Thursday, March 16, 2006

Steam 101: A Guide to Writing Romance

I thought I had posted this here, but apparently not.

By the way, if you're a kid -- GO AWAY. This is not for you. You don't write romance novels anyway. Go download somebody's music.

Erotic romance is hot. Readers love it, and publishers are actively working to acquire it. Yet surprisingly, editors say it’s hard to find people who write erotic romance well, despite the fact that almost every romance has at least one love scene in it.

So if you can write erotic romance – or even just regular romance with good love scenes – you’ve got a real advantage when it comes to finding a publisher. I’m proof of that: a couple of years ago I was approached by an New York editor who’d read my novellas in the Secrets anthologies. She e-mailed me to ask if I was willing to write something steamy for Berkley.

As anybody knows who has spent any time trying to get published in romance, editors simply do not approach writers who’ve never been published by a New York house.

Apparently, I’d done something right; I ended up with a two book contract.
This article is an attempt to share a few techniques and principles with those interested in writing romance – including the non-erotic variety.

Repeat after me: Romance does not equal porn

A year or so ago, I saw an RWA-sponsored ad to the effect that romance novels don’t really have all that much sex in them. It then listed various books and the number of love scenes in them – generally just one or two.

That ad really ticked me off, because it implied that a book with only one sex scene is somehow more moral than one with four or five. I’ve encountered that attitude a lot in other romance writers who sniff that they write love scenes only because their publishers demand it.
Apparently, like Victorian wives suffering the attentions of randy husbands, they lie back and think of England.

My personal belief is that somebody who writes mechanical sex solely to placate a publisher and make money is a lot more guilty of being a pornographer than I am.

No matter how much some writers might like to pretend otherwise, at their core, romances are about a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, not a purely spiritual union of souls. After all, when was the last time you read a romance staring Ghandi?

I’ve heard writers argue that their readers don’t care about sex, that in fact, they skip the sex scenes. My response is: then you’re doing something wrong. Anytime a reader can skip any scene in a book, the writer has screwed up. Every scene should advance the plot, characterization, or conflict -- preferably all three. That includes love scenes. A scene your reader can skip needs to be rewritten.

Now I’m going to make a confession: sometimes I skip love scenes too. But it’s not because I’m somehow too moral to read them. It’s because they’re boring! Too many of them are just like every other love scene I’ve read in my twenty years as a romance junkie.

The worst sin, the very worst sin, a writer can commit is boring the reader. When you bore her, you cheat her out of the seven bucks she paid for your book.

Not only that, but you’ve cheated the characters you’ve worked so hard to make real in the rest of the novel. You’ve basically turned them into porn actors, moaning and going through the motions because your publisher wants so many sex scenes per book.

Worst of all, you’ve cheated yourself as an artist. You haven’t had the guts to realize your artistic vision for that book because you’re either afraid of being called a pornographer or you’re worried the neighbors will think you’re kinky.

Screw the neighbors. Screw the critics. Tell the story of those two passionate people you’ve created without flinching and without chastely averting your eyes. That’s what being an artist is all about.

Sex is action

One of the hardest things about writing a good love scene – particularly when you’ve written a lot of them – is how to keep them fresh and different.

After all, the physical actions of sex are basically the same – kiss this, stroke that, insert tab A into slot B. You can spice things up by using different positions, locations and props, but that only works so many times.

Besides, readers are not dumb. They notice when you’ve got three sex scenes, and you tick through the basic positions in them: “Okay, we’ll do missionary in this one, and female superior in this one, and in this one he’ll...”

Yuck. Getting into porn territory again.

I’ve found that to keep sex fresh and different, love scenes needs to grow out of the characters themselves, not my reference copy of the Kama Sutra.

Every time the hero and heroine go to bed together, it should reflect where they are in their relationship. In fact, ideally you should be able to read through the sex scenes alone and track the progress of the romance through the book.

In that first scene, maybe they’re uncertain or cautious or exploring – or maybe they just go nuts from pent-up sexual tension.

In the next scene, maybe they’ve had an argument right before going to bed together, and that anger bubbles under the surface so that the love scene becomes another expression for the conflict. And so on, until the last scene in the book, when we see how they make love now that they’re really in love and committed to one another.

Sweet, tender action will do more than flowery declarations of love to tell the reader that these folks really will live happily ever after.

Remember, too, that each love scene should not only mark the progress of the relationship, but advance it. The characters are sharing a deeply personal interaction, exposing themselves to each other emotionally as well as physically. It should change how they relate to each other.

Some Examples

To illustrate, I’m including the opening paragraphs from loves scenes from my Berkely novel, Jane’s Warlord.

Baran, my hero, is a warrior from the future who has time-traveled to the 21st century in order to protect reporter Jane Colby from Jack the Ripper – who, it turns out, is also a futuristic warrior.

Baran comes on very cold and hard in the first few scenes of the book, so in the first love scene, I wanted to show another side of him: the tender lover. The idea was to demonstrate that Baran is someone both Jane and the reader can trust.

For me, that’s one of the keys of developing a sexy hero: you’ve got to first establish that he’s not a bully and that he respects the heroine’s needs, even when he’s being sexually demanding.
It’s absolutely vital to set up his heroism and concern for the heroine as another human being before you let him start playing dominant bedroom games.

If you don’t, you can end up with a hero who comes off as a selfish brute interested only in his own pleasure. And the reader’s just not going to like him.

Jane looked up blindly in the darkness, saw the shimmer of his eyes an instant before his mouth came down over hers. She tried to pull away, startled, but long fingers tangled in her hair and held her still. The kiss was an easy, practiced slide of his mouth against hers, carefully undemanding.

