Sunday, February 26, 2006


by Rosanne Boettiger

Mary Gillgannon is an interesting, informative speaker with lots of
spunk. Author of nine historical romances, Mary knows her stuff about
writing love scenes.
At the starting point in her speech, she surveyed the room, and
promptly asked a surprise question. "How many people love to write
love scenes?"

Of course, no one raised a hand, to which Mary had to laugh.
According to her, convention has dictated that women be discrete
about sex. Up until about ten years ago, it was something we never
even discussed in public.
Since we all felt somewhat inhibited, Mary listed her 10 Tips to
Writing Love Scenes.

1. Push your comfort level, but don't write to someone else's
standards. Mary suggests that the focus should be on the romance
and not just sex. She also states that it is not true that you won't
sell a book if you don't put a love scene in it.

2. Remember you are not writing about yourself. You are writing
about your characters! You get inside the character's head in a love
scene, but you are not writing about yourself. She pointed out that
in murder mysteries we don't imagine the author to be a serial killer
because of what they write.

3. Sexual tension is more important than sex itself. The buildup,
the desire, the longing; these are the elements that build the book,
so that when the love scene finally does happen, it's more meaningful
and exciting. Mary stated at this point that conflict leads to
sexual tension. The characters are physically drawn to each other,
but the fact that they are enemies, or feuding, or in competition,
keeps them apart. Social constraints are another form of conflict to
create sexual tension. The stronger the conflict, the higher the
sexual tension. Whatever you use as a conflict to build sexual
tension, Mary warns, make sure it is part of the plot. And make it

4. Don't follow a formula. Mary says you never put in a love
scene unless it is vital to the plot. Love scenes don't just show up
on page 50, or in the third chapter. The characters must maintain
their integrity. Granted, certain lines have different levels of sex,
but the story still has to fit the sexual relationship.

5A. Don't follow the "rules" or instructions when writing the love
scene. Mary explained what she meant using the baseball euphemism.
First base is holding hands, second is…. etc. We all know that adage.
It follows a pattern. She urges us to break out of the mold. Have
your characters do things their way; perhaps its out of "order", but
it will be more interesting and unique.

5B. In a romance, sexual experiences should be part of the plot.
People just don't make love out of desire. Sometimes there are
life-threatening situations that push the characters together. Or
perhaps she wants to loose her virginity. The characters have an
entire psychological world to draw from to put into a sex scene. What
they are feeling emotionally is far more powerful than just the
physical. The love scene is like any other scene in a story, it
should be there for a reason, and should advance the plot.

6. Writing about sex is the equivalent of mental juggling. The
left side of our brain is logical. The right side, creative. As a
writer, you must bounce back and forth between left and right brain
while writing the love scene in order to make it profound and make it

7. Use all the senses. Visual, scent, touch, sounds, taste - by
using them all you can pull the reader into what the characters are
feeling. Romance = atmosphere.

Mary grinned at us before introducing the next point.

8. What do we call "IT"?
Clinical terms: can be very cold and unappealing.
Four letter words: very precise, but in our society they are
considered derogatory.
Implied terms: Sort of euphemisms - very subtle, not flowery. These
are what most writers deal with.
Real Euphemisms: also known as "purple prose". These can pull the
reader from the story.

9. Develop and use your own unique voice. You may tend to copy
other writers you've read, but the more you write love scenes, the
more you will be comfortable with your own voice.

10. There are exceptions to all the previous rules! Genre fiction
entertains. Romance in particular deals with relationships, and some
readers don't like to deal with that.

Mary summed it up with, "It takes all kinds. There are readers who
look for the love scenes, and those who want romance without the sex."

Romance, happily enough comes in many forms to satisfy everyone.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Back story: Too much, too soon?

By Cynthia VanRooy

Ever have the experience of meeting someone at a party and within
minutes youâ?Tve heard about their three miscarriages, the ex-husband
they left because of his drinking, the brother whoâ?Ts in prison, but
itâ?Ts not his fault, his friends got him into trouble, and the uncle
whoâ?Ts suspected of using drugs? Whatâ?Ts your reaction? Do you want
to know this person better, pursue this new relationship further?
Hardly! You canâ?Tt wait get away from this stranger you already know
too much about.

This is the most common mistake new romance writers makeâ?"subjecting
their reader to the same kind of too-much-too-soon information dump.
Itâ?Ts understandable. We want the reader to love our heroes and
heroines as much as we do, to understand why they do what they do.
Our mistake is in wanting the reader to understand before weâ?Tve
given them a reason to care.

