Writing as Adria Townsend and J. S. Laurenz

Friday, April 29, 2011

Read Horror to Write Romance?

In honor of the royal wedding today, I’m giving away two copies of To Conquer the Heart of a King at the Jump Seat Book Club.  http://www.facebook.com/#!/JumpSeatBookClub

And here's the answer to the last teaser:  "Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book" is attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero. 
The more things change, the more they stay the same...

And here's an essay I wrote that could be called:  Everything I know about writing love scenes, I learned from a horror writer. (Warning, if you haven't read The Dead Zone, there are spoilers here!!)

A bad sex scene can turn a romance novel into a horror.  Conversely horror novels can offer great sex.  Stephen King is famous for fright, but his real specialty is finely-crafted stories that cover the range of human experience and emotion. Whatever he writes about, he does it with honesty, clarity, tension and passion.  It works for horror and it works especially for romance.  The author of The Dead Zone can teach writers of any genre something about erogenous zones and how to portray them on the page, without scaring readers.


In The Dead Zone, the hero is a regular guy.  John Smith—an everyman.  He loves an ordinary woman, a schoolteacher, Sarah Bracknell.  Before they can consummate the relationship, he has an accident and goes into a coma.  For four years, or roughly 200 pages.  For romance novels that’s too long, but there’s nothing wrong with creating tension and a good reason to keep lovers apart. 

Appearances aren’t everything--strong vs. weak words

In The Dead Zone, when John comes out of his coma, he’s emaciated, a shell of his former self.  Weak.  But he just looks weak, he has an inner strength that doesn’t need to rely on physical appearance.   Just because a person is flashy or good-looking, doesn’t mean he or she is good in bed, and just because a word is flashy, doesn’t mean it works in a sex scene. 

Writing experts advise us to avoid weak verbs, and scorn “to be.”  Never write:  there is a house on a hill.  Write:  A house straddles the hill.  In sex scenes that concept can come across as forced.  In setting up the love scene between John and Sarah, King often uses “to be”:    “There was the sweet smell of the hay.  Time spun out.  There was the rough feel of the army blanket, the smooth feel of her flesh, the naked reality of her.”  Here it works as anything but weak.  It’s immediate, and most importantly unpretentious.  Honesty and good intentions, rather than acrobatics.  That’s what lovers (of words) appreciate.

Talking dirty and foreplay. 

It’s surprising how many female writers of romance make the same mistake men do in real life.  To grab readers by the throat, they go straight for the sex organs, completely ignoring the neck and a myriad of other places humans love to be touched.  Unless the scene calls for a quickie, don’t skip the warm-up, or ignore less excitable body parts in an attempt to create excitement.

Here are the only body parts King mentions in his scene:  stomach, face, legs, knee, back, shoulder blades, hips, hair, chest (his not hers), shoulder, fingers, bare toes, belly.  It’s possible and maybe even preferable to bring a scene to climax without mentioning unmentionables.

Here are some of the ways King describes the scene: 
“Her hand touched him like silk.”
“Sinking into her was like sinking into an old dream that had never been quite forgotten.” 
“Her voice is rising excitement.  Her hips moving in a quickening tempo.  The touch of her hair was like fire on his shoulder and chest.  He plunged his face deeply into it, losing himself in that dark-blonde darkness.” 

He does not use euphemisms.  He uses verbs like sinking, rising, plunged, not always to describe the sex act itself, but to describe the feelings that go with it.  The words convey a sense of losing control, as the lovers give themselves over to each other physically and emotionally.


Setting.  Where sex takes place is just as important as how.  “The sound of the barn creaking gently, like a ship, in the October wind.  Mild white light coming in through the roof chinks, catching motes of chaff in half a hundred pencil-thin sunbeams.  Motes of chaff dancing and revolving.”  In describing the setting, comparing it to the motion of a ship, or describing how the motes dance and revolve, he mirrors or intimates the motion of the two lovers without being explicit. 

Be spontaneous

When writing a love scene, don’t stop to organize thoughts or smooth out word choice.  How unromantic is it when your lover takes the time to fold his clothes neatly and place them over a chair instead of letting them drop to the floor.  Or worse, takes a few minutes to straighten out his sock drawer while he’s at it. 

In King’s essay, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully  - in Ten Minutes” (reprinted in Sylvia K. Burack, ed.  The Writer’s Handbook.  Boston, MA:  Writer, Inc., 1988:  3-9) he writes: 
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.  There are no exceptions to this rule.  You think you might have misspelled a word?  O.K., so here is your choice:  either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain -  or just spell it phonetically and correct it later.  Why not?  Did you think it was going to go somewhere? . . .  You can check it…but later.  When you sit down to write, write.  Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.” 

Don’t stop the action or interrupt the rhythm of a love scene for anything.  Let it flow.  If thinking too much during the actual act of sex is a problem, it’s an even bigger problem in writing about it.  

No sex without love.

Or at least not without emotional investment.  King’s characters have depth.  The kind of people you know well enough to marry vs. the kind you’ll have a one-night stand with.  Sarah and Johnny don’t make love until page 204.  They’ve suffered.  They’ve made choices that have kept them apart, and life has made choices for them.  The reader has invested in them, because King has invested in the characters.  Romance novels can sometimes come across as prostitution.  The author forces two characters together to make a buck.  There’s not much in the way of connection beyond a physical coming together.  To make a scene more emotionally authentic, consider yourself more a matchmaker than a pimp.


