Bone Some Shit Up!

This past weekend, I was at the New England Chapter of the RWA’s annual conference, in Burlington, Mass. NEC is my home chapter, and I was equally honored and horrified when I was invited to be the conference’s Saturday luncheon speaker. For two full days before I actually gave the speech, I didn’t sleep much, and I felt sick—high from the stress hormones—and my mouth tasted disgusting, and my sweat reeked of onions, and my pee smelled like toxic waste. I was terrified. But I survived it, and my various secretions have thankfully returned to their usual, alluring bouquet. And afterward, a lot of really lovely people said really lovely things about the speech…including Suzanne Brockmann, to whom I probably responded with something like, “You’re Suzanne Brockmann! I am so sweaty to be talking to you!” Anyhow, a few people have since said that they wished the speech had been recorded, so others could listen. It wasn’t, but I went ahead and recorded it myself—I did so using my phone, so the sound quality’s crummy. But better crummy than nothing!

Posting it here seemed a natural choice—I developed it around some key feelings I first explored on Wonkomance, in a few different posts, over the past couple years. Basically, it’s all the things I wish I’d been told by somebody, as I was first getting into publishing. It’s really dorky and full of swears, and I hope maybe it’ll prove useful to someone, so here’s a link. Enjoy!

Cara McKenna, 2014 NEC-RWA conference speech (re-recorded, not live)

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The Love Graph

I love arranging. Organizing. Boxes, drawers, cabinets. Charts, lists, spreadsheets. Order out of chaos. In my mind, Heaven looks like a fantastically enormous, perfectly-organized closet.

Arranging is my thing. It’s not just fun. It’s essential. When I’m stressed, I clean my desk and fold laundry. Some people take walks or long showers when they need to work out the solution to a problem. I make a schematic of it.

When my workshop proposal on character development was accepted for the upcoming NEC RWA conference in May, I looked at my handouts—character interview, plot summary, emotional milestones checklist—and realized that I was missing a way to introduce the workshop. How was I going to explain why this stuff was relevant? How could I frame the exercises so that everything spoke to a purpose that made this more than a step-by-step guide to writing well-developed characters?

It was a conundrum.

So…I made a graph. A looooooove graph.

And when it was done, suddenly the entire workshop—not just the introduction—fell into place. Not just that, but the love graph helped me work out a few things in my manuscripts that I’d been struggling with. It was neat, orderly, visual—it was my thing.

So what does the love graph look like? Well, here it is:

Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah. Some people call me the graph of love.

Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah. Some people call me the graph of love.


How the main characters perceive themselves in terms of readiness (for love, for a quest, for friendship, for whatever the core story involves) and how actually ready they are might not look exactly like this. In other words, the exact measurements of readiness aren’t that important to the why of writing well-developed characters. Rather, it is the trajectory that matters, and the difference between self-perceived and actual readiness just after The Challenge (heroine discovers that hero started dating her because of a bet, bad guys capture the superhero, and so on). The characters have to be developed in such a way that they think they aren’t ready to handle The Challenge, but in fact they are. And in romance novels, that has to happen for at least two characters (Yet another reason why romance novels are so complex and difficult to write!)

The cool thing is that, in making this graph to help me figure out how to explain why character development was important, I ended up with more material that I can actually use in the workshop.

What about you? Do you have a “thing” that you do when you’re mulling over a problem or want to just relax? Share examples, stories, tips and tricks—anything!

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I thought I was writing a contemporary romance until the hero pressed the heroine against her office door and fingered her while her administrative assistant worked less than ten feet away. Then I realize it was actually an erotic romance. Not because there was anything particularly kinky about the scene, other than the danger of being caught and the possibility of being observed, but because the heroine’s character arc was absolutely and completely tied to her experience of sex. There was no way she could have had the set of realizations she needed to have without engaging in messy, semi-public sex with this particular, complicated hero. And by extension, there is no way I can tell her story, no way I can convince you of what she has learned and how deeply tied in it is to her as a character, without showing you exactly what happened between them.

But then yesterday I wrote the book’s dark moment, and I realized that I’m not writing an erotic romance, I’m writing a contemporary romance. Because the messy, semi-public, complicated sex is actually just a metaphor for the messy, semi-public, complicated nature of love. All the sex scenes I’d been writing, they were not about her coming into her own sexually. They were about her coming into her own as a person capable of love.

The point I’m lurching towards here is that there’s no clean way to define the different between the two, because there’s no way to separate romantic love from sex. By romantic love (or sometimes we even call it erotic love), we definitionally mean something physical. It’s how we recognize it, it in fact, how we know the difference between friendship and something much deeper and more life altering. At the moment the body enters into it, the territory changes, and with it, a huge number of our expectations.

I had a conversation the other day with my walking buddy, who is also a romance writer. She’s written a lot of erotic romance, and she said that she thought that the kind of erotic romance that has become most marketable, romance where a particular kink or fetish takes center stage, was troublingly inherently unromantic. Because fetish, by definition, means that there is a thing or act that is the focus of sexual need, not a person. And for romance readers, who want to see a connection between people (not between a person and an act), that’s not satisfying.

Unbound_medI pointed to Cara McKenna’s Unbound, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read about how this doesn’t have to be true. Unbound contains an extremely compelling argument (to borrow language from a discourse recently elevated by Mary Ann Rivers here and Ruthie Knox here and here) that loving someone who needs a physical object or act to get off doesn’t have to diminish the intimacy or intensity of the love. And this makes intuitive sense to me, because the kind of love we care about as romance writers and readers already puts an object and an act between us and the beloved—the body, and sex. And it shouldn’t matter how much more complicated you make this body or this act, how thoroughly you tattoo it, how you restrain it or bind it, what fantasies you introduce, how you flirt with what is social unacceptable or even (some would argue) legally dubious—what matters is the nature of the love and the way the body becomes a vehicle for its expression.

I didn’t spent a lot of time arguing with my walking buddy, because she’s written, like, twenty erotic romances, and I have, by most definitions, written exactly zero, but I still think she’s wrong—kink and fetish aren’t inherently unromantic. They’re only unromantic if we let them distract from rather than amplify the emotional argument of the story—just as, in life, they’re only unromantic if they distract from, rather than amplify, our growing intimacy with another vulnerable human being.

I started this post disingenuously, in a way, by making as fine a distinction as I could between what it means to write contemporary and what it means to write erotic, but ultimately, what I’ve decided is that for me, there’s no distinction. Because for me, there’s no distinction between romantic love and erotic love, no distinction between loving someone romantically (which is to say body and soul) and erotically (which is to say body and soul), no distinction between revelations you have about your physical needs and those you have about your very human craving to find someone to respect and revel in and grant those needs.

Writing romance, for me, is about exploring exactly that place where those things bleed over into each other.

(If you’re interested in this topic, and you haven’t yet, you should read this “Wonko-Weigh-In” post in which we tried to break down the definitions of erotic romance and erotica.)

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments