ms or revising a scene(s)? Is there a method to your madness? Do you love it or loathe it?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Do Titles Really Matter?

Maven Jacqueline BarbourIf you've been over to my blog any time during the last week, you'll know that I've been running a contest to retitle my first book before I start querying the bejesus out of it. The contest has, however, sparked a running debate amongst the Mavens as to whether the title of your book really makes a difference. After all, the argument goes, it's a rare book that makes it all the way to publication with the title the author originally chose. (Several of Lisa Kleypas's wallflower books were retitled prior to publication, so even NYT bestselling authors aren't immune to this phenomenon.)

Given this fact, why do I think it matters whether my books is titled Living in Sin (the original tile), A Scandalous Liaison (the current title), or something as yet to be determined (though there is a pretty clear front-runner)? It's not like what I pick is likely to stick, right?

Well, in a nutshell, the reason I decided it's important is because Leah Hultenshmidt (of Dorchester) and Elaine Spencer (of the knight Agency) convinced me. When you pitch your book to someone who's sitting right in front of you and her face falls a little bit when you say the title, you know it's probably not going to have a better effect on someone who's reading your query letter. When you're pitching your book to someone and you don't have the advantage of your own excited, pleading little face to help you, you definitely need a title (as well as a premise and hook) that make the agent/editor sit up and take notice. You need a title that says, "Read me! You must know more about me because I am special. I am unique!"

You also want a title that gives some the person reading your letter some idea of your book's genre (i.e., contemporary, paranormal, historical) and its tone (funny, sexy, dark). The more elements of your story you can hit on in those 1 to perhaps 8 words, the better.

So, what makes a title that does that? Well, if I knew the answer to that question with absolute certainty, I'd already have found the right title for my book a long time ago. But I will say that there do seem to be a few trends in titling right now that you can use to your advantage:

  1. Titles that play on familiar phrases are very popular right now. In the workshop I attended, Leah mentioned Bethany True's Remember the Alimony and Stephanie Rowe's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot as two great examples of this. (I immediately thought of several great titles for books I'll never write including Cash and Marry, Death and Hexes, and Don't Mess with Hexes. Anyone out there who has a great idea to go with any of those, feel free to steal 'em.)
  2. Conversely, you should avoid using a familiar phrase (e.g., a cliche) without twisting it in some clever way. A cliched title is a red light to the agent/editor that the story and writing may be ridden with cliches as well. If you write a fabulous hook/premise that shows how the cliched title is twisted in your story, then you may get away with it.
  3. Longish titles and the name of the protagonist appearing in the title are currently in vogue. Think Julia Quinn's The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever (2007 RITA winner!) or Samantha James's The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell or (ahem) any of the Harry Potter books. So don't be afraid to use a longer title and/or a name if it works for your story. (Lacey is hitting the market at exactly the right time with If You Asked the Devil to Dance. It's on the long side and is also unique. That gets attention.)
  4. One word titles are also seem to be popular. Rachel Vincent's Stray and Megan Hart's Dirty are a couple of recent examples of this phenomenon. If you can capture your story's essence in a single word, don't be afraid to do so.
  5. Above all, dare to be different! Not so different that no one reading your title would have the slightest idea what your story is about (Erica suggested Sex, Lies, and Algonquian Ecostructure as an alternative title for Trevor and the Tooth Fairy, but somehow, I doubt that'll happen :->), but different enought to stand out from the pack.

YOUR TURN: Do you feel that the title(s) you've chosen your book(s) are the right ones? Is there a book title you particularly love or particularly hate? Do you think I'm all wet when I say it matters? Tell all! (Oh, and go vote for your favorite title for my book on my blog if you feel like registering your opinion.)

Friday, July 20, 2007

More Conference Fun

Maven Darcy BurkeI have to say I am so sad I don't have more pictures from the RWA National Conference. I have two and they're both posted here. Yes, it's the same group of gorgeous ladies, but each picture features different people looking good and different people, well, looking away from the camera. These are some of the FanLit folks and it was sure fun to meet them in person! Sadly, I don't know everyone's name, but I do know Beverley Kendall, Courtney Milan, Tessa Dare, India Carolina, Cynthia Falcon, Jacqueline, Sara Lindsey, Erica, and Lacey. I'm sort of in the middle - my hair looks much lighter in this picture than in the one in the TV over there (because it is - I do that in the summer). I also decided to have bangs the week before the conference, but that's a whole other blog post.

One of the reasons I don't have more pictures is that I was so excited to just be there. I was literally sucking the life from every moment. I wanted to take pictures at the super fun Romance Divas dinner on Thursday night, but that was the one time I didn't have my camera! I also would have taken more pictures Saturday night when these were taken, but unfortunately the transfer of my camera for these photos included an accidental drop and my camera refused to work after that. Never fear, for we did have someone take a Maven picture. Now, if I could just remember who that was...

I'm not sure what more I can highlight that everyone else hasn't already discussed. I really loved the pitch/giggle fest with the SIRENs (see Lacey's blog). Jacqueline is right that pitching to them was much more nervewracking than the pitches themselves! Very, very helpful though (and bigger, sexier, and more fun!). Can't wait for San Francisco. Actually, I can't wait for Emerald City in October. Smaller venue and crowd, but I'm guessing it'll be the same fun ride.

Who else is going to Emerald City? Come on west-coasters, it's in Seattle! What other conferences/events are you planning to attend this year?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cut to the Quick

Maven Lacey KayeSorry I'm late. I think I say that a lot, actually, so maybe I don't really mean it. You know how you have so many options to prevent disaster, yet you usually don't? But our characters can't really be like that, can they? They need to think out all the paths before they pick the most logical one.

Or don't they? Let's take this subject my mom and I were discussing late last night: I feel my hero needs to tell the reader why on earth he would go visit a woman he knows he can't marry and then spend a lot of time with her in a compromising situation (historical, baby) when, you know, he knows he shouldn't marry her.

