Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Divas Dish, revisited

I wrote this for RT's Diva's Dish panel on Erotica, but I didn't get to go. Mike had to go to the ER. So because I'm loathe to waste a handout, here it is:

1.) The reader should feel the sexual tension start to build between the hero and heroine from their first glance. As many times as I’ve written love scenes, there are times I find it almost impossible to get a couple into bed. That’s usually because I’ve neglected to build sexual attraction because I’m focused on the romantic conflict.

2.) The elements of seduction:
A.) As Linda Howard says in her “12 Steps to Intimacy,” there is a definite pattern to seduction. The guy has to gain the woman’s trust and acceptance before he can make love to her. This is done in a natural set of steps.
I.) First is a quick look – is this person attractive? If so, the couple makes eye contact and smile. Then the guy can come over and start a conversation. You need to show an emotional connection start growing between them as they talk and look at one another. Boy, he’s hot! Wow, she’s sexy!
II.) Then and only then can he move forward with the seduction by touching her hand, then her shoulders, then her waist. These touches may appear to be casual or accidental, but they’re not, and both characters know it.
III.) Next comes the first kiss, which needs to be given a lot of attention. The kiss is a precursor to lovemaking, an indication of what we and the heroine can expect. How skillful is he? How tender? Build the anticipation.
IV.) Now we can start the actual foreplay, but that can’t begin until you lay the groundwork with the early stages of seduction. Think about it: if some guy just came up and grabbed your breasts, you’d slug him, scream, and call a cop. You have to build the attraction first.

3.) Do not treat your love scenes as porn breaks in the middle of the story. This is a problem I see even among mainstream published romance writers. They know their editors expect a love scene somewhere around chapter seven, so they just stick one in. The characters have a mechanical kind of sex that doesn’t really reflect the development of their romance or who they are as people.
A.) Think about what you can show with this scene. What kind of people are they? Is he dominant and aggressive? Is she sensual or unsure of herself? Is there humor – and there really should be, because humor humanizes characters and makes them seem more three-dimensional. What’s the romantic conflict?

4.) Don’t make your characters too stupid to live.
A.) In general, if it’s something you wouldn’t do, don’t have your heroine do it. If you wouldn’t pick a complete stranger up in a bar and have unprotected sex, your heroine shouldn’t do it. If you wouldn’t let a stranger tie you up for sex games, she definitely shouldn’t do that.

5.) For erotic romance to work, the love scenes need to be fun. You can have angst coming out of your ears everywhere else in the book, but when those characters get into bed, they have a very good time. They may be angry with one another to start out with, but the sex needs to rapidly morph into something lighter. If the sex is too emotionally heavy, it’s not going to be fun, just disturbing.
A.) Avoid characters with serious psychosexual issues, such as frigidity due to rape. The minute the sex becomes a form of therapy, you’ve lost about ninety percent of your heat.

6.) Things to think about when planning a love scene:
A.) Location. Go for someplace that is naturally sensual – a garden, a pool. Probably not a gynecologist’s office...
B.) Who makes the first move? Let them take turns.
C.) Where are these characters in their journey to love? What’s their mood going into the scene? Are they angry? Frightened? Just plain horny? Use that. Express the emotion in the way they touch. Maybe he knows she’s scared, so he’s particularly tender with her. Focus on the feeling, because it’s that emotion that will make your happily ever after believable.

For more, check out Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance by Angela Knight, ISBN-10: 1596323906 or ISBN-13: 978-1596323902. Angela’s website is

Monday, May 07, 2007

Writers and Depression

One of the posters made a passing reference to depression, which happens to be a hot-button subject with me. That's because you came very close to never getting to read this blog -- or anything else I've written in the past 11 years, because I almost ate my husband's gun.

Eleven years ago, I was working for a religious broadcaster who was, quite frankly, a hypocritical bitch. She was so destructive as a boss, so endlessly critical, that I ended up quitting after two years of busting my backside working for her. I didn't know it at the time, but I also had a nodule on my thyroid that was causing thyroid storms. I plunged into a black depression, complete with delusional thoughts. My marriage began to disintegrate under the pressure. I once whipped my son so badly, I gave him black and blue stripes on his legs -- and I had no idea I'd hit him so hard. (I never spanked him again, btw.) I wasn't able to eat. Even the smell of food made me violently ill.

