Annie West

Emotion. Excitement. Passion.

USA Today Best Selling Author
"This is what a love story should be." - RT Book Reviews

On Writing

  1. Creating a Strong Hero (or Heroine)
  2. Creating Happy Endings
  3. Cutting Your Manuscript to Size
  4. So You Want to Be a Full Time Writer?
  5. The Fine Art of Turning Dreams into Reality
  6. The Heart of the Alpha Hero
  7. The Power of Scent
  8. Time to Write
  9. Writing Fiction is Such a Solitary Occupation
  10. Video - Writing for Harlequin Presents
  11. Creating Simultaneous Stories

Creating a Strong Hero (or Heroine)

What makes a strong hero? How do you write a man readers can fall in love with, even if at times they may not approve of everything he does?

In recent weeks, as I finish the book that’s due I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good, strong, appealing hero. I want to get mine down on the page just the way I see and hear him. I want to reveal both his positives and the negatives, in a way that will make him appeal to readers as he does to me. In between times I’ve been reading a lot of romances, and discovering a whole set of new heroes and heroines. Some successful and some less so, for me at least. That made me think carefully about how to make a hero (or heroine for that matter) who is strong and heroic. Of course there’s no one simple answer and heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some traits they might show.

Commitment, dedication and determination. Over the weekend I watched the men’s final of the Australian Open Tennis Tournament, when an obviously injured Rafael Nadal, the favourite to win, continued to play out the match despite his pain. The commentators talked about grit and determination and heroism. Whatever the reasons for him continuing to play on: a dislike of giving up, a hope of achieving a miracle and winning despite his back injury, a desire not to disappoint the huge audience who’d come to see this final event, you couldn’t but admire him as he forced himself to keep going even when it was clear he had trouble moving around the court. I think most of the crowd watching would have been elated if he’d finally won through because he’d struggled so valiantly.

The fact that he obviously cared about what he was doing, endeared him to many. If your man is dedicated to achieving something and refuses to give up, despite the cost to himself (despite obvious pain, for instance), he stands out as someone worth noting. Perhaps he’s committed to a cause or a goal or an ideal. This can be very appealing (unless for instance his goal is world destruction). It’s good to see a character who is not focused solely on himself. Heroes can be selfish, but I can’t imagine falling for a hero who never in a whole book steps beyond that to give a thought to others, including the heroine.

If the odds are stacked against him and he has to struggle and persevere, all the better. When we see someone battling the odds to win something that’s important to him, we’re likely to barrack for him, hoping he succeeds. A spot of bravery doesn’t hurt either!

Personally I love a hero who is competent. It might be at negotiating peace talks or rescuing hostages or fixing the plumbing or finding a way to settle screaming children and give the heroine a little peace and quiet. No hero is going to be great at everything and a character who never puts a foot wrong can irk, but give him something to be good at. And don’t simply tell the reader he’s good at it, show us on the page.

I recently read a book where the main character was referred to continually as being outstanding at her job. Yet the whole book consisted of instances where she was so unprofessional others had to pull her out of trouble (yes, this applies to heroines as well as heroes) while she had one melt down after another. Of course there will be times when trouble strikes – it’s what we expect in a story! But having a character who never manages to live up to their promise isn’t the best way of creating a hero.

If you think your hero isn’t particularly strong compared with other characters, consider giving him a position of power or dominance. If it’s a position acquired by his own hard work or intellect so much the better. If it’s inherited, it’s still an opportunity to show him as accustomed to handling power. Not every hero will be a rich man or a king, but show him in a situation where he rises above the crowd and you’ll have readers sitting up and noticing.

Think about the relationship between the hero and heroine. It can be hard to balance the power play between them. A strong hero needs a strong heroine, not a wimp, and a heroine who can just walk roughshod over her partner without a whimper isn’t likely to find too many friends either. Showing your hero is strong enough to share power with his heroine is important too.

First published on the Pink Heart Society Website

Creating Happy Endings

We all know that one of the things romance novels of every type have in common is their happy ending. We expect it, anticipate it and enjoy it. Woe betide any writer who doesn’t deliver! It mightn’t be a surprise that hero and heroine end up together but that doesn’t mean authors can get away with a slapdash effort where the hero declares his undying love and the heroine accepts him but the reader is given nothing more to explain how it is that the pair overcame all the obstacles in their path.

The ending is the pay off for readers. We’ve invested time and energy in seeing this pair through the trials and tribulations of their story. We’ve ridden that emotional rollercoaster for a whole book and now we want to be convinced that happily ever after is possible, not just possible but inevitable. That their love conquers all else, and that they truly will be happy together. We want to feel the emotion of that moment and if we don’t…well we mightn’t read too many more books by that author again! They say a great opening grabs the reader and sells the story. A satisfying ending will make the reader want to read the author’s next book.

It’s crucial that aspiring authors focus on getting their opening right. But without a great ending all the work that’s gone before is for nothing. The fact is that terrific, sigh-worthy endings don’t often just pop into a writer’s head to be tossed off before their first cup of coffee for the day. They take work and planning. It’s the writer’s job to deliver that tried and true happy ending, but in a way that’s unique to this hero and heroine, in a way that wraps up the story completely and makes the reader sigh or smile or dab a tear, but above all, makes the reader feel good about the whole reading experience.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned about happily ever afters, from being both a reader and writer.