My mom says he's a man. She wants sex. What's there to motivate?

And so I said, "But he's a big boy. If he didn't want the consequences, he shouldn't have gone in there." You know, "Don't go in there! She's going to get you!" sort of thing. And then after she gets him, how much sympathy do we feel for him when sure enough, everything blows up in his face?

**Shrug** Maybe none. Maybe it's part of the writer's talent, though, that we CAN get our readers to identify with his stupid mistake. How many people here have done stupid things that seemed like a good idea at the time even though you knew they were stupid? Then again, how many wallbangers out there are there that use Stupid Mistakes as their main plot device?

Turned out, I was asking my mom the wrong question. She asked me a lot of good questions and eventually drilled down to the heart of my issue. It wasn't that I needed to motivate why he went into the room, or even why he stayed in the room. I didn't need to motivate why he let the heroine "get" him. I just needed to know why any of it mattered to him at all. I mean, I do stupid stuff all the time and I don't beat myself up for it. Unless...I care about the opportunity cost of the consequences.

Look at it this way: let's say you like to drive fast. You make scads and scads of money. Do you care if you get a ticket? Probably not. You'll just pay it. If you like to drive fast and you get a $300 ticket and it means you don't have beer for a month, you're probably going to keep driving fast. But if you're poor and your mom needs to go to the hospital a few times a week for very expensive chemo, maybe you'll lay off the gas every now and then. Maybe. I guess it depends on how much you love your mom.

Anyway, deeper seems to be better. If you can figure out what's *really* at the heart of your conflict, you may just build a believable, sympathetic character others can relate to. No matter how many times they go into that dark, scary house when the killer's on the loose.

Anyone been re-motivating since National? Conferences seem to have that effect on me. They always force out "more." Do share!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Mavens Land an Agent!

Maven Jacqueline BarbourNo, not for ourselves; for the blog!

Before I go on, you probably noticed that once again, I'm blogging when I'm not supposed to. But it turns out Darcy's having a busy day (I think it's like that after conference!), so I'm posting what I was planning to put up on Friday.

So, here's the deal. After the Golden Heart and RITA awards ceremony on Saturday night, Lacey introduced Darcy and me with Tara Greenbaum and Shannon Greenland, whom she'd met at last year's conference, and they in turn introduced us to Dona Sarkar Mishra, another author whose name I didn't get (sorry!) and Stephen Barbara of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Also participating in the fun were Delilah Ahrendt and her husband.

Stephen represents young adult fiction and other books targeted at young people, which is why I didn't immediately lay my historical romance pitch on him and try to get a request on the spot. Instead, we ended up having a blast playing a game of Stephen's creation, which he tentatively titled Guess Me. In this game, a topic is selected (such as "your last vacation" or "your favorite hobby") and for each player, everyone else has to try to guess the answer. Whoever gets closest with their guess "wins." I think Dona and the other author whose name I didn't get left before we got very deep into the game, but let me tell you, it was the kind of fun that makes you forget to check the time for hours on end, even when you started playing after midnight. (I strongly encouraged Stephen to trademark the idea and make a few million on it, but I think he's too busy being a literary agent.)

Anyway, long story not quite so long, I asked Stephen whether he'd be willing to guest-blog here for us at Manuscript Mavens and he agreed. After discussing it in more detail yesterday, we agreed to do his guest blog as an interview sort of thing, with the Mavens providing the questions and him providing the answers. We've scheduled his interview post for Friday, August 3.

But, here's the thing: We need questions, people! I have a few things I want to ask him, but we want to know what you, our beloved readers, want to know about the world of publishing from an agent's perspective.

So, lay 'em on us. Questions please, and plenty of them!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Failure to Meet Expectations

Maven Jacqueline BarbourThe title of this post came to me for two reasons:

1. I know you were expecting Erica today, but instead you get me. Sorry 'bout that, but Erica and I decided to swap days this week because I was ready to post and she wasn't. (Of course, then it took me until mid-afternoon to get around to it, so maybe I wasn't that ready after all!)

2. The RWA conference totally failed to live up to every one of my expectations. And in the most spectacular, wonderful way possible.

Obviously, I'm not going to spend the rest of the blog talking about the first one. Those of you who clicked over here for Erica's wisdom and insights are just going to have to suck it up and wait for tomorrow :>!

But on the second one...ah, lots of fodder!

Before I can explain why I was so surprised, I probably have to explain what I expected before I got there. And I'm honestly not completely sure I can articulate (especially not on the little sleep I've had this week), but I know I didn't expect to walk away with such ebullience and optimism about how we are all going to be published if only we'll never, ever give up.

A big part of the reason I expected a "downer" was probably because I'd gotten some very disheartening contest feedback right before I left on my family vacation at the end of June (check out my blog for some photos of our trip). I didn't really have time to digest that information nor to do anything about it before I left, but I was really feeling that I'd spent a lot of time writing a book that was just never, ever going to work. (And that still might be true, but I digress...)

Anyway, the point of that information is that I figured going to the conference would just convince me even further that I'm a talentless hack who'll never sell anything beyond my one, tiny novellla which was obviously just a fluke. Because, after all, I was going to a place where at least 1,200 other authors and aspiring authors would be, vying for the very few and very coveted slots that publishers have to offer. How could that be anything but a competitive and depressing environment? Yes, the Mavens would be there to keep my chin up and I was looking forward to spending time with them, but I wasn't looking much beyond that for a positive experience.

Needless to say, my expectations were entirely controverted. To a person (and I don't say "to a woman" because a few of the writers as well as industry professionals in attendance were men), everyone I met was friendly, encouraging, and supportive. Even (get this) the industry professionals made me feel positive and hopeful about pursuing publication, and I figured they'd be the first ones to slap us all down by pointing out just how poor the odds for succeeding actuaally are. None of them did. Instead, they all emphasized over and over again that it's mostly a matter of finding the right person who'll love and fight for your story, more about timing and perseverance than about luck. And whether they were just saying that to be nice or not doesn't matter, because I believed them!