If the stranger were your best friend instead, that would change your
reaction considerably to the details they relayed. This holds true
for your fictional characters, too. The reader needs to become
emotionally involved with them, become caught up in the present
moment of the charactersâ?T lives before they can be interested in
anything that happened before the story started.

Thatâ?Ts what backstory isâ?"the events that happened prior to page
one that led up to the story. The most dangerous thing about
backstory is that itâ?Ts boring. Nothing is happening to engage the
reader. The characters arenâ?Tt acting. Youâ?Tre just relaying
information about them in the most uninteresting way

Rather than start your novel with backstory, start with the
culminating action that is the result of that backstory. Give the
reader only as much information as they need to follow that action
without becoming confused. Trust the reader. Theyâ?Tre bright,
theyâ?Tll get it. Honest. Need an example? Story opens . . .

A woman is driving at night. The only things keeping her weary,
hurting body awake are tension and adrenaline. She has to put as much
distance between herself and Richard as she can, but she knows she
needs to stop and rest soon before she becomes a menace to anyone
else on the road. She takes the next exit off the freeway and finds
herself in a small, seedy-looking town, the stores all closed and the
streets mostly deserted. She spots a motel up ahead. She pulls her
car into the parking spot in front of the orange neon lights
proclaiming â?ooffice.â?

With an effort she releases the steering wheel, only to discover her
hands are shaking. She takes a couple of deep breaths trying to get
herself under control, then grabs her purse and opens the car door.

In the office the clerk hands her a pen and shoves the register
toward her. She hesitates and has a moment of panic as she tries to
decide whether to use her own name. No, better not. She signs her
first grade teacherâ?Ts name, the only one she can think of. The
clerk stares at her left eye and she can feel itâ?Ts swollen. She
wonders if it has begun to turn black. The clerk hands her the room
key and she hurries to escape his scrutiny.

Once in her room she bolts the door and puts on the chain before
turning on the light and dropping her bag. Sheâ?Ts so tired she wants
to collapse, but knows sheâ?Tll sleep better after a warm shower to
ease the aches. As she peels off her clothes she notes in the mirror
the bruises blooming on her ribs and hip. And yes, her eye has turned

After a shower that does little to relieve the pain, she is making
her way from the bathroom when the phone rings. She freezes,
clutching the towel tightly around her, her hands fisted in the
terrycloth. Oh, God, heâ?Ts found her already. The phone continues to
peal insistently and she reaches out a trembling hand and lifts the

Nothing confusing here, you understand whatâ?Ts happening, The
passage raised some questions, but thatâ?Ts a good thing. Thatâ?Ts
how you draw the reader in. Who is Richard? Why is she running away
from him? What will happen if he finds her? Is he the one who hurt

To get hooked into this character and this story you didnâ?Tt need to
know the woman ran away at sixteen to escape her abusive home life,
that she lived on the streets for two years, that she got her act
together and worked her way through college, that Richard is a
musician she met in a coffee house where she worked, that she fell in
love with him because of his protectiveness, that the protectiveness
revealed itself shortly as control, and that it turned into the same
kind of abusive behavior she used to get from her father that she had
promised herself never to take again. Whew.

Ideally, that backstory would be fed to the reader a little at a
time, as they needed it. One of the best ways to impart backstory is
in dialog, where realistically the hero/heroine might reveal it to
the other. Dialog, with its action and white space on the page, is
reader-friendly and interesting, as opposed to long passages of
introspection where the character is doing nothing but thinking.

Arenâ?Tt convinced yet you should avoid starting your book with
backstory? An editor once told me if she wasnâ?Tt engaged in the
story by page five, she wouldnâ?Tt read any further before rejecting
a manuscript. Think thatâ?Ts harsh? Sheâ?Ts being charitable. Most
editors make that decision by page three. Some new writers try the
trick of reversing a page in their manuscript when they send it in.
Then when they get it back rejected and the page is still reversed,
they regard this as proof the editor never actually read their story.
Well . . . yes, they did. They read as much as they needed to in
order to know they werenâ?Tt interested in reading any more.

You have three pages to interest the editor/reader in your novel.
Donâ?Tt waste them on backstory. Throw the reader right into the
action. A hundred years ago writers had the luxury of beginning a
story with â?oOnce upon a time . . .â? Todayâ?Ts readers are too
impatient. Toss them right into the garden with a sobbing Cinderella
and her fairy godmother and explain later. Your readers will thank
you for it.