Don’t rush. In your mind the story may be all over since, as the author, you know how all the problems have been resolved. However, this is a stage readers love to savour. The moment when, beyond all apparent hope, the dragons have been vanquished and H&H are committing to each other or at least allowing for the possibility of commitment. If there’s a declaration of love and an acceptance and suddenly it’s the end of the book, we’re left wondering why that didn’t happen 200 pages ago. The characters as well as the readers need to feel the significance of this moment.

So, don’t just give us the words, show us the emotions as well. We want the characters to rejoice in their happy ending so we can too. Talking heads at this point rarely satisfy.

Tie up all the loose ends. There’s nothing worse than finishing a book and then thinking ‘Hey, wait a minute! What about…?’. Even if it means making a running sheet of all the points you need to cover in the last chapter or so, it’s worth doing it. This ending needs to convince and for that to happen, all those threads need to tie together.

Which leads me to consistency. If you wrote the whole book on the basis of a conflict because of X (eg. hero’s fear of blonde women, or his goal of saving his ancestral home, or heroine’s determination never to marry a man who isn’t called Ernest) then you can’t expect the reader to accept a happy ending if that X factor isn’t resolved. If we don’t see and believe the hero accepting that a woman with red hair can be even more attractive, or see him change his name to Ernest to win the heroine, the obstruction that kept them apart still exists. It’s no good airily saying, for the sake of convenience, that he/she sees this no longer matters. That would make a mockery of the story you’ve just written. If it still mattered to them a couple of chapters ago, we need to see and believe in the change in their perspective.

Similarly, if your hero has been laconic or even terse to the point of gruffness for the whole book, it’s a bit much to expect he’ll suddenly talk non stop for pages without breath, describing to the heroine how he fell for her. And, if he’s one of those heroes who treats her badly earlier in the story, it’s not enough for him to wave his hand and say that was because he was falling for her and resisting his emotions. Again, we need to see him come to that realisation and make amends. If he’s going to grovel make it good, and don’t think that a page of penitence at the end will excuse everything. Make him (and, for that matter, her) WORK for this happy ending.

Make sure the black moment that leads to the resolution of the story has real impact. Make the stakes high. This works best when characters must confront their worst fear or face a reality they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. Their love should give them a new perspective. In my, PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE Tamsin faces the realisation she’s been used by the hero, which taps into a lifetime’s fears and ingrained beliefs about herself. Yet she can’t just walk away, she must face the truth. For Alaric, his moment of truth places him in the worst of all positions where duty and love are pitted against each other with no easy solution. He faces a future that embodies everything he’s spent his life avoiding because it evokes his darkest fears and his hidden weaknesses.

Sometimes an external event can help you get your characters to the sticking point to face their unresolved issues. But beware using too often the deus ex machina (the ‘God in the Machine’) where fate intervenes out of the blue with a convenient accident or crisis that has nothing to do with the love story. Yes, this can work wonderfully, and some terrific romances use this device. But it has to be managed carefully so it doesn’t feel like the author is taking the easy way out. Better, if you can, to come up with a crisis that is in some way integral to the rest of the story.

This is the moment when your hero and heroine need to shine. Keep the focus on them. Some very skilled authors can write a final scene with a cast of hundreds in attendance, but for beginner writers in particular, make it easy on yourself and give the hero and heroine some time alone if you can to sort out their happy ever after.

Good luck!

First published on the Pink Heart Society website

Cutting Your Manuscript to Size

You finally finish your story and find it’s over word count for the publisher you’re targeting, or for the short story contest you want to enter. So comes the process of cutting your manuscript. Even if you’re self-publishing and there are no guidelines on story length, it’s useful to review your manuscript and make it as tight as possible.

And if you tend to write under the target word count, there are times when pruning is useful too!

Some writers like me tend to write longer than the publisher’s word count, so pruning back is vital. But it’s not just about cutting for the sake of cutting. I find that trimming my story focuses my attention on what’s important on the page and what isn’t. It helps me cut through waffle to get right to the heart of the story. That helps with the pacing and the emotional punch of the story.

Recently a friend, who doesn’t usually have the problem of going over her publisher’s desired word count, was asked to cut a little off her manuscript. She said later it was a great exercise in discovering what she’d written that wasn’t really necessary. So, whether you struggle to get as high as the requested word count, whether you absolutely need to trim to get down to it, or whether you’re just interested in making the story as tight as possible, these suggestions may help.

First up, if you can, leave a little time between finishing the story and editing. Time and the distraction of other work can help you identify areas for improvement.

Second, try another medium. If you write and revise on the computer, try printing a copy and sitting with a pen in hand in a space well away from where you write. It’s amazing how a different location and different format can help give you a new perspective. If you usually review your work on paper, try reading it on screen too.

Schedule a couple of interruptions. One of our difficulties as writers is that we get caught up in our own stories. That’s actually a huge plus but when it comes to editing, we need to read what’s actually on the page, not get swept up in the drama of the story, which can happen if we immerse ourselves. Get up after a scene or chapter break and stretch your legs, do some chores or anything else that will break the flow just enough that when you go back, you’re viewing the story as an outsider.

Look for well-used descriptors. How often in your manuscript do you refer to your hero’s piercing eyes or strong hands? To your heroine’s golden hair or cupid’s bow mouth or feisty stance? Authors use these tags because they’re relevant to the scene, but also because they lodge in our brain. Do a check on how often you describe your characters using the same words. That’s a chance to cut the description (the reader doesn’t need to hear about his chiselled jaw every time the heroine looks at him) or just to vary your word choices.

Similarly, look for overused actions. Our characters show us how they’re feeling not just by what they say but by what they do. Is your character biting her/his lip every fifth page? Do they pace or prowl or twirl their hair or do anything else multiple times through the story? Don’t cut all of this – it helps us understand and picture the character. But again, check that these actions are used where necessary, not just as a matter of course.

In a similar vein, look out for favourite words that keep appearing in your writing, but don’t necessarily add a lot. ‘Just’ is one that needs watching. So are ‘almost’, ‘really’ and ‘said’ (you don’t have to tag every piece of dialogue in the story). We all have favourite phrases and words that creep into our writing. If you can’t identify them, give ten pages of your writing to someone else and see if they can pick the ones you sprinkle through your work. Then make a list, put it beside your computer and do a search. See if you can eradicate some of them.

Look out for long descriptions. This varies depending on the style of story you’re telling, but if you’re given to pages of description in great detail, take time to ask yourself what that achieves. Can you achieve the same effect and yet crop some of it? The same goes for unnecessary dialogue. If your characters are talking that’s a good thing, but not if they’re talking about the weather or what time the bus goes, or agreeing to do something solely because you need to set up the next scene. Unless that dialogue also moves the story forward it’s likely you can prune it. Don’t forget, as an author you can focus on writing the ‘good bits’. You don’t have to show the characters planning in huge detail why and how they’ll get to the place you want them in the next action scene. You can simply cut and then begin a new scene with them where you want them, with minimal detail on how they arrived there.

Seek out repetition. Not just words you’ve already used but also ideas or issues that drive the characters’ thinking or dialogue. Usually it’s only necessary to tell readers something once and they will remember it. If you’re unsure, twice should suffice. If your character is trawling over the same ground again and again, that’s a perfect place to prune your story and you will improve the pace too.

Consider the number of secondary characters you need. This applies particularly to shorter stories. You may be able to convey what you need without naming and describing every secondary character. You may even achieve the effect you want by reducing the number of characters, perhaps having one person perform a function originally done by two.

When it comes to the mechanics of cutting, you can look for chapters that are particularly long and target those with the aim of reducing each by a page or two. Or you could start with chapters that run over onto a new page by just a few lines, or overly long paragraphs. Cutting doesn’t necessarily mean losing huge slabs of the book. It may be a matter of losing just a word here and there on every page.

First published on the Pink Heart Society Website

So You Want to Be a Full Time Writer?

Hands up those who want to be a full time writer! Maybe it’s a definite goal or possibly just a nebulous dream of one day…

It sounds great, doesn’t it? After all, it means working from home and for many writing doesn’t really seem like work. Not like going to the office every day come hail or shine or dealing with difficult clients/patients/children or any of a thousand other jobs. I’m always fascinated by the number of people who say they’d like to be a full time writer.

I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on what’s involved in being an author. Not the highs of celebrations when a book is sold or gets lovely reader feedback or hits a bestseller list, nor the lows of rejections, but the everyday practicalities of working as an author. I won’t talk about the craft side of writing fiction. That’s a whole other blog (or series of them). Instead I thought I’d share some pragmatic ideas. Everyone’s situation and experiences are different so there’s no one right time to decide to write full time. It’s purely a personal decision. However, here are some things to think about (in no particular order):

  1. Time lags. When I sold my first book a published author advised me not to give up my day job just yet. She wasn’t passing judgement on the quality of my writing, simply mentioning that, with a traditional publisher (self-publishing has established its own set of parameters), money doesn’t necessarily flow fast. You receive an advance when you sign a contract for your book/s. Lovely. If you’re lucky it will be a big advance but that’s not always the case. This is a payment against future royalty earnings. You receive $x dollars advance and you won’t receive any more income on that book until your royalties (the percentage of earnings you are entitled to) exceed that amount. That may take a couple of weeks or a year or it may never happen. You may, possibly, need to survive on what you earn from your advance. On the other hand your book may sell and sell and provide income over many years. The thing to remember is that the release date of your book does not necessarily mean money in your bank account straight away. Depending on how your book is published it may take several months or much more before money starts flowing to you. Some publishers don’t pay advances, so that’s another factor to consider.
  2. No weekly salary. If you’re not good at managing your budget be prepared for the fact that you may be looking at receiving income not weekly or fortnightly but possibly monthly or even 3 or 6 monthly.
  3. Fluctuating income. It’s harder to budget when you don’t know what your income will be. One thing is for sure, it will vary. Some books sell better than others. Maybe one is a far better book, or maybe the cover was more attractive or the back cover synopsis more appealing. On the other hand you may receive lots of lovely fan mail but not so many good reviews. Maybe people are tightening belts due to economic problems and not buying so many books that month. Or maybe you luck out and get a release date at a time when people are looking for just the book you’ve written. Add to that the vagaries of the currency markets (some of us get paid in currencies other than our own) so income can rise or fall on the value of the dollar/euro/pound.
  4. The need to keep yourself fresh. Yes, you need to work hard to succeed as an author, but it’s important too, to take time to ‘refresh the well’. If you’re writing fiction you’re drawing on inner resources and those resources need replenishing. You’ll need to allow yourself some time to do those things that help keep you motivated and creative. For me one of those things is a brisk lakeside walk. But it could be reading, watching movies, getting involved in activities that have nothing to do with writing like volunteering, spending time with friends, travel or research.
  5. The sedentary lifestyle. Beware! Being a writer means long hours sitting at a computer. That can take its toll on your body as you work to meet a deadline or deliver on tough revisions or even just deal with the demands of your inbox. Think carefully about a plan to ensure you stay healthy (yes, I’m talking about exercise and diet and ergonomic furniture).
  6. Others’ perceptions. If you work at home, particularly in a creative endeavour, many people won’t quite understand that you’re running a business. Even your nearest and dearest, those who’ve supported you on the way to publication, are more likely to think because you’re not going out of the house to work, you have more time to run errands, be available to tradespeople, ferry family members etc. Allied to that is that fact that you too, may fall into that habit of thinking, yes, I’ve got time for that, conveniently forgetting the deadline looming in a fortnight.
  7. The dangers of working at home. I hate to say it but being close to your kitchen and your stock of (name the food weakness of your choice) is not always a good idea! There’s also the fact that you will be at home, possibly alone, for long periods. Will you miss the interaction with work colleagues as you sit at your computer? Will you be distracted by the need to tidy the house, cook exquisite meals or basically anything that keeps you from writing that next, difficult scene?
  8. It’s all up to you. Writers don’t get sick leave or any sort of paid leave or employer superannuation. If you can’t write, or choose to distract yourself, no-one else will write that book for you. Are you ready to sit down and write enough, not just to get pleasure from creating a story you love, but to produce books you can sell on a regular basis?
  9. Do you love it enough? You may think from reading the above points that I’m trying to paint the life of a writer as too tough to take on. Absolutely not! I love writing. It’s both a joy and a vocation as well as sometimes being hard work. It can be enormous fun and is one of the most satisfying things I know. I believe that you need to be passionate about your writing to keep at it. If you don’t love what you do, it will probably show on the page and as with any form of self-employment, you need to be prepared to work hard. Why do that if you don’t love what you do? Fortunately romance writing is a thrill as well as a profession.