The other thing that struck me was just how many of the writers I met turned out to be published. I'd guess that at least a third or maybe even three-fifths of the authors I met were wearing the red "PAN" badges. Maybe that should have depressed me. After all, if there are thaat many published authors, how can there be room left for the unwashed and unpublished folks like me? But somehow, I had the opposite reaction. Look how many people are published! Maybe it's not quite as impossible as it somehow seems when I can go to a conference like this and meet not tens of them, but hundreds of them, most of whom I've never even heard of.

I think the fact that I didn't recognize the names of the vast majority of published authors I met made me realize what a small sliver of the romance publishing industry I actually pay attention to. I didn't meet many published authors of historical romances that I'd never heard of (though I shared a bus and then a cab ride with Pamela Clare, whose Colonial-set Surrender was up for a RITA in long historical; I admit, I'd never heard of her or the book, though I plan to buy it now that I know about it), but even so, I got a warm, fuzzy feeling from the fact that so many people are published. They were first-time authors once, too, after all. Everyone who's published had to make a first sale. Had to convince an agent, an editor, or both that her work was worth taking a chance on. And so many of them did, it boggles my mind a little!

So it's not impossible, my friends. Difficult as hell, yes. But not such a long-shot as to be wholly outside the realm of possibility. And I have to admit, before the conference, I was leaning toward the "beyond the realm of possibility" side of the equation.

Of course, I also had a blast because I spent most of my time with the Mavens (and this was actually the first time I've met Erica in person, and she's every bit as much fun in real life as she is online!) and a whole bunch of other folks I've known only online since Avon's FanLit contest last year but had never met in person. I hope nobody takes the order of the following list as significant in any way, because it's not, but I so enjoyed hanging out with Beverley, TessaD, Courtney, India, Sara, Santa (who doesn't seem to have a blog or website!), Chris, Cynthia, Amanda (of Romance Vagabonds), and J. Perry Stone (who I'm not sure was a FanLitter but I know I've run into at Squawk and elsewhere online). I also had a ton of fun on Saturday night with some of Lacey's friends from last year's conference, including Shannon Greenland, Tara Greenbaum, and Delilah Ahrendt (who was up for a Golden Heart in long historical this year) and her husband. So much fun, in fact, that I darned near forgot to go to bed (and when I did, failed to sleep!).

Meeting Tessa Woodward and Esi Sogah from Avon after the Golden Heart and RITA ceremony was also quite a kick. Turns out, they're just real people like the rest of us ;->.

So, all in all, it was just a fabulous experience. There's still lots more industry dish and insight to share, but I'm way too exhausted at this point to ananlyze much of anything past the fun parts and the amazing amount of joy and support I felt. I was surrounded by a bunch of people who love romance--reading it and writing it. And that, my friends, is what's priceless!

YOUR TURN: Did you make it to Dallas? What did you come away with? What was your best (or worst) moment? (And no, Darcy, this doesn't mean you get to tell the cockroach story a second time!) And if you didn't make it, have I convinced you to come hang out in San Francisco with us next year?

A Sweet End to A Sweet Conference

Maven Darcy BurkeLike the other Mavens, I'm wiped out, but blissfully so. The end of my trip to Dallas was pretty nifty. I took a shuttle to the airport with a bunch of other writers. All of them were flying American, but I was flying Alaska operated by American. We debated on whether I should go to the American terminal or the Alaska terminal (for the record, I thought American - but if I'd listened to myself, I wouldn't have this cool story to tell), but the majority agreed I should check in at Alaska. I got out at terminal E only to be told I had to go to American at Terminal A. Out I went to wait for the airport shuttle to get to terminal A.

Now, why is it that when you want transporation to a hotel, all you see are airport shuttles? And now when I needed an airport shuttle, all I saw were stupid hotel shuttles?

Here's where things get warm and fuzzy. Another passenger on my flight, an older woman with a cane (Sally - which is also my grandmother's name) had also gone to the wrong terminal. I'm not sure of the relationship between her and the younger woman who drove her to the airport and nor do I remember the younger woman's name, but I will call her Romance Fan for the purposes of this post. Romance Fan went to fetch her minivan to drive Sally to Terminal A. Sally asked Romance Fan if she could fit one more. How sweet of them to drive me! (When my mother told me never to accept rides from strangers, I don't think she had this in mind.)

In the minivan, Romance Fan asked what I was doing in Dallas and I told them about the RWA Conference. She gushed that she loved reading romances and asked what I'd written. I chuckled and explained that I am just starting to query and pitch my book. She was very interested in the whole process and I ended up giving her my card because she wanted to remember me for when I am published. How sweet is that? Now, I had a bag full of books in the back of Romance Fan's minivan and thought a fitting thank you would be the conveyance of one of the books I'd gotten at the conference. As it happened, I decided to give her The Leopard Prince, not because it was the one book in my bag that I'd already read, but because it was the one book I had that was signed by the author, but not specifically to me (and I love this book a lot and it was nice to give Romance Fan a personal favorite). I can't tell you how touched this woman was to receive the book and that it was signed by the author. The whole exchange just gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. She then promised to buy all my books as soon as they're published. I laughed and thanked her profusely. I can't express how cool Romance Fan thought it was to meet me, a writer. It didn't matter that I was unpublished and not remotely famous. She's a romance reader who connected with someone who writes the stories that she loves.

I know I made her day. Romance Fan, you made my year.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beyond Exhaustion

Maven Jacqueline BarbourMade it home from Dallas around 9:30 this morning. After a brief scare, I discovered the airline hadn't lost my suitcase containing (prepare to squee!) my autographed copy of the ARC of Lisa Kleypas's Mine Till Midnight (the fifth "Wallflower" book).