Writing Good Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has because it's
so useful in so many ways: Speech gives vital information about a
character's background, social status, and education; it reveals to
us what a character is thinking (or at least, what he says that he is
thinking); it can advance the plot; it can provide exposition in a
dramatic fashion. But writing good dialogue is often one of the last
skills a writer masters, and some otherwise fine writers never seem
to understand the nuances of writing dialogue. I hope these hints
will be helpful as you try to make people talk on paper.

Dialogue is not written speech.

Successful dialogue is a strange mixture of the actual and the
imaginary. It doesn't sound exactly like real conversation (listen in
on a real conversation full of stuttering and unfinished ideas for a
few minutes and you'll hear why), but it reads like actual
conversation. That is, it should seem realistic, like the sort of
thing we might imagine these people saying in this sort of situation,
only better, more focused, more alluring. On the other hand, written
dialogue is not necessarily more revealing than speech. Good
dialogue, as my friend Bob Butler says, does not say everything the
character has on his mind at a given moment. It works toward the
truth in the same way that we generally do, by fits and starts. A
moment of revelation and great openness should generally be led up
to, should be an emotional peak of the story.

Writers use dialogue to build narrative tension.

Good dialogue has subtexts and tensions inherent in it. A story
includes dialogue primarily because it helps advance the action, and
if a scene is worth telling (as opposed to a quick summary--"Shelly
told Nicole to meet her at the zoo") it needs to be dramatically
interesting. For a tremendous example of this principle at work, read
Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," a story which is almost
nothing but dialogue. It's also good practice to try and construct a
scene where one character has a secret or something he/she must
communicate and we as readers know it. That plants the tension

Don't get overly creative with the mechanics of dialogue.

The old standby--"he said/she said"--is still the best way of
crediting dialogue, which after all is the purpose of dialogue tags.
Getting creative with the dialogue tags ("he expostulated" or "she
expounded") draws attention to the tags, not the dialogue. If you
want to add vividness to your writing and choose strong verbs, do it
elsewhere; I find I use "said" and "asked" almost exclusively. Vary
how often you employ a tag based on the situation (if there are only
two speakers and their mode of speech or emotional take on the scene
differentiates them, you don't need many; if you have a cocktail
party and the voices are all but interchangeable, you might need a
lot). Vary the placement of the tag in the sentence a bit so you can
add some variety to your style. And don't worry too much that there
seem to be too many dialogue tags or that they're too repetitive,
since readers will tend to read over them. It will probably be
apparent --maybe even ludicrous--if you're overdoing it or becoming
too repetitive with your dialogue tags.

Pass the potatoes.

That is, don't speechify; keep readers immersed in the action of a
scene of dialogue. My friend Elinor Lipman first discussed potato
passing for me, and I've seized on it as a valuable concept since--as
in Elinor's fiction--many of my characters converse around a dinner
table. Here's what we mean by it: When readers read long passages of
dialogue, they tend to be eased out of the dramatic flow of the story
and to lose contact with what is happening in the story as these
words are being delivered. But if the writer has someone pass the
potatoes (literally or figuratively) while that character talks, the
reader remembers that there are people sitting around the table
listening and reacting and perhaps getting ready to answer. So don't
present long blocks of dialogue (which are also unfriendly to the
reader's eye); break them up with action and reaction.

Use dialogue for exposition with caution.

While I remarked above that dialogue could be used to help readers
orient themselves in relation to the story and its characters, this
can be (and has been) done so badly so often that I offer words of
warning. Don't present lots of exposition at once under the guise of
dialogue. The following is a tremendously bad example of exposition
masquerading as a dramatic exchange:

"I've been so lonely since my husband Ted died in 1991 of cancer. We
had been happily married since 1965, when we met while I was working
in the Kresge department store on Canal Street in New Orleans."
"Of course, you poor dear. Thank goodness your son Frank immediately
left his job in Pittsburgh as a computer programmer to move back into
your house in the Garden District of New Orleans so that he could
help you with your clinical depression. Of course, now you are caring
for Frank because his wife deserted him and took the kids back to
Pennsylvania after the doctor discovered in a routine test that he
was HIV positive."

How can you avoid these exposition blues, especially if your dialogue
is not as egregiously bad as this? Follow this rule of thumb: Never
use dialogue to tell the reader things the characters already know.
In our real-life conversations,we refer to past events, certainly,
but we don't explain them because we already have them as a common
point of reference. It would be better instead to give out hints and
build up information gradually. We don't need to know everything that
has happened in the past to begin the story.