First published on the Pink Heart Society Website

The Fine Art of Turning Dreams into Reality

We’re all blessed with great imaginations.  As writers, dreams are our stock in trade. We lead double lives: functioning in the everyday world while in our minds a completely different reality takes over. Our brains are peopled by hard men who have everything they could wish for (except the love of a good woman), by werewolves hungrily prowling our city streets, by Cinderellas wearing anything from Regency muslins and kid slippers to joggers and worn jeans.  We look out the window but we don’t see the view, we’re plotting ways to torture our hero and heroine, discovering why our villain is so maladjusted or listening to a character tell us we’ve gone off track and they really wouldn’t act like that.

For ourselves, the dreams are always there. What is it that you secretly envisage? Holding your book in your hands? Giving up the day job and supporting yourself (and the family) with your prose? Idyllic days surrounded by reference books (and personalised stationery) in your custom-built office, whipping off a few chapters before having a well-earned coffee break with your friends? Reading your name on a best seller list?

Writers’ dreams come in many shapes and sizes but we all have them. They’re our secret delight, the incentive that keeps us warm and cosy and committed through the hard slog of finishing that book and sending it out into the harsh world. They keep us motivated, they revitalise us and give us a goal to work towards.

We’ve heard the advice so often: visualise it and it will happen. Think positively. Believe in yourself. Dream it and it will become reality.

It’s all true. Every bit of it.

But there’s another side to this too.  Much as we love our dreams of success, and much as we need them to fuel our efforts, we have to step back from them, regularly and often. It can be a wrench, dragging ourselves away from those delightful visions of success, but believe me, it’s necessary.

You want to be an author. You’re learning your craft, you read about writing and follow market trends. You’ve written a whole manuscript or perhaps several. Success should follow. Unfortunately it’s easy to become complacent that it’s only a matter of time before you achieve success, then frustrated when it takes longer than it should. You hear about others getting contracts and wonder why it isn’t you.

There could be any number of reasons. Timing and luck, for a start. But it could be something that you have control over. You’re dreaming the dream, visualising the outcome you want. But have you done the reality check? Are you serious enough about this business?

Now don’t take offence – I know you REALLY want to succeed. But it’s amazing how we can fool ourselves into believing we’re doing all we can to reach our goal, because we’re writing and pursuing the dream.

A couple of years ago, at an RWA conference in Sydney, presenters posed a number of questions that made lightbulbs flash in my head. They made me think hard about my writing. Was I heading towards my dream or was I letting that dream blind me to things I didn’t want to see?

After a long hard look at my approach to writing, I made some changes and they’ve worked for me.

Here are some of those questions, plus more that I know have made a difference to other writers. The trick is not to be defensive and find excuses for what you don’t do, but to consider realistically what you can change to help achieve your dreams:

  • Do you treat writing as your business? Do you take it as seriously as your day job?
  • Do you write regularly? Do you write only when you feel like it? Do you try to write even if you’re out of your routine? Hey, do you even have a routine?
  • Do you have a writing plan? What will you produce this year? How will that help you achieve your goal?
  • Are your goals achievable given the time you can put into them?
  • Do you meet to discuss your writing or instead, just talk about being a writer?
  • How much time do you spend surfing the net or on loops, talking about writing rather than writing?
  • What are your writing strengths and how are you capitalising on them?
  • Why are you targeting your book to that line/editor? Because you’ve heard they may be acquiring, or because your strengths and writing style mean that’s where your work best fits?
  • Why are you entering that competition? Is it easier than finishing the manuscript?
  • Have you reread the comments on your competition entry even though you didn’t agree with the judges? Did you find any commonality in the comments? Did you attempt to address the issues they raised?
  • When will you have researched enough? Can you start writing now, while you research?
  • Have you submitted a manuscript?
  • Did you leave it first for several months then go back to it with a fresh eye? Was it as tightly written as you could make it? Were you sure there were no rough edges or was it good enough that you hoped the editor would gloss over those bits that might need a little work?
  • Does the opening grab the reader by the throat and not let go? Really? If not, why send it off? (It’s awful to receive a rejection, to reread the partial and realise how much better you could have made it!)