I struggled with these feelings for the next six months, trying to hold it together and failing. I felt as if I was losing myself. One day I went in the closet and got out Mike's gun. It wasn't because I wanted to die -- it was because I felt I was already dying. Imagine being swallowed by a giant python, feeling yourself being slowly digested. Now imagine you've got a gun. That's what a suicidal depression is like. It's not that you want to die -- you just want to save what's left.

Luckily I had just enough wit to realize Anthony was in the next room. He was 11 at the time, and I knew he'd be the one to find the body. I also knew the children of suicides are more likely to commit suicide. So I put the gun back in the box.

The next thing I knew, it was in my hand and pointed at my chin. I did not remember getting it out again.

It scared the crap out of me. I put the gun away and fled the closet.

When Mike got home, I told him what I'd done. He held me and cried. My big cop cried like a baby. He was a evidence officer at the time, with custody of the evidence from suicides. He said, "Do you want me to show you the photographs? The clothes?"

I had an appointment with the gynecologist the next day, and I told him what had happened. He promptly committed me to a psych hospital. I was terrified, but I knew I needed help. The doctor there told me I was manic depressive. (I wasn't; it was that damn thyroid nodule.)

I can't tell you how crushed I was from that diagnosis. I had always prided myself on my intelligence and wit. Now I could barely string a sentence together, and the same mind I had always prided myself on had turned on me. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to hold a job or live a good life.

But I loved Mike and Anthony and my family, and I held on. It took time -- it was two more years before the thyroid nodule was removed, which greatly helped the depression. But because I did hold on, I was able to rebuild my life. I found I could still create. I got published by Berkley. I've gone on to write more than 20 novels and novellas since my bout of clinical depression, and I'm a best-selling author. I'm living my dreams.

I also got a job with the Spartanburg Herald Journal, during which I carried around a police scanner. Every single day we'd get at least one suicide call, where somebody either attempted suicide or succeeded. It always made my heart ache when I'd hear those calls, because I knew that if the person had gotten help, it could have been avoided.

Once I went to what I thought was a shooting. Turned out it was a suicide. The wife saw me, realized I was a reporter, and begged me not to write a story. I told her newspapers don't cover suicides, and I fled. But the look on her face -- the utter devastation -- is one I will never forget as long as I live. As I drove away I thought, "I don't care what happens, I will never do that to Mike and Anthony."

I'm sharing this painful and humiliating story because I know that some of the people reading it are suffering from clinical depression. Or possibly, one of your family members or your child is suffering from clinical depression. I beg you -- get help. Hold on, even if the symptoms don't lift right away. I struggled for years. Sometimes I still deal with the after-effects. But if I had let the disease take me, I wouldn't have experienced the success and joy I've known since then.

Clinical depression is not the end of the world. It's also not a moral failure or a sign of weakness, anymore than diabetes or heart disease or cancer is. But it can kill you just as quickly as any physical disease. Don't let it. Do something. Go see a doctor. Don't end your future over a temporary problem.

And if you need someone to talk to, you can e-mail me at I'm not a therapist, obviously, but I know what it's like.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Trolls, Snarks and Critics: A Writer's Bestiary

A good writer is a strip-tease artist. In the process of telling her story, she reveals a great deal about herself: what makes her laugh, what makes her cry, what turns her on. That's why the toughest skill for writers to learn is the ruthless objectivity of the craftsman: does this do what I want it to do? Does this have the effect I intend? After all, I'm revealing so much of myself. If it doesn't work, does that mean I myself am flawed?

Well, no. It just means you missed. Not even the best marksman hits the target every time. At the same time, though, if you can't force yourself to look at the target objectively, you won't know if you hit it or not.

Sometimes other people are a better judge of whether you hit your objective. They don't have as much invested in the effort, after all. It's probably taken you a good six months to write this particular book -- days of spilling your guts on the page, of laying it all out with every detail you can imagine as you struggle to create the emotional effect you want. No wonder being objective is so difficult.

That's why online criticism can be either invaluable or incredibly damaging to the artist. If it's truly objective, it can be a golden opportunity to see your work as another sees it and determine if it had the effect you intended.

The trouble is, online criticism is often far from objective, even when it pretends to be. The author of online criticism is frequently grinding an ax of one kind or another. Writers must decide if the criticism is legitimate and should be heeded, or is the product of some kind of agenda. A writer who listens to the wrong criticism can cripple herself with self-doubt and depression. At the same time, though, the writer who automatically rejects all criticism deprives herself of the chance to make her work better.