I am more tired than I've ever been in my life. (I pulled an involuntary all-nighter last night after staying up until 3:00 and then not being able to fall asleep before I had to get up at 5:45 to make my flight.)

I think it's quite possible that I had more fun than I have ever had in my life. And I totally didn't expect that. I'd love to share more about why the whole thing was so spectacularly awesome, but I'm too exhausted to be coherent and, what's more, I have to throw a sleepover birthday party for my ten-year-old son. (Hey, I didn't KNOW I'd only sleep 10 hours over the four nights I was in Dallas when I agreed to this plan!)

Catch y'all on Tuesday, though I'm sure Erica will beat me to lots of the fun news on Monday!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Things Scarier Than a Pitch

Maven Darcy BurkeGreetings from Dallas! What a whirlwind couple of days it has been. Getting ready for drinks and dinner shortly, but wanted to check in. This morning I had my first pitch. I was nervous as hell, but she was so incredibly wonderful and nice and opened the pitch in the manner I was so hoping for (with small talk in case you were wondering). It went really well and I'm actually excited to pitch again.

So after lunch, I went back to the pitch room in the off chance I might get another opportunity to hone my pitching skills. I ran into a chapter mate and we chatted for several minutes. I felt a tickle on my foot and glanced down. To my horror, a large cockroach was sitting on my open toed shoe. I'm from Oregon. We don't have roaches, let alone bugs the size of a small rodent (I might be exaggerating, but not by much). I shrieked. I jumped out of my shoe. I shrieked some more. I didn't approach my shoe for the roach was not in the least intimidated. Thankfully a hotel employee noticed my distress (how could he not? I think the entire pitch room turned and stared) and came to my aid. Sorry to inform any roach lovers that he stomped on it and disposed of the ginormous carcass. Thankfully, I didn't have to pitch right after that. Let's just hope I can sleep tonight. Shudder.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Darcy Come Lately

Maven Darcy Burke While all the Mavens are asleep in their beds in Dallas in the wee hours of Thursday morning, I will just be arriving. Originally, it was a tight fit getting away to Dallas and so I booked a red eye. As things turned out, I could have left earlier today, but I didn't feel like paying the umpteen hundred dollar change fee. I also didn't feel like getting to the airport at 3:30 this morning in the hope that I might get a standby flight to Seattle and that I might get a standby flight to Dallas. I also really appreciate the extra day with my kids because I'll be honest and show my true colors here: I hate being away from them. They are terribly fun and I love them to pieces (or as my daughter says, "I very love them").

Like Jacqueline, I am leaving for Dallas later today. Taking the red eye, I planned to nap when I arrived in the early morning and then casually start my Thursday. Then I got the appointment for my agent pitch and, yep, it's Thursday morning. After much teeth gnashing, I've come to terms with it (after all, there's nothing to be done) and can only hope I am not too tired to string words together. Why oh why did the others Mavens get Friday appointments when they all arrived earlier??? Ah well, at least I got to see Harry Potter this morning. So, if you're in Dallas, don't be surprised if I stop you some time Thursday morning before 10:30 and spring my pitch on you for that's all the practice I'm going to get. That said, I'm excited to pitch my book because I love it so! Here's hoping I do it justice.

Unlike Jacqueline, I began assembling wardrobe pieces for this trip several weeks ago. I've been a bit obsessed about it actually because I haven't bought very many business casual clothes over the past several years. And I even found cute, comfy, dressy sandal slides! Just uploading a bit more Dave Matthews Band to the iPod and doing last minute stuff before heading out around 7. My folks are coming to watch the kids while Mr. Burke and I have a *gasp* date at the airport. Hey, you make the most of what you've got.

See you in/from Dallas. And wish me luck and coherent speech tomorrow.

All the Ways I'm Not Ready for Dallas

Maven Jacqueline BarbourMy flight leaves at 5:15 this afternoon. I haven't packed yet. I haven't even figured out what to take yet. But I'm not worried about that. That's normal for me.

No, what I'm worried about is all the other ways I know I'm totally unprepared for the spectacle and information overload that is bound to be the RWA National Conference.

Over the past few months, veteran conference Mavens Erica and Lacey have been sharing insider tips with first-timers Darcy and me. And now, a day before the conference, I realize that I've followed through on almost none of them.

In no particular order, here are the things I meant to do before the conference but somehow never managed to!

  1. Get business cards

    Actually, I did do this. The trouble was, they were completely illegible. Turns out the font was way too small for anyone with normal human eyesight to read. But who could tell that on the website when I proofed them? They looked fine to me.

    Okay, I redesigned them with a larger, more legible font and reordered. Except...um, whoops, they still haven't arrived and when I looked yesterday at my order history, I discovered the second order never went through. Damn!

    Fortunately, Erica consoled me by saying the she doesn't have business cards and never has and it's never been a problem. Whew!

  2. Get a manicure and a pedicure

    Apparently, cute nails are de rigeur at conference. Unfortunately for me, mine are going to be as ugly as always.

    Okay, this is probably more than you want to know about me, but I have terrible nails. If I have polish put on them, they crack and split. (They crack and split anyway, but it's worse if I polish them.) At one point in my life, I had very pretty acrylic nails and it was great because I never got hangnails, but I can't commit to having them again because I just don't have the time to go get them filled every two weeks.

    And while I suppose I could still have a manicure and pedicure without the polish, I'd have to take the kids. Can you see three kids under 10 sitting still while Mom gets her fingers and toes done? I can't!

  3. Prepare my pitch

    Yeah, I know this one is really dumb. Everyone--but everyone--should be prepared to pitch her manuscripts at conference, not just during her editor and agent appointments, but also to any random passerby or stranger with whom she happens to get trapped in an elevator. But I haven't prepared. Instead, I'm going to try to do it cold.

    After all, I make my living in part by giving presentations and I rarely rehearse them. If I know my material, I can talk about it. And there's nothing I should know better than my own book, right?

    So I'm winging it, kids!