Hang on to your dreams. Cultivate them and use them to keep your enthusiasm alive. But remember, dreams by themselves aren’t enough.  Don’t use them as a convenient shield to avoid making the changes that could help you achieve your goals. Take time occasionally to set them aside and look long and hard at what you’re doing and why. Take stock, adjust your goals and then keep going.

Good luck turning your dreams into reality!

First printed in Hearts Talk (magazine of the Romance Writers of Australia)

The Heart of the Alpha Hero

Alpha heroes are among the most popular in romance and some of the most misunderstood. They’re accused of bad behaviour by some and drooled over by others. They’re what many editors look for (depending on your target audience) and they can be a challenge to write.

So who is the alpha? The label comes from the animal kingdom, where the alpha male is the leader of the pack. He’s the dominant male, the one other males aspire to be, the one who protects his extended family, leading them and if necessary, fighting to the death to save them. An alpha is above all successful. As the leader of a wolf pack he keeps his companions alive and safe and ensures his bloodline continues.

In human form the alpha will be competent in his chosen field of endeavour. He will stand apart from the throng as more capable, more successful. Whether he’s making money, leading armies, saving the planet or pursuing intellectual endeavours, he’ll be outstanding.

To lead and succeed in this way our hero will usually be resourceful, commanding, capable, respected or possibly feared by rivals, a leader, a courageous man who shines in a crisis. He will be intelligent, able to perceive threats and to counter them, whether in a boardroom manoeuvre or while facing down an aggressor. He is often a loner (which doesn’t mean he can’t have meaningful relationships). He isn’t overly concerned by what others think of him.

Arrogant, did I hear you say? Proud? Quite possibly. The alpha hero knows his own worth and works hard at ensuring he wins the battles that are important to him. However, here I’d sound a word of caution. Remember we’re talking about alpha heroes. We’re discussing men who are worthy of our heroines, whom we’d trust with that heroine for the rest of their lives.

Your hero must be heroic. He must be redeemable. Yes, he can do things he later regrets, just as your heroine can, but there must always be a good reason for his behaviour. If you find yourself writing a bully who bosses the heroine around for the fun of it, ask yourself if you’re really writing an alpha hero or a wanna-be, the guy who has acquired power through wealth or family or just sheer physical size and enjoys bending people to his will. Bully is not synonymous with alpha hero. Our guy is the natural leader, the one respected not because he demands it but because others see in him qualities that make him stand out.

That brings us to one of my favourite aspects of the alpha – his code of conduct. The alpha hero is honourable. He has integrity and stands by what he believes in. Sometimes his code of honour doesn’t fit with those around him. He might dare to do things others wouldn’t, he might not share some of their taboos, but he holds true to his beliefs. There are unwritten laws he will not break.

Related to this is his protective instinct. Our alpha hero is passionately protective of those he cares for, or even those he feels unwillingly responsible for. That doesn’t mean he has to smother the women in his life so they never make a decision for themselves, though what a great starting point that would be for a story. He can be self-sacrificing if need be. He will go to enormous lengths to protect or save.

Why does he do this? Partly because he’s the one who can. He has the power or courage or nous to step in and do the job. Partly too because he cares. Yes, your alpha hero may seem separate from the rest, he may be a little aloof, he may not appear to like the heroine, but he is capable of caring. Another thing that sets him aside from the bully boy. Remember the alpha hero has a heart, even if he doesn’t want anyone to realise that.

When the alpha meets the one, right woman for him, he is capable of falling deeply, devastatingly, completely in love. He may not want it to happen. He may resist, seeing it as a weakness. He may rail against it, but he can and does love. Behind the outer strength is a soft heart for the right woman. Being in love the alpha is territorial. He will not brook others trying to poach his woman. In such circumstances his actions will be ruthlessly effective rather than politely hesitant. Remember, this is a man of action. He doesn’t just think about solutions to problems, he acts to resolve them.

The alpha hero is strong, often physically, always mentally. Another key ingredient is his attractiveness, his sexual allure. This hero is masculine, virile, charismatic, sensual. Even if he’s scarred or reclusive, he still has that special something to which a heroine will respond. Did I mention that he’s a passionate lover?

Above all, the alpha hero is capable of providing the heroine with what she needs. He will stand by her when she needs him, he will be a loving, loyal partner. And if the road to happiness is a little rocky to begin with, all the better. After all, we want our romances with a little spice, don’t we?