In one sense, trolls are the easiest creature in the writer's bestiary to spot, but that doesn't make them any easier to take. Like the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale, this kind of online critic springs out at unsuspecting artists with vicious attacks. Often it's because the artist has unintentionally written something that hits the troll's hot buttons.

For example, erotic romance writers tend to attract a species of troll who simply don't like highly sexual content. The romances the troll could once count on for a certain safe content are becoming increasingly sexual, and she finds this threatening. "Smut!" the troll shrieks. "Page after page of smut! Why can't you write like (insert author name here.)”

Because this kind of troll tends to sound just like your maiden aunt, she can trigger all kinds of guilt and anger in the writer. She’s telling you sex is bad, and you’re a slut for writing it. Since erotic romance authors tend to struggle with these feelings anyway, it’s very hard not to explode at the troll.

That’s when it’s time to walk away from the computer. Do not feed the troll. You’re not going to convince her that your books don’t contain too much sex or that you’re not a slut, so don’t even try. In fact, responding to her at all simply validates her opinion by telling her that you care what she thinks. You’ll find yourself in a flame war quicker than you can say “Billy Goat Gruff.”

And you won’t win. Don’t answer her e-mails, don’t respond to her posts. The less time spent on her, the less damage she gets to do to your productivity as an artist. Don’t give her what she wants – which is you, feeling like the slut she’s branded you.


Snarks are those online critics who pride themselves on using humor to puncture artists and writers. Mrs. Giggles is a good example.

Snarks are in many ways more troubling than trolls for a number of reasons. For one thing, they may actually have a legitimate artistic point, whereas a troll is simply irrational and shrill. What’s more, because they use humor to poke fun at the book, they tend to bring out a writer’s inner twelve-year-old, who remembers getting laughed at for wearing something goofy-looking to school.

Anytime a point is made in a biting, clever way, it gains power.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes Snarks go for an obvious joke just because it’s funny, not because the book really doesn’t work. The Snark’s objective is to attract web-traffic to her site, and humor is an effective way to do that. What’s more, if an oversensitive writer shows up to rail at her, she’s got the opportunity of a lifetime. The writer’s fans will also make an appearance, along with various enemies looking to see the writer get her comeuppance. All of which means lots and lots of glorious hits.

Which is exactly why writers should never, ever show up at a Snark site to bitch about a review. One, you’re handing her hits, and two, you’re giving her another opportunity to humiliate you. Which she’s going to do. Even if you feel you’re more than up to out-Snarking her, you’re validating her by admitting her dig hurt. Don’t do that.

On the other hand, sometimes a Snark is also a legitimate critic, and that’s when you need to take her a little more seriously.


As I've said, no writer hits the mark every single time with every single scene. Writers must handle a vast number of difficult tasks in writing a book: beautiful description, gripping conflict, pacing that flows, characterization that makes readers believe absolutely in imaginary people. It’s tough. Sometimes, scenes or lines or perhaps even entire books miss the mark. Our objective as writers is to identify the point at which a book misses and figure out how to avoid that mistake on the next one.

You want people to say of you, “She gets better with every book she writes.”

So when a critique points out a flaw in a book in a rational, objective way – and I’m not talking about, “This book sux!” – you need to pay attention. Think about the comment, even if it stings. Does it resonate internally? I’ve had Amazon reviewers dismiss my books as boring, which is one criticism I’ve never taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve had others who say my weird universe incorporates everything but the kitchen sink, which makes it hard to take seriously. I admit, I think about remarks like that, wondering if I should simplify just a bit in the next universe I create.

You should also take a criticism more seriously if you hear the same thing from a number of people. I’ve had Amazon reviewers complain about Jane’s Warlord because I didn’t make clear that Jane’s father murdered her mother. I didn’t really tie up that particular loose end, a problem I’m going to keep an eye on in the future.

On the other hand, just because a legitimate reviewer makes a comment about a book, that doesn’t mean she’s right. It could be that she simply doesn’t like that particular kind of book, or even that she’d had a really rotten day when she sat down to write the review.

But whether you’re dealing with legitimate critics, Snarks or Trolls, never let anyone’s words keep you from writing or make you feel inadequate. Writing is a learning process. Remember: you may write the book, but you are not the book. The book is a piece of craft, no different from a coffee table. If the legs are a little crooked this time, make them straighter the next. Learn from your mistakes, and incorporate what you’ve learned in the next one.

That’s what truly separates a professional writer from a wannabe.