Start the heart throbs

Back from vacation in sunny Tucson. Thanks for keeping the blog going last week!

Before the post starts, here’s a great, over the top review of my upcoming book, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It:

In August, M.K.B. wrote, ….I’m having some difficulty showing romance in my story. I mean, I can easily show that they like each other, but it’s kind of difficult to decide when it happens and all that. How do I decide when it’s right to show it?

If your story is primarily a romance, you probably want the reader to get that pretty quickly. The two lovebirds don’t have to start cooing as soon as they meet, but the idea should be introduced, not necessarily by the main characters. For example, Jack can be with his friend Kath when she says, “I see you as Romance Guy in a movie.” Jack, astonished, blurts out, “But I have cowlicks!” Kath responds, “Cowlicks are nothing compared to intensity. You are a laser. When you choose someone to focus on, there will be combustion. Trust me.”

Then the story can return to whatever the subplots may be: Jack’s difficulty mastering geography or his general lack of self-confidence (which could affect the romance later on), Kath’s running argument with her older sister, anything. Maybe we glimpse our heroine Wanda alone in the school cafeteria, hunched over a volume of Shakespearean sonnets.

The point is, the reader should know early on what genre he’s wandered into. The book jacket will tell, but we can’t rely on that. If the romantic element is delayed for forty pages the reader is likely to feel confused, maybe even cheated by the hype on the cover.

Then, how quickly the romance develops will depend on your story. Everything can move along at a fast pace if big problems are on the way. The reader will see 200 more pages ahead and steel himself for trouble. Will an old love interest show up? Will Jack’s family be relocated from Cincinnati to Belgium? Will Jack, because of his low self-esteem, doubt Wanda’s affection? Or the romance can be beset with trouble from the start. It can be one-sided, for example, as in Pride and Prejudice. The two can be separated by distance, as in the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, or by misconception, as in the movie While You Were Sleeping, or by a curse, as in You-Know-What. There are myriad devices you can use.

If your story isn’t primarily a romance, you can take your time. Lots of readers like a little love enrichment to another kind of tale. Jack’s problem may be his hyper self-criticism rather than his love life. The climax will center around that. Wanda, who can be introduced on page 112, helps him see himself more positively, and she may provide relief for the reader who is suffering because of his self-negativity. But the primary problem is his to solve.

Or Jack is Prince Jack setting out to reconquer a rogue province overrun by the mole people, and coincidentally his regent’s daughter is being held hostage by the mole folks. There may be merely the slightest hint of romantic possibilities between the dashing Jack and the pulchritudinous Wanda. Nothing has to flower ever.

In a related question, Alex wrote on January 5, 2012, So I have a question about cliches. I know some of them are inevitable, but I want to stay away from them as much as possible.

In my book, I guess you could say the romantic plot starts off as cliche (he’s the new boy in town). But it ends in a way that I don’t think is cliche at all – it’s complicated, but it ends sadly. My question is this – how should I make it so that the beginning, even if it is cliched, keeps readers hooked and not groaning at yet another cliched book? Or is there a way to introduce a male character as someone the MC has never known before in a non-cliched way?

Later, Alex added, ….The thing is, it doesn’t start off as a romance, not really. The romance starts around 27k in. And the romance is just a subplot. I’m just worried that people will think it’s like all the other Insta-love YA romances there are today, when it’s not.
I mention the reader a lot on the blog. I’ve even brought him up a few times in this post, but I think we tend to worry about him too much sometimes, and we don’t give him enough credit. If he’s reading Alex’s book and he’s 27k in (not sure how far in this is, but I’m guessing it’s beyond the first chapter), he should know by now that the story isn’t cliched.

People travel. Boys and girls arrive in towns, are treated well or badly, fall in love or not, stay for years or leave quickly. There’s drama in a new personality acting on the old cast of characters, either from the POV of a long-time resident or of the newcomer. If we avoid writing about this for fear of introducing a cliche, we’re cutting ourselves off from an important subject.

An old post is about cliches. You can reread it at But that post is about cliched language not cliched ideas. What’s important about ideas is how they’re expressed: what the writing is like, how the idea is developed. One might make a case that romance itself is cliched, but zillions of books, poems, movies, operas, plays have been written on the subject and people keep finding something fresh to say.

I don’t mean there isn’t work that’s unoriginal. We’ve all started books or movies and known what’s coming next. The problem in these imitations may be a failure of invention or timidity, but I doubt it’s simply the new guy in town.