For me the secret of writing an alpha hero is remembering that there is no one single alpha ‘type’. The characteristics I’ve listed above create a general framework but there is never-ending scope for variation. Personally I’m drawn to protector heroes but I’ve discovered a weakness for the seducer and the tortured hero too. Your alpha might be at the centre of society like Mr Darcy or he could be an outcast like Belle’s Beast. He might be a reluctant hero (one of my favourites, the apparently ordinary man who in fact is an extraordinary hero) or a crusader. He might be frighteningly intelligent like Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond or he might play on his apparent lack of intelligence with truly canny intent like Loretta Chase’s delicious Rupert Carsington.

Whoever your alpha hero is, he knows what he wants and how to get it. For romance readers watching the alpha hero turn his considerable powers to the task of winning that one special woman is perfect entertainment. As Stephanie Laurens pointed out at a Romance Writers of Australia conference, there’s nothing sexier or more riveting than a hero who is totally focussed on the heroine.

Why is the alpha hero so popular? He’s the ultra successful male. Other men aspire to his qualities. Women are drawn to him. He may not be easy to know but he’s definitely worth the effort. For the heroine he’s a challenge or even a threat. He’s also a prize, the perfect partner. He’s the one with the strength to accept her as she is, his ideal match. He’s the embodiment of our fantasies, the rake, the bad boy, the rescuer, the man worth trusting with our hearts.

First published in Hearts Talk (magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)

The Power of Scent

Years ago I was at a management course and the facilitator gave us some exercises that had nothing to with managing staff, finances, crises etc. Lovely! One task in particular remains vivid with me today. She gave us several vials to sniff and then asked us to write down straight away whatever came to mind. For the life of me I can’t remember how that fitted into the rest of the no-nonsense curriculum, but I DO remember its impact.

There’s something about the power of scent, you see, that is particularly evocative. It can conjure a feeling, a mood, a memory, in the blink of an eye. Pens scribbled furiously across paper as the vials were passed around, then stopped as the little bottles reached a colleague near me. It turned out that the scent in the bottle was something he hadn’t smelled in more than forty years and one sniff instantly transported him back to a harrowing, tragic time in his childhood. When volunteers were called, he described that time with tears running unchecked down his face and a look of shock – he’d shoved that memory away and hadn’t visited it during the whole of his adult life. One sniff of that particular essence had brought it all flooding back, including his long-buried emotions.

And this has WHAT to do with writing romances? Well, I’ll give you my take on it. I believe that the use of smells, scents, aromas, are often neglected in our writing. We know that using the five senses when creating fiction can add impact and make our prose vivid. We’ve all heard that advice and we try to implement it. Often though, we stop with what our character sees, hears and feels. What he or she tastes or smells is often neglected.

Please don’t think I’m suggesting that each time you begin a scene you should include a sensory list of everything a character hears, sees, feels, tastes and smells! However, I would suggest that you look through your manuscript and think about whether scent could be used occasionally to make a scene more evocative. Just a reference here or there can help bring a scene alive and place us firmly in the hero/ine’s shoes, experiencing what he/she feels.

The ambience in a room can vary from warm and welcoming to unpleasant or even threatening depending on how it smells. Consider whether it’s scented by baking bread, summer sun, coffee, baby powder, fresh flowers, unwashed bodies, damp, something rotting or fresh blood. Can you use that to give a better impression of the setting for this scene? Can your character smell a storm on the air, fresh mown grass, or even the scent of fear on someone’s skin?

When your hero takes his lover in his arms, what does he smell? Freshly washed hair, expensive perfume, plain soap, the chocolate she’s been devouring while she tries to work out her next chapter? Sorry, had to slip that last one in.  He – and we – can tell something about her from that one indicator.  Perhaps she’s a gardener and has the scent of fresh earth on her hands. Is there a whiff of turpentine, hinting that she paints? The scent of new leather from her expensive just-bought outfit?

Not only can a scent impart information about someone, more importantly, you can bring the reader closer to a character by letting them experience, if only by proxy, what s/he is sensing. The reader can step into your heroine’s shoes more easily if you evoke a situation this way. After all, we’re trying to draw the reader into a whole new reality where she experiences at least some of what our characters do.

In times of heightened emotion some impressions will stick in our minds and scent can be one of them. Perhaps you’re writing a scene where the heroine is getting married. What if she smells orange blossom from her massive formal bouquet and finds the sickly sweet perfume so cloying that she feels nauseous? If she smells the groom’s stale breath, or body odour? If the church is thick with the smell of incense and that adds to her growing sense of claustrophobia? In all these circumstances you can use her reaction to a scent to help us understand how she’s feeling. In this case we’d suspect this isn’t the wedding of her dreams. As a reader I’d wonder if the hero is about to appear and save her from a huge mistake.

If your scene is flat and you’re having trouble bringing it to life on the page, try taking a deep breath and using your sense of smell. It may be just the thing to add a little zing to your writing.

First printed in Hearts Talk (the magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)

Time to Write

Time. It’s in short supply. It’s always precious. We’re often up against it, especially when there’s a deadline looming. We never have enough of it and other people want us to give them ours. Family, friends, net buddies, the day job, editors – they all demand more of it.

First up let me say that I have no magic solution to managing time. But I can mention a few things I’ve discovered to help us to cope better. Perhaps there are points here that strike a chord with you. Better yet, from my point of view, maybe you have a hint that you’d like to share with the rest of us!

Here, in no particular order are some lessons I’ve learned about time. Some seem contradictory but I make no apology – we need different tactics at different times.