  4. Save space for books

    This one, oddly, is the one I'm most freaking out over. Not because I can't bring the books home, but because I have no place to put them once I get them here! Every bookshelf in my house is filled to capacity and every wall that can have a bookshelf on it already has one. Seriously, I think if I bring one more book into the house, I'll be looking at divorce.

    And will I have time to read them anyway? No! But how can I say to no books? Especially author-signed books. Ack!

If you're going to Dallas (or even if you're not), please reassure with me stories of all the ways you have failed to adequately prepare yourself. Ever get to the airport and have a last-minute panic attack when you realized you forgot something vital at home or think you might have left the stove/oven/iron turned on? Do tell!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Continue the Madness!

Maven Lacey KayeAs kicked-off Tuesday, we're still going strong with the Round Robin! Starting with the letter H (or whatever letter we're up to), complete the story with your own twists and turns. Please don't post two or three times in a row (as Darcy pointed out, we shy away from encouraging others to pursue World Domination--the competition is tight enough without our help!) but you are more than welcome to add more than one blurb to the story. So if you posted Tuesday or Wednesday--Go for it! And yes, I reserve the right to edit you. I'm a Maven. It's hard to kill the habits :-)

As-Yet Untitled Robin:

Arsenic. That was a good poison, right?

Penny Templeton didn't know squat about poison, but she knew she wanted to kill Stefan Marquardt. Ever since high school when he'd invited her to the prom and stood her up. Ever since junior high school when he'd welded her locker shut. Ever since first grade when he told everyone she'd forgotten to wear underwear and everyone had stood around staring at her on the playground until she figured it out.

The object of her vengeful hatred ducked out of the 7-Eleven. Penny gripped her steering wheel. It would be so easy to simply take her foot from the brake and plow into his still disgustingly handsome form. Why had he chosen now to return to Lost Springs? She had to assume he knew she was marrying the man of her dreams tomorrow and had come to ruin her happiness.

Stefan pulled the keys to his Chevy truck from his jeans pocket. Jeans that clung to his firmly-muscled legs as if they'd been tailored just for him. He glanced up and their gazes connected. His lips spread slowly into a wily grin.

Penny pulled her foot from the brake without a second thought.

Barreling toward him with the hatred of a thousand suns, she was hardly prepared for the cough-cough sputter of her engine wheezing to a grinding halt inches from his knees. Surprised, she looked up in time to catch the perfect, frozen shock on his handsome face just before he dropped his Darth Vader Slurpee cup on the hood of her car.

He sprinted around to her door. "Hey! Hey! Are you all right in there?" His broad, muscled chest filled her driver window for one breath-catching second before his face dipped down into view. "Miss? Should I call for help? I think your car needs to be checked out. You almost killed me!"

Could this really be happening? And could he possibly be for real? Penny blinked up into the artfully clueless face of her childhood nemesis.

"You wanna borrow my phone?" He dragged his cell from his pocket.

"No." Penny sighed, dropping her forehead against the steering wheel, banging it twice for good measure. "I have my own."

"Heeeey..." Stefan leaned closer to the half-open window until she could smell the pungent and alluring scent of Mountain Dew, Juicy Fruit, and Edge shaving cream. Her insides tightened on instinct--damn him. Don't inhale, she ordered herself. She sat back and tried to act normal. As if she ran over assholes every day.

"I know you," Stefan finally said. "Penny Templeton. How are you?"

She reached for the window controls before realizing they wouldn't work with her car as good as dead. It figured. She was going to have to talk to him after all. Killing him would have been so much more satisfying.

Determined not to let her feelings show on her face, she slowly got out of her car. Her stupid car. She had the childish urge to kick it but caught herself just in time.

"I was right, wasn't I? Penny Templeton. It's been a long time."

She put on a bright smile. "You're right--it's me, Penny. And as you can see I've had better days." She leaned back into the car to grab her cell phone, ready to call her brother to come pick her up and release her from this embarrassment.

When she turned around, Stefan smiled, showing even white teeth against his tanned face. "Hey, I can drive you wherever you need to go. Just tell me where."

Oh, dear God. How did she manage to get herself into these things?

“No, that’s okay,” she mumbled, scrolling through her phonebook.

"Delighted to see you, too."

Jesus, did he have to sound hurt? A saccharine sweet smile, (the one she had often used when she was about to burst into tears), tugged at her lips.

"Hey, you don't look so good--you look green, actually. Are you about to be sick?" Stefan stepped closer and within seconds she was in his arms. She shoved away from him, staggered and fell on her bottom. He reached for her, but she quickly got up without his help.

A damp spot on her backside indicated her white designer jeans were soaked in something disgusting. Freaking perfect.

Stefan was right, though--she was about to be sick. Attempted murder had apparently caught up to her. The next moment she couldn't help but heave her cinnamon roll and banana shake breakfast on the ground, splattering all over her jeans, her favorite shirt and a flabbergasted Stefan.

Lovely. What next? Did she take the ride or slink off to lick her wounds? Okay, now that was beyond gross. Definitely not the second option. As for the first...

Excuses piled up in her mind.

She needed the exercise; therefore, she should walk the three miles to her parents’ house.

Her shoes were new and needed to be broken in, so thank you, but no--she would rather walk the three miles to her parents’ house.

She was gross and disgusting and had just covered them both in vomit; surely he didn’t want to drive her the three miles to her parents’ house.

In the end, she simply smiled and said, "Great. It's three miles to my parents’ house."

He chuckled. "I know where your parents live. I bought the house next door."

As Penny climbed into the truck, she couldn't help but think, Of course you did.

Oh, this was all that she needed on her first trip home in four years. A failed murder attempt and Stefan as a neighbor. Things couldn't get much worse, could they?

"For what it's worth," he babbled earnestly as she buckled her seat belt, "I totally don't mind that you stood me up for prom."

Penny glared at him. Now he was blaming that on her? He shifted gears and accelerated at break-neck speed. She'd have been more impressed if he'd been accelerating in the right direction.