Of course, you can change the newness. Sean can be new because he’s returning after an absence. Maybe he suffered a long illness or an alien abduction or two years at a school for acrobats. He’s old but he’s new. Or he can be old but changed. He’s had an epiphany. He’s out of pig wrestling and into Edwardian novels. Or he had a quick, overnight alien abduction. Or his mother died. So he’s different. Or Amy is changed; she perceives Sean in a new way because she’s given up pig wrestling or been abducted by aliens or her mother died.

Here are four prompts:

∙    Challenge yourself. Think of unusual ways to separate your lovers. Write a list of ten possibilities. Pick one or more and write a story.

∙    Here’s what I think may be an unusual pairing: She’s a dryad who’s been in her tree since ancient times. He’s modern, a techie, forest phobic. Write their romance. Try it from one POV and then switch.

∙    Write a scene between Jack and Wanda if the story is about his lack of self-confidence. Allow the romance to develop but don’t let it solve his problem.

∙    Amy returns to school after a weekend in a spaceship with aliens from Alpha Centauri who impress her with their civilized ways. She finds herself viewing her own classmates as savages, except for Sean, whom she now sees in a new light. Write a lunch scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Between a Rock and a Can of Worms

Last Thursday, a guest came and talked to the kids in my creative-writing workshop in Brewster, New York. Our visitor was Patricia T. O’Conner (spelled correctly with an e), word maven and author of many books about English. I discovered Pat because I often listen to the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC (online or at 93.9 FM, 820 AM) and I always listen when Pat is on, which is the third Wednesday of every month at about 1:30 pm. Pat is delightful, and she and Leonard Lopate have great fun with our wild and wayward language. To the workshop kids, she discussed etymology in general, the roots of some particular words, and a few reasons for the oddities of English spelling and punctuation. She was wonderful, and the kids were, too, asking questions, taking notes, obviously fascinated.

Before she came, I wasn’t sure her presentation would fill our hour-and-a-half, which it did, but I prepared for any leftover time, just in case. In her books, Woe Is I Jr. and Woe Is I for grownups, Pat devotes most of a chapter to cliches, so I prepared a bunch of writing prompts for the kids, which I will use tomorrow, involving cliches. You get to try them out first.

Cliches survive on their power. Some, like “blanket of snow,” are just catchy ways to capture an image. But others have tremendous depth. They’re great, except for the small detail of having been way overused.

These prompts go back to my post about the whited sepulcher (WS). You can revisit it or just recall that a WS is a person who seems good but is really evil. I picked cliches that I think are meaty.

• Between a rock and a hard place. What is the rock and what is the hard place that motivates your WS? I harbor the happy idea that villains are villainous out of internal or external desperation. How does this operate in your villain? Invent a scene that shows these forces at work.

• Makes him (or her) tick. This is similar to the first prompt, but you don’t have to treat it the same way. Maybe visit the WS’s childhood and write a flashback that shows how he became bad.

• Calm before the storm. Write a scene with rising tension that reveals what sets your WS off. You may want to bring a victim into this scene.

• Can of worms. The brain of a WS is likely to be an unpleasant place. What goes on in the mind of your WS? Write what she thinks before she falls asleep or when she wakes up or when walking down the street. Consider how her thought process may be different from the thoughts of ordinary people – more chaotic, more disciplined, more or less fully formed. Pay attention to the way you think so you have a model to move away from.

• Cut to the chase. Write a tense beginning that shows your WS in action.

• 24/7. Show how your WS never has time off from his evil. Maybe his thoughts won’t give him a break. Maybe as soon as he performs one heinous act, the urge rises instantly to perform another. Maybe he ticks off his villainy the way we check off items on a shopping list. Comedy is always possible.

• World class. Show your WS getting the best of another baddie or a clever and powerful good opponent. Let your reader see what the WS’s victim (not super powerful, not extraordinarily clever) will be up against.

If your WS keeps turning into a hero, don’t worry about it. She may show her awful side eventually, or not. Just keep writing.

When you play out a cliche without using its words you freshen it up and get to the core that made it a cliche. By the way, Pat says, and I agree, that cliches are fine, sometimes great, if used well and sparingly. They’re also impossible to eschew completely, so don’t go on a witch hunt (cliche!) to eliminate every one.

Here’s a link to Pat’s scintillating website:

Have fun with the prompts and save what you write!