The language that is.  King throws out all the unessentials in the climax to the scene.  Sentence fragments mimic the breathlessness of lovers.   Short and long sentences dictate the rhythm and speed.  There is a sense of order being fractured, of thought being scattered.   
“Time spinning out in the sweet smell of hay.  The rough-textured blanket. . . She cried out.  At some point she cried out his name, again and again and again, like a chant.  Her fingers dug into him like spurs.  Rider and ridden.” 
That last metaphor is presented without a verb, but it works perfectly to convey the action and their interaction with an image, being explicit without being graphic, or pornographic. 

It’s not fear that keeps King’s readers up all night long.  It’s his craftsmanship, and his honest way of working with words to create tension, suspense and a sense of deep emotion. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011


The cover for To Conquer the Heart of a King is featured at the Cover Art Review today (April 21).  They put a different cover up each day and readers are encouraged to comment on them and guess the genre.
It will remain up for awhile.  Scroll down to April 21st. 

Amy Lynch designed my cover.  She was great to work with.  Her info is: 


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Indie Jones and Raiders of the Lost Art

Last week I brought up Bufo Calvin’s estimate of 20,000 electronic Indie titles appearing per month.  Should we be surprised that everyone’s writing a book?  Not at all.  Since that first prehistoric campfire, we missing links have loved to listen to stories and loved to tell them.  It’s what made us human.  Cave paintings aren’t hunting diagrams, they are mystery suspense thrillers about the one that got away (be it the cave girl or the saber-toothed cat).  I’m all for going back to our spontaneous stone-age campfire days…as long as we can still have marshmallows. 

Story-telling is a lost art, not because people stopped telling stories, but because we’ve fallen into the belief that they can only be funneled through certain channels like tradpubs to be legitimate stories.  The elusive traditional publishing contract has long been seen as the Holy Grail.  Now readers are finding the landscape littered with other valuable artifacts, if they’re willing to do a little digging, by downloading sample chapters and reading blurbs. 

Speaking of stories, I met Al Hyslop ten years ago in upstate New York when he was directing citizen theater.  He has been an actor, a journalist, and most famously the Executive Producer for Captain Kangaroo and later a producer for shows like Sesame Street and 3,2,1 Contact.  I had the great pleasure of interviewing him.  His deft and clever answers which I collected for the locally-owned Chronicle of Glens Falls have shaped my view of the entertainment business.  Given his varied background, I posed this question:  Are you an actor that directs, or a director that acts?

He gave me this answer:  “I describe myself as a storyteller. I don’t mean I’m a liar, I mean I’m engaged in the business of telling stories.  Whether one does it as an actor, director, makeup person, stage manager, producer, or writer, it’s still trying to do the same thing.”

Whether I’m writing a travel article, recording an interview, digging into creative nonfiction, or making stuff up in a romance novel, I concentrate on that mantra from Al Hyslop:  good stories, well told. 

It’s that simple, because it’s what we are.  Our lives are stories.  There’s a beginning, a middle, and a most definite end.  (I think fiction is our way of trying to change that ending.)  It’s not rocket science (unless you’re writing the history of rocket science…).  Woody Guthrie once said, when playing guitar you only need to know two chords.  Three if you’re trying to impress a girl.  In writing romance, I’m out to impress women (and men, if they’re interested) who are looking for a story filled with tension, love, longing and a happy ending that doesn’t insult their intelligence.  I’m looking to entertain. 

The reason I keep dropping names is to prove how connected we are.  It’s obvious now, more than ever, with our social networks and virtual communities, but those are just mirrors held up to the nurturing communities we’re born into or move into, or create. 

Thanks for dropping into the dime store neighborhood. 

Next up on the cowgrrl blog, I’ll tell you who the following quote is attributed to.  You could, of course, just google it in the meantime, but before you do that, try to guess who it’s from, and more importantly when it’s from!!

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
I’ll leave you with some more of my favorite quotes from Al Hyslop about his Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street days, excerpted from The Chronicle of Glens Falls:  

Q: When the camera was off, did the puppets, like Mr. Moose or Rabbit go right back in their boxes?
A: The puppets were ever-protected at Kangaroo.  No one was ever allowed in the studio, no one ever saw a puppet off somebody’s hand, nobody ever saw the Captain out of costume.  Indeed he got very upset if people recognized him on the street. 

Q: Why? 
A: For the age group of children involved, he was concerned not to shatter their illusions. We were very protective when he was in costume.  He was referred to as Captain, you never said Bob to him.

Q: What was it like working with Jim Henson and Henson Associates? 
A: They were terrific, they were extremely talented and at the same time, and these often go together, extremely hard-working and conscientious. What makes it fun is that it is serious business. 

Q: Any guest stars stand out in your mind? 
A: At one time or another, everybody appeared on Sesame Street, and/or wanted to.  You could be a major star, but the only way you were going to get respect from your children was if you appeared on Sesame Street

Q: What’s the difference between working with a professional actor and working with the citizens of Chestertown? 
A: If people take it seriously, whether they’re professionals or not, it doesn’t make any difference. What’s appealing is that it’s a human activity, and what one tries to do is exploit the rich variety of human experience. 

Q: What advice do you have for someone in this profession?
A: The chances of having a career as a performer are tiny.  It has a certain amount to do with talent and appearance and a vast amount to do with luck.  If you find the business appealing, then the opportunities are much broader.  Find a theater or a television crew and volunteer for any production opportunity.  They need runners, they need crowd control, they need somebody who can handle a screwdriver, somebody who can get coffee.  One must be willing to get coffee! The more experience you get, the more valuable and ultimately invaluable you become.