"My parents live west of here, you know."

He frowned. "Really? But--uh--haven't they always lived in Rolling Hills?"

"No. Never."

"'Cause, like, that's where I went to pick you up that night."

Penny froze. "You got my address wrong?"

He drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. "It was before Google Maps, okay? Why are you being so mean to me? What did I ever do to you?"

Grabbing the door handle as he made a quick U-turn, she righted herself once he was going back in the direction they should have been going in the first place.

"So why are you being so mean to me?" he asked again.

She honestly didn't know how to answer that question. Okay, well maybe she did know how to answer but not in a way that she wanted him to hear. It would be mortifying if he knew how much standing her up for prom meant to her. Wrong address or not.

"I'm not being mean. I was just surprised to hear that you got my address wrong. Didn't someone clue you in that I didn't live there? Like, you know, the people who did?"

"Well, yeah, but I assumed you didn't want to go to prom with me so your mom was lying to me. I left."

"Take the next exit on your right."

He signaled and slowed. The ramp curled around until they reached a line of homes. All older homes, all different shapes and sizes. Homes that had been here since they developed this track of land fifty years ago.

They passed three houses before she pointed to a white stucco rambler just past the next mailbox. "Their house is the next one on the left."

Stefan pulled into the driveway. The lawn, perfectly manicured with garden statues standing in the flower beds, had just been cut. Maybe if she were lucky her dad would still be outside and could save her from an embarrassing walk to the porch.

"Hey," Stefan said before she could open the door. "I said I forgave you for standing me up at prom, but I lied. How about you make it up to me and take me out to dinner tomorrow night?"

She stared at him for several seconds. Was he serious?

"You do realize that I am getting married tomorrow?"

He smacked his head against his forehead. "That's right. I completely forgot that. A guy named Daffin, right?"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Devon."

"Well, how about tonight, then? I'm sure you need something to take your mind off of those wedding day jitters. Unless you have a bachelorette party or something to go to."

Penny shook her head in amazement. She'd been right--he was here to ruin her happiness. She stepped out of the truck then turned and slammed the door.

He rolled down his window and flashed her a brilliant smile. "I'll pick you up at eight." With a beep of his horn, he was gone.

She smiled to herself. Oh, he could pick her up at eight all he liked, but she wouldn't be here. Suddenly a night at the Marriot was looking pretty darn good.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Round Robin - American Style!

Maven Darcy Burke Happy almost Fourth of July! Anyone remember the show, Love, American Style? It ran from 1969-1974 and this is what TV.com says about it:

Love, American Style entertained viewers with stories about common people finding love in all walks of life. In this anthology series, each hour-long broadcast consisted of a group of vignettes, aired sequentially and separately and each with an introductory title card.

I have to admit I don't remember anything about the show (hey, I wasn't even born when it debuted!) except I'm fairly certain the credits included fireworks (hence the Independence Day tie-in). And for some reason, I think of the song Afternoon Delight, most certainly because of the connection (in my mind anyway) of the line "skyrockets in flight" and the visual of the fireworks during the show's opening (you younger folks may remember Afternoon Delight from the excellent a capella performance by the newsmen of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). The show actually had its own "Love, American Style Singers" and won two Emmys for musical composition, but I digress. The comedy contained multiple vignettes with hilarious titles always starting with "Love and the..." For example, Love and the Happy Days. Yes, this vignette spawned the sitcom of the same name. Who knew?

A few of my favorites (but really, you must check out the full list for guaranteed hilarity):

-Love and the Pill (yes, THAT pill)
-Love and the Shower (hmmm, did that vignette feature a single woman?)
-Love and the Marriage Counselor (you know Love and the Divorce Lawyer had to come next)
-Love and the Fuzz (I just can't go there)
-Love and the Penal Code (yes, really)
-Love and the Wee He (no, I'm not making these up, people)
-Love and the Golden Worm

As Maven Jacqueline is on vacation and tomorrow is a holiday, we are inviting you to create a vignette with us, our first-ever Maven Round Robin. I'm going to start a (probably silly) story with the letter A. Please feel free to contribute to the story using the next letter of the alphabet. There is no rule as to how long your contribution may be (not too long, but long enough to make the thread somewhat coherent) and you may enter as many passages as you like (avoiding consecutive posts so as not to take over the story, for that would be a step toward World Domination and we don't allow anyone to advance toward that except us).

On Friday we'll publish the complete story (guess we'll stop at Z unless it's too much fun to call a halt) and ask that you submit an appropriate "Love and the..." title. Here's the opener:

Arsenic. That was a good poison, right?

Penny Templeton didn't know squat about poison, but she knew she wanted to kill Stefan Marquardt. Ever since high school when he'd invited her to the prom and stood her up. Ever since junior high school when he'd welded her locker shut. Ever since first grade when he told everyone she'd forgotten to wear underwear and everyone had stood around staring at her on the playground until she figured it out.

The object of her vengeful hatred ducked out of the 7-11. Penny gripped her steering wheel. It would be so easy to simply take her foot from the brake and plow into his still disgustingly handsome form. Why had he chosen now to return to Lost Springs? She had to assume he knew she was marrying the man of her dreams tomorrow and had come to ruin her happiness.

Stefan pulled the keys to his Chevy truck from his jeans pocket. Jeans that clung to his firmly-muscled legs as if they'd been tailored just for him. He glanced up and their gazes connected. His lips spread slowly into a wily grin.

Penny pulled her foot from the brake without a second thought.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Twelve Steps of Intimacy

Maven Erica RidleyQuick Reminder: Still one book left to win in the Carrie Ryan comment contest!

Relationships & Intimacy

I'm going to start with the credits. Desmond Morris, a behavioral scientist studying why couples divorce or stay together, first described the twelve steps of intimacy as a way to explain the progression from "Who the hell are you?" to "I can't live without you." (My words, not his.)