Characterization through action

Copyright 2003, by Linda Hope Lee

The previous two tip sheets discuss how to characterize through a
person's physical description and through his/her thoughts. In this
article we will consider characterization through action.
A character's actions may be defined in two ways: 1) the ways he
moves his body; i.e., the way he walks, his gestures and mannerisms,
and his facial expressions. 2) the larger way in which he responds to
internal conflict or external events.
Let's consider bodily actions first:

Walking. Walking is a good indication of character because it is
largely an unconscious movement. The conscious mind is usually
occupied with other thoughts, leaving the body free to express itself.
Think about your character and the traits you have given him. What is
his dominant trait? Can you show this trait through his walking?
Suppose your character, Sarah, is a timid person. How would you show
her entering a room? You might say, "Sarah tiptoed over the
threshold," or "Sarah edged inside the door."
Another character, Sally, is bold. Sally might "bring her heels down
hard on the tile floor," or, she might "stride past the maitre d' and
head toward Bob's table."
It is the strong verb in each example that gives us a picture of how
the person walks and that also gives an indication of character.

When possible, avoid using the word "walking" with an adverb, as in
"Tom walked slowly toward her." The adverb is a crutch that doesn't
get rid of the dull word "walking." Choose a strong, specific word
instead. She ambled. He trotted. He raced.

Gestures. Like walking, gestures are largely unconscious movements
and therefore good indications of character. Gestures include
movements such as shaking a finger to punctuate speech, pushing one's
glasses up on the nose, running a finger around the inside of the
What character traits might these gestures indicate? A person who
shakes his finger might be the dogmatic type who wants to make sure
the listener sees his point of view. The person fingering his collar
might be acting out nervousness or insecurity.

To help you incorporate gestures into your characterizations, imagine
you are the person in the story. Act out his role in a scene and see
what gestures come to mind.
Observe the gestures of people you know or of strangers with whom you
come in contact. How do these mannerisms fit what you know or surmise
of their traits? An effective way to observe gestures is to watch
television with the sound off.

Facial expressions. Eyes are probably the most commonly used feature
to indicate character. Suppose you wanted to show that Jim was cold
and calculating. You might say something like: "Jim's eyes were
narrowed slits as he took a swift inventory of Marilyn's expensively
furnished apartment." To show Lorna's honesty, you might write,
"Lorna looked at me with clear, unwavering eyes as she told me her
astounding story."

Please don't have your characters do impossible things with their
eyes: "Her eyes flew to his face," for example. Instead, write, "Her
glance flew to his face."
Another humorous eye movement is "She lowered her eyes to the floor."
Change to something like, "Shelowered her eyelids," or, "She looked
at the floor."

The mouth is another commonly used facial feature for indicating
character. "Laura's smile flashed on and off like an electric light."
"Jason has the toothy grin of a seasoned politician."
Now, let's move on to the larger actions a character takes in reponse
to something happening in his external or internal world. His
responses will depend upon his motivations, his basic needs, and his
traits. While a knowledge of your plot is necessary to choose the
character's actions, some sample situations may help you get into the
habit of using this process.

1. Jack loves Judy. Judy leaves Jack for another man, thus depriving
him of a basic need, love. Jack is highly motivated to seek a new
love, but his shy nature makes him uncomfortable with face-to-face
contact with women he doesn't know.

Therefore, Jack chooses to place an ad in the Personals Column.
Placing the ad is the large action Jack takes to solve his problem.
He takes this particular action because of his basic character trait.

2. Mary Ellen's son, Ralph, has received a scholarship to a college.
However, the collage is not one of Mary Ellen's choosing. A
domineering person who must control others, Mary Ellen goes to her
child's school in order to convince the administration to withdraw
the award.

3. John and Sue are doing research for an ad campaign. At a meeting
with the boss, he points out several flaws in their study. John
agrees that some modifications are needed. Mary, however, can never
admit she might be wrong and refuses to make changes.

In each of the above cases, you would reinforce this trait in other
aspects of the story. You might, for example, show Jack being shy in
another situation, perhaps at a party or on the job. Mary Ellen's
need to control might be reinforced by having her attempt to coerce
her women's group to her way of thinking. Sue's need to be always
right might cause trouble at home between her and her husband.


Copyright 2003, by Linda Hope Lee

This and the next couple of tip sheets discuss how to to write
effective dialogue. First, we will consider the functions of
dialogue. In a story, dialogue must not be aimless or superlative.
You must make all dialogue exchanges work for your story by having
them fulfill one or more of the following functions.

1. Dialogue can show character.

A. Through what a persons says:

"Look, Mark." Jane held out a brown wallet. "I found this in the
grocery store."

"Take the money out and put it back where you found it," Mark said.
"Anyone who can't hang onto his wallet deserves to lose his money."