Time can be your friend. When you’ve finished your manuscript, let time pass. Don’t send your story off to an editor/agent straight away. If you have no deadline then wait. Start your next project or catch up on the things you neglected while you wrote. Come back to your ‘finished’ manuscript after weeks or, if you can manage it, months. You’ll see your story in a fresh light and notice ways to tighten the writing. Inconsistencies will leap out at you, as they would at an editor. This makes polishing the story so much easier. Take the time to make the story the best you can.

Think about the times of the day when you write best. When do you feel the creative juices flowing? When are you most alert? For many it’s early in the morning and mid to late afternoon. For some it’s the midnight hours. Being perverse, I often find it’s when I’m supposed to be doing something else, like cooking dinner! If it’s possible to set aside those most productive times for your writing, then do it! Grab any natural advantage you can.

On the other hand… remember most of us can’t afford to give up if inspiration doesn’t strike. If this is your writing time, use it to write, even if it feels like you’re pulling teeth rather than writing scintillating prose. If you don’t make the effort to write in the time you’ve set aside for it, you will not produce that book. If you persevere it will usually get easier.

If you know that certain activities stimulate your imagination – like a hot shower or a long walk or even weeding the garden, try to schedule your time so you do that before you sit down to write.

Write often. Some people swear they must write every day or they get out of the habit. Others find it easier to allow a couple of days a week when it’s OK not to write if there are other things pressing on their time. Experiment and find what works for you, but write often. If you go a few weeks then say you just didn’t seem to find the time or you were so tired or life’s just too busy or (horror) you weren’t inspired, then stop and listen to the warning bells. You’re making excuses. It’s time to ask yourself how serious you are about writing.

How long should you write? I’ve heard the advice that if you sit down for 15 minutes a day then you’ll have a book in … days. That works for some people. Alternatively I’ve heard people (who me?) bemoan the fact that if only they could get a solid couple of hours they could finish the chapter/scene. There’s no right answer. It’s a combination of what your schedule will allow and how motivated you are. BUT, it’s easier if you commit to putting aside a certain amount of writing time. If twenty minutes at lunchtime is all you have, then go for it. If you can afford a block of several hours or days (heaven!) then grab it. Beware if you hear yourself say again and again ‘I just can’t get started on this because I need x hours alone on this’. X hours may be what you’d like but it may be a luxury you don’t have. Be realistic about what time is available to you and make the most of it.

Don’t think that the only time you have to write is when you are alone, without background noise, at your desk. (Sighing wistfully here at that delightful picture). Many of us have dead time in our day. Time commuting by train or bus, sitting waiting for children at sport or music lessons, or in waiting rooms with outdated magazines. Use those times to write. You might continue working on the text or jot down some sparkling dialogue. Even points on where the next scene ends, or a character description is time well spent.

Beware of the internet! Sorry, but it has to be said. If you’re not producing but you’re up to date on the latest market trends, news about other writers and how to tips, you need to examine how much time you actually spend writing. How much do you spend on ‘research’ and ‘professional networking’? Limit your time on email or browsing sites. You may have to make a rule that you only enter the web after you’ve written. It sounds desperate, but may make the difference between being a writer and talking about being a writer.

Which brings us to time and bribery. If you have trouble sticking at the writing, try a timer. Set it for a reasonable length of time (try 45 minutes) and make yourself work on your project (without wandering off to watch the kettle boil) until the timer rings. When you’ve done that give yourself a treat (a couple of pages of a book you’re dying to read, chocolate, a walk in the sun, whatever). Or save up your treats till you’ve written like this for a week or two and then celebrate. Acknowledging that time spent with your manuscript can be difficult is not a sin and if the “time writing = I deserve a treat” system works, then go for it! The up side is that in the process you will have got into the habit of writing and will have produced words on the page.

How much research do you need before you start writing your book? Many books need research but remember, some research can be done as you write or even after you have a draft down. If you’ve put off starting the story for a few months or even a year while you research (yes, I’ve seen it happen) then decide whether it’s the research you really want to do or the writing.

Take breaks! Don’t sit at the computer for long stints without getting up and moving about. Not unless you want RSI, a sore back, blurred vision and regular visits to the chiropractor. Take time for regular exercise too – you’ll feel better and more energetic.

Plan your time. Some people love detailed plans with targets for every day or hour, others cringe from it. But if you don’t have a writing plan with an idea of what you can reasonably achieve in the next few months/year, do it now. Be practical. Don’t set goals you have no hope of reaching. Think about the goals you’d like to include (eg. Finish the next 4 chapters and write an outline for a linked story) and how much time it will take to achieve those goals. This process will make you think how badly you want to achieve those goals and how you’re going to make time to achieve them.

Allow yourself time out from your writing, after a project is complete, or throughout the writing process. Time away from your writing is necessary to give your brain a chance to catch up, and to refill the imaginative well. Don’t feel guilty about this time. (But make sure your well refilling isn’t more time consuming than your writing!).

Create a deadline. If that’s what it takes to get you moving, but you don’t have an editor breathing down your neck, make your own deadline. An easy way to do this is to find a contest you want to enter and aim to finish by the due date.

Remember to factor in time for your ‘other life’. We all get absorbed in our current story, but remember to come out of the cave from time to time and smile nicely at those who’ve (hopefully) let you work.

First published on the Pink Heart Society website and Hearts Talk (magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)

Writing Fiction is Such a Solitary Occupation

Writing fiction is such a solitary occupation sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re not alone. It’s easy to become so focused on a story and the imaginary world filling your head that you forget you’re not the only writer slaving over a manuscript or facing a block. Sometimes isolation and quiet is perfect to get the work done. But there are times when that solitude isn’t so healthy.