I believe Linda Howard was the first to present his research to the romance writing community.

According to Morris, the steps do NOT have to be taken in order, but stronger relationships are likelier when they are, and when couples give themselves time to bond before progressing to the next level.

Morris's research shows that women, specifically, resent being rushed (ie, having a man grope his way into the "grabby boob" phase before the hand holding phase.)

Time to bond can take anywhere between five minutes and five years, depending on the circumstances and depending on the couple.

Interestingly, the couples in his study who repeatedly revisited all twelve steps in order, reinforcing the progression, tended to enjoy longer relationships.

The 12 Steps and Writers

Pretty obvious what this means to you in terms of real life, but how do the twelve steps of intimacy affect you as a writer? As with any craft advice you hear anywhere, remember these two things:

* Know the "rules" before you break them
* There are no true rules, only suggestions

DO NOT marry yourself to the twelve steps in such a way as to confine your characters to some preordained, artificial progression. Instead of two people swept up in the dance of love, they'll look like two robots dipped in water.

Always, always, always keep your characters in character. If your hero is the grabby-boob type, so be it. And if your heroine responds with a swift kick to the---well, he'll learn his lesson.

PLEASE DO let the twelve steps remind you of the the small things that happen on the way to the big things. Even if your hero and heroine hit the sack in Scene One, chances are good (especially if they just met) that they don't just shuck clothes and slide Tab A into Slot B.

Chances are exceptional that they'll follow most of the steps instinctively and naturally on their own. Your job is to show the reader.

The first nine steps can be done in public or in the bedroom, but the latter three are most often done in private. As mentioned earlier, these can be done quickly, just a few moments each, or they can span years. It's up to your characters.

Step 1: Eye to Body

Hero sits in the corner, nursing a Cuba Libre, when across the smoky room, empty beer bottles clang to the floor as a group of women climb from their stools to the bar and begin to dance. Two of them are wearing barely there come-get-me clothes, but the third--the one in jeans and sneakers--has a body that undulates to pulsing beat with a rhythm that matches his own.

Sometimes it's just a glance. Sometimes the glance turns to a stare. Sometimes the gaze starts at the top/toes and takes its time roaming the length of the body. Sometimes the first look leads to an exchange of phone numbers, and other times it leads to a dismissal until next they meet in different circumstances.

If this were a Harlequin Desire, for instance, in the example above, the hero might be CEO of a Fortune 100 company and the sexy thang in running shoes might be the secretary who thought he was out of town.

The two things to remember are: Show the reader whether or not attraction occurs, and why. Why=details. He notices her sex, age, size, shape, personality, how she carries herself, how she moves. Maybe the selling point is she's got that shake-yo-booty thing down cold. Or maybe she takes one look at him and decides against, because the size of his muscles indicate he'll spend more time in the gym than in with her.

Also remember this moment can be just as powerful if the POV character is on the receiving end of the prolonged once-over or the casual dismissal. How does this affect him/her? Is he uncomfortable? Angry? Aroused?

Step 2: Eye to Eye

Let's say they don't run each other off, or at least not yet. They've seen each other and, like it or not, they're intrigued.

Suddenly--oh my God!--they're caught looking. No matter how many people are in the room, for a second it's just the two of them, locked together by the magic of eye contact. Eye contact can be heady flirting, in and of itself.

I asked a friend of mine how she met her husband. She said the first thing they noticed about each other were their looks (this isn't shallow--it's life) and found the other attractive. By chance, they kept showing up at the same social events over the course of weeks. Rather than approach each other, they kept making eye contact across crowded rooms. She'd be caught staring. Or she'd catch him staring. Each time, the one who was caught would look quickly away... then just as quickly back, only to find the other person still looking. And so on. By the time he introduced himself, a whirlwind romance was a foregone conclusion.

How does this relate to our hero and heroine? Show the reader what is happening and how the POV character reacts. And remember not to cross the creepy line! If some burly stranger fixes her with an expressionless stare like a woodsman on the hunt for deer, ew. Heroine wants to be the focus of sweep-me-off-my-feet interest, not fear-for-my-life aggression.

Assuming he doesn't come off as scary or rude, how does she respond? Does she hold his gaze? Look away? Flutter her lashes? Wink? Smile?

Step 3: Voice to Voice

Heroine catches hero staring, and responds with a half-smile and a lick of her lips. Hero plunks down his Cuba Libre and prowls over to where heroine undulates on the bar. One of them says, "Hey, sexy."

Is the hero speaking? Does his voice come out a low rumble, like thunder before a storm? Or is his voice high-pitched and uncertain, crackling over the words like a teenage boy in puberty?

Or is the heroine speaking? Is her voice smoky and smooth, like a '30s jazz singer? Or does she have a thick, nasal accent and a loud, wet lisp, spraying the word "sexy" all over the front of his shirt?

Assuming neither person's voice chases the other away, where does the conversation go from there? Highspeed banter with carnal subtext? Blatant sexual overtones? Strained, keep-it-casual comments on the weather? Low, intimate murmuring? Awkward/charged lapses in conversation?

For strangers, the first conversation is often a get-to-know-you phase, touching on topics ranging from names, careers, likes and dislikes, to hobbies, habits, opinions pastimes, etc. Don't forget to show the reader what the characters do and don't admit, and how their responses--or lack thereof--affect the POV character.

Step 4: Hand to Hand

The music fades. Heroine stops gyrating. Hero lifts his hand, palm up, a silent offer to help her down from the bar.

Do her fingertips smooth across his skin in a soft caress? Do her nails scrape across the sensitive skin of his palm, much the way he imagines them skating down his naked back? Do her fingers lock around his wrist rather than his hand, as she leaps down like a boy scout out hiking? Does she bat his hand away, muttering she can do it herself, and slide off the bar with a disgruntled expression?