Jane had expected skill, but Baran’s tenderness took her by surprise. His tongue caressed her lower lip, then entered her mouth in a long erotic stroke. He mouth tasted of a sweet, spicy something she couldn’t identify. Strong hands closed gently around her shoulders, turned and lowered her to the mattress. She cupped her palms around the curve of his shoulders. They more than filled her hands. “We shouldn’t do this.”

“Probably not,” he murmured. “But it seems we’re going to do it anyway.”

The second love scene in Jane’s Warlord follows some heavy revelations of the characters’ personal histories. They’re more comfortable with each other, and they express that in playfulness. Too, the tension had gotten pretty thick, and I needed to lighten things up a little.

Baran grabbed the door just before she managed to slam it in his face. Shouldering through, he purred, “Are you running from me?”

She retreated quickly to the glass stall that took up one side of the room. “Who, me?” There was a definite squeak in her voice. Whirling, she started fumbling with a set of chrome knobs that made water shoot from a nozzle in the wall of the stall. “Why would I do that?”

“Maybe because it’s a good idea?” He strolled over to snatch her against him, grab the hem of her T-shirt, and jerk it over her head. She hadn’t bothered with a bra that morning, and her bare breasts bobbed with the motion. Those pretty nipples were delicately erect, pink and tender. He swooped in to sample one, sucking it into his mouth as he grabbed the waistband of her baggy trousers and started pulling them down her thighs. “I thought I told you not to wear these ugly pants again,” he growled between nibbles.

“And I don’t ... AH!... take fashion advice from a guy with beads in his hair. Baran!” The last word was a yelp of protest as he snatched her off her feet, one hand around her backside, the other arm circling her torso.

Here’s another point: don’t pair a dominant alpha hero with a dishrag heroine. He’ll come off as a bully, because she can’t or won’t give him a decent fight. So I let Baran try to give Jane orders, but I make it equally clear that she obeys them only when she thinks she should. This strengthens the conflict, because Baran thinks that unless Jane obeys him without question, he won’t be able to keep her alive. Jane thinks this is just dumb, and tells him so.

Humor is a great weapon for heroines to use against alpha heroes. Part of what makes alphas so attractive is the idea a powerful, physically overwhelming male. But those same characteristics makes it difficult for the heroine to hold her own with him. You need to demonstrate that she’s his equal in wit and will so the reader will respect her. And letting her get off a good joke at his expense is a great way to do that.

In the next scene, I use a sexual encounter to express Baran’s growing fear that he can’t protect Jane from the killer. I also play with his more erotically superhuman qualities to give the scene a special kick for the reader.

Baran had taken her before in calculation and in heat, but this desperation was new.

Jane could taste it in the way he kissed her, open-mouthed and fierce, his long fingers curling around the back of her skull, angling her head just the way he wanted it.

He took her in a long, sweet stroke of tongue and lip, hot and wet and hungry. Somewhere in the endless tumble into delight, she heard the rumble of a passing car, accompanied by the short, mocking toot of its horn. A tiny measure of sanity returned. Prying her mouth away from his, she panted, “We can’t do this on the side of the road, Baran!”

“Yes, we can,” he growled, and captured her mouth again, the kiss drugging, hungry.

Jane wrestled free and threw a desperate glance around them, trying to determine if they were being watched. She realized she knew the area from her wild teenage years. “There’s a spot down by the woods. A stream. We could....”

He looked down at her. The lust in his eyes was so intense, it didn’t seem quite human – and not just because of the fiery glow.

His lips pulled back from his teeth in a slow, erotic smile. “Run. Before I take you on the hood of the truck.” His powerful hands reluctantly relaxed their hold.

It wasn’t an idle threat. Jane whirled and fled as if chased by something that would eat her. And with a little squirt of heat, she knew he intended to do just that.

In the last love scene in Jane’s Warlord, I wanted to demonstrate just how far they’d come in their relationship.

“No!” she panted. “I want... I want....”

That got his attention. He stopped and looked at her, leaning his face against her thigh.

“What? Anything you want me to do, I’ll do.” Turning his head, he gave her thigh a tempting little nibble.

“I want to be on top!” she gasped.

He lifted a brow. “Of course.”

“No, I mean...” She drew in a deep breath and managed to bring her desperate pants under control. “I want to be in charge this time. Dominant.”

He lifted his head in surprise, then shrugged. “Your wish is my command.”

Jane managed a cheeky grin. “That’s the idea.” She sat up. “Lie down on your back. I want to tie you up this time.”

Because she was looking directly at him, she saw his eyes flicker. “All right.”

That moment of unease reminded her of that horrific story he’d told her of being paralyzed while the Xer tortured him. They hadn’t discussed it, but she strongly suspected the abuse had been even worse than he’d let on.

And yet, he was willing to allow himself to be bound if she wanted it that way.

“Just... extend your hands over your head,” she said, hastily modifying the game. “Grab one wrist, and keep them there. Don’t let go.” She watched while he obeyed, slowly stretching his big body out, assuming the position she directed.

It was her turn now.

The role reversal demonstrates that Baran loves Jane enough to yield to whatever she wants, including tying him up, even though that’s something he’s got a phobia about. She, on the other hand, modifies her request when she realizes this hits one of his hot buttons.

The final sex scene should, I think, demonstrate the fact that the characters know and love one another. Whether it’s tender or kinky, their lovemaking should show that this is definitely love.

They’ve reached the happy-ever-after ending readers crave.

And that, after all, is what romance is all about.