"No way. I'm turning it in. If it were mine, I'd sure want the person
who found it to do the same."
> From this exchange, we see that Mark has a "finders keepers"
> attitude while Jane honors the "do unto others" command.

B. Through how he says it (From P.D. James):
"It appears that the murderer swam across the canal," Inspector Marsh
told Adam. "Where were you on that night?"

"If there's any swimming to be done, my dear inspector, one must
leave it to someone else. One has one's asthma, you know."
Adam's referral to himself as "one" and to Marsh as "dear inspector"
show him to be a pretentious person.

2. Dialogue furthers the action of the story:
"I've made up my mind," said Amanda. "This house goes on the market
tomorrow. No, today. I'm going to give that real estate agent a call
right now."

"Wait a minute, honey," Joe said. "I thought we were going to think
about selling for a couple of weeks, then decide."

Amanda shook her head. "We've tried that before. It just means an
indefinite postponement, and you know it."

3. Dialogue conveys needed information:

"I just moved here from California," he said. "Been here only a
coupla months."
"I wondered where you got that tan," she said.

4. Dialogue can show the emotional state of the speaker:
A week later, Robbie ran through a glass door, cutting his hand to the bone.

"What's going on!" Matt exploded. "We were just at the hospital last
month when he fell and hit his head. And before that it was a
sprained ankle."

"It's normal for boys to have an accident now and then," Lynn said.
Matt ran a hand through his hair. "I'm beginning to wonder if there
isn't something wrong with the kid."

5. Dialogue can show conflict:
"Are you telling me we have to go tomorrow night?" Arlene asked.

"That's right," Martin replied.

"I wouldn't be caught dead at that party!"

"You'll go if I say so."
"Make me!"

6. Dialogue can build reader suspense:
"We'll drill right through the tunnel."
"Yeah? I remember the boss telling about the time he tried that. He
was the only survivor."
"The boss hasn't been on the job as long as I have. And I say we can
drill through the tunnel."

7. Dialogue can foreshadow.
"I hear Farley's back," Bob said. "He's coming over here tomorrow."
"I'm not afraid of him," Meg said. "Let him come."

8. Dialogue can characterize someone through the speaker's viewpoint:
"Did you meet Sarah yet?" Martin asked.
"Did I meet her! She bent my ear for nearly an hour with stories
about her ailments."

As I mentioned above, try to have your dialogue perform more than one
function. For example, in looking at 2., you'll see that in addition
to furthering the action of the plot, it also shows conflict between
the speakers.

Dialogue is the essence of real speech. Not everything that people
say in reality should be or needs to be put down on paper. In
reality, people do a lot of hemming and hawing, repeating themselves,
and taking more words than they need to convey the message. You must
condense real speech for your story. Consider the following passages,
the first as the speech was said word for word, and the second as it
was edited for the story.

"Well, believe me, Janice, you know as well as I do that your mother
knows best. And I say the best cure for loneliness is for me to treat
you to lunch next Wednesday. Well, believe me, I'm sure that will
chase those blues away."

"Believe me, Janice, no one knows better than your mother what the
best cure for loneliness is. I'm treating you to lunch Wednesday.
That will chase away those blues."
Mother uses the phrase "believe me" frequently. The second example
uses it only once. It will be shown in other speeches, enough to let
the reader know that is a pet phrase, but not so much that it is
distracting and annoying.

A good way to make your dialogue natural and convincing is to keep in
mind that when a person speaks, he uses only the words that someone
of his age, occupation, sex, educational background, temperament,
would use in talking. We all have three vocabularies: speaking,
writing, reading. Words that we recognize when we read may not be
part of our speaking vocabulary. Similarly, words that we use in our
writing we may not include in our speech.

Another way to make speech sound natural is to forget sentence
structure and rules of grammar. People do not always speak in
complete sentences nor do they use proper grammar. Here's an example
from Judith Guest's Ordinary People, between Cal and his son Conrad:
Conrad is conscious now, shading his eyes with his hand against the
light. "Time's it?"
"You just get home?"
"Yeah. What're you doing down here?"
"I couldn't sleep."
Cal laughs. "I see that."
"Time's it?"

He turns away to hang up his coat. "I just told you. Twelve o'clock.
Let's go to bed, okay? I'm bushed."
To help you learn to write more effective dialogue, develop your
listening skills. Try to shut off your other senses and just listen
to what people say. What emotions are behind the actual words? How
are the words being said? Listen for speech patterns and pet phrases.
Read plays to see how dialogue can carry a story. Read the masters of
prose dialogue, such as J.D. Salinger, Flannery O'Conner, and Ernest