Either way, hand to hand is their first taste of physical contact, and their first act of trust (or mistrust, if she refuses him). Up until this point, either person could change their mind and walk away without causing confusion or hurt feelings in the other. Once the body contact line has been crossed, however, bonding has begun, if only at a small level.

Hand to hand contact can blossom into hand holding, an indication of a deepening relationship.

Regardless of the intent or level of the body contact, don't forget to show the reader the POV Character's physical and emotional reaction.

If the heroine places her hand in hero's and squeezes, how does he react? Does he squeeze back, tossing her a flirty wink? Does he touch her hand to his mouth, savoring the feel of her skin against his lips? Does he drop her hand in horror, thinking hand-squeezing is a sure sign of neediness and a harbinger of shrewdom to come?

Step 5: Arm/Hand to Shoulder

Hero escorts heroine away from the bar. Drunken, leering patrons try to pull her from him, and he slings an arm across her shoulders, protecting her from their advances and wordlessly staking his claim.

Arm/hand to shoulder can be anything from a friendly hug to ballroom dancing. Although either sort of embrace can be noncommittal, depending on the cues given and received through body language and physical contact, disengagement at this point can cause hurt feelings.

Hand holding allows space between bodies, but hugs or arms around shoulders require closeness. The closer two people are, the more intimate the contact can feel.

Picture two people hugging. Are they belly-to-belly, feet interlocking like puzzle pieces? Or are they hunched over, backs curved in an A-frame, clapping palms to backs as they carefully ensure no further contact can occur, even accidentally?

Hand/arm to shoulder is non-casual physical contact. Hero didn't sling his arm over her shoulder on accident--he meant to do it. She didn't lose herself in a bear hug on accident--she meant to do it. Don't forget to show the reader whether the body contact works out as planned and how the POV Character reacts to it.

Step 6: Arm/Hand to Waist

As hero sweeps heroine from the smoky bar to the twilit street, his hand coasts down from her shoulder, tracing the curve of her back. His palm glides from the base of her spine to her waist. His fingers splay across her hip, nestling her closer against the warmth of his body.

Physical contact has now become a sexual embrace. (Hero would probably not have pulled this manoever with, say, the garbage truck guy.) He is physically drawing her closer. With this kind of proximity, they can enjoy softer words, each other's scents, intimate dialogue, the feel of body against body.

This stage indicates growing familiarity, increased comfort, and escalating emotional response. Show your reader all of this through body language, conversation, physical response, and internal dialogue.

Step 7: Mouth to Mouth AKA Face to Face

They reach an intersection. The walk light flashes green. Heroine takes a step toward the street, but hero spins her to face him. She looks up in surprise and suddenly her eyes are right there, drinking him in. Her breath is right there, feathering against the stubble of his jaw. Her tongue is right there, wetting her parted lips. Her mouth is right there, asking to be kissed.

What now? Does he claim her mouth in a searing kiss, gazes locked, mating his tongue with hers in blatant imitation of a carnal act, desire lighting his skin afire? Does he rest his forehead against hers and close his eyes, murmuring an apology for being unable to continue because she reminds him too much of his dead wife? Does he lean in and rub the tip of her nose with his before sucking her lower lip into his mouth and nibbling playfully?

Often, this step combines many previous steps into one. He's noticing her body, gazing into her eyes, murmuring love words (or bedroom talk). His hands are locked on her hips, grinding her body to his, while her hands twine around his neck, fingernails scraping the skin below his shoulders.

Whether this is the first kiss or the hundred and first, fireworks are going off all over the place and it's your job as the writer to show the explosion to the reader in such a way as to make the reader feel the emotion right along with the POV character.

Step 8: Hand to Head

Heroine fingers, once splayed against Hero's back, now slide up the hot skin of his neck and into the clipped softness of his hair, toying with the wind-whipped locks. Hero, for his part, locks onto Heroine's long ponytail, wrapping his hand with the fall of blonde hair, and forcing her mouth even tighter to his.

This, even more than kissing, is an act of physical intimacy and a symbol of deepening trust. Protecting the head is instinctual. Allowing another free reign is indicative of submission to desire.

Although it can make both acts more powerful, this step does not have to precede sex nor take place during kissing. Perhaps she strokes his hair while dancing, or he slides his hand down her hair fanned across his pillow when she wakes up next to him in the morning.

Step 9: Hand to Body

Whether this step is exemplified as hand to breast or a foot massage, a high level of trust is required.

This is often the moment Hero and Heroine cross the line between kissing and pre-sexual foreplay. Typically, the body part(s) being touched is one not exposed in public, indicating a great deal of intimacy.

Step 10: Mouth to Breast

Undeniably sexual in nature, the act of licking, nibbling and/or suckling indicates sexual desire, deepened trust, and a high level of emotion.

This step typically includes partial to full nudity, as well as some combination of the previous steps.

As a writer, don't forget to show the reader what the POV character is seeing, thinking, and feeling. Is he dying to knock boots with this wild-haired vixen? Is he straining like hell to keep his starving eyes and aching hands away from his best friend's fiancee?

Step 11: Hand to Genitals

Indicative of high levels of trust, this step is a huge act of bonding.

How do your characters react? Is this a culmination of their dreams or further proof they're the kind of person their mama always said they were? Do they stop before either reaches satisfaction? Do one or both experience an orgasm? Or do they move on to:

Step 12: Sexual Intercourse

This stage represents the highest level of bonding and the pinnacle of trust. Both parties expect to gain and give pleasure. Intense physical sensation flood the senses and bonding is at an all-time high.

As always, show the reader! What is the POV character thinking, feeling, saying, doing? How does the other person look, smell, taste, feel, sound? And most importantly... what happens afterward?

YOUR TURN: Have you seen this or a similar progression used/abused in writing (or, I suppose, IRL)? When reading, what makes a couple's path to physical intimacy more/less believable to you? Are there any steps you feel are dwelled on overmuch? Are there any steps you feel are often missed? Do tell!

Manuscript Mavens

Manuscript Mavens