Writing fiction can be an absolute joy. The characters grab you, the words flow, the next scene beckons with glittering promise. You can’t get the words down fast enough. Days, weeks, hours like that are fantastic moments to be treasured. For, like all professions, writing has its ups and downs. There are days when writing a decent page is like wrestling a herd of hissing cats, when your characters don’t want to come out and talk to you, much less each other, or when feedback from readers, editors, contest judges or reviewers leaves you feeling less than enthusiastic.

It’s those times when it can help to reach out a little, if only to remind yourself that others have gone through the difficult times and survived. That they’ve not only survived but triumphed. That all isn’t lost because the revisions are massive, or the editor loved your voice but not your story, or you received your 36th rejection. I guarantee there’s someone out there who’s just got their 37th.

I’m a believer in the positives that come from mixing with other writers, whether it’s on a regular basis or just once in a while. Depending on what you want and how far you want to venture into the wider writerly world, you can choose from:

  • Local or online writers’ groups where you can chat about books, market changes, or get your work critiqued;
  • Professional writers’ organisations that provide support, information, links to other writers, and possibly writing contests.
  • Blogs where you can exchange views with other readers and writers or maybe pick up some professional tips;
  • Email loops that provide informal support, answer specific questions  or provide a chat forum;
  • Conferences (from the stupendously large to the small and intimate) where you can mix with other writers as well as editors or agents; and
  • Writers’ workshops on specific themes.

In my case, reaching out to other writers helped me become a published author. The first book Harlequin Enterprises bought from me was inspired when I attended a talk given by two multi-published and very generous authors whose books I’d admired for years. Joining professional organisations helped me with the nuts and bolts of the submission process and the friends I’ve made there kept me determined to succeed even when I thought publication was an almost impossible dream.

If you’re wavering about making contact with others, consider these potential benefits:

  • Getting relevant know-how (from how to submit a partial manuscript to what to do if your manuscript suffers from a sagging middle);
  • Obtaining market information;
  • Finding out about the latest technology that can make your business easier (from ergonomic furniture to laptops and everything in between);
  • Understanding the business you’re in (personally I’m incredibly indebted to a number of authors who’ve patiently explained some of the intricacies of publishing);
  • Honing your craft (hands on writers’ workshops can be so helpful). I like the way a good presenter can crystallise and put into words the ideas I grapple with alone;
  • Getting personal feedback on your latest story idea or scene;
  • Receiving support when you need it;
  • Celebrating good news with friends who understand what a ‘good’ rejection means or an acceptance or a bestseller;
  • Discovering that whatever problem you’re facing with your manuscript, or publisher, it’s probably happened to someone before you and they’ve survived; and
  • Feeling that you can do it (write the book, submit the story, enter the contest) after all.

There’s one huge caveat here: your focus still needs to be on finishing the book. I’ve seen too many aspiring writers become distracted, connecting to others or worrying about contest feedback, they forget to get the finished book down on the page!

We each have different needs for solitude and company, for focus and for external stimulation. Just remember that, when you do need an injection of energy or confidence, making contact with your peers can be just what you need. If you’re afraid of becoming distracted by an email loop or a big conference, even following a blog by a writer you admire can give you a pick me up when you need it.  Why not give it a try?

First published in the Seattle Examiner

Video - Writing for Harlequin Presents

Here’s a video filmed in the editorial offices in London, of me giving my top tip for writing Harlequin Presents/ Mills and Boon Modern/ Mills and Boon Sexy. I hope you enjoy it!

Creating Simultaneous Stories

Many writers enjoy working on two (or even more) stories at the same time. But what about writing stories that link and happen at exactly the same time? Now there’s a challenge. And quite a bit of fun too!

I had some experience of writing stories that meshed with other plots unfolding in the same time frame. It happened while writing books as part of multi-author continuities, where characters appeared in several different stories and their romance was going on at the same time, or nearly at the same time. That meant lots of close cooperation with the authors writing those other books, plus agreeing some specific boundaries about when and where things happen.

Recently I tried something different. I wrote stories about two sisters, each wrapped up in their own romance, with each story occurring at the same time as the other. I was thrilled and a little nervous about this project (since named The Princess Seductions duet) but the story lines and characters were so exciting I couldn’t resist.

The premise was this: Amelie is a princess, now guardian for her recently orphaned little nephew, whose father was king. With the future of the kingdom at stake, and her nephew traumatised by witnessing the accident that killed his parents, she disappears with him. The official line is that the pair are in seclusion after the tragic loss. Where they go, or more precisely, whom they go to, is the basis of their story. Meanwhile, it’s imperative that no-one knows she’s gone, so a body double is brought in to attend a function in Amelie’s place. The double is actually Amelie’s secret half-sister Cat, who doesn’t want the job but feels she can’t resist (for reasons that become obvious in the story). Her masquerade becomes complicated when King Alex arrives unexpectedly, as a potential suitor for Princess Amelie in an arranged marriage. And even more complicated when Cat falls for him! Meanwhile, Amelie has her own troubles, facing the man who’d broken her heart.

The two love stories are intertwined, and timing was absolutely crucial. So, what did I learn? Lots! Here are a few of the lessons that I’ll take into writing any future simultaneous stories:

 It’s not always easy to decide which book comes first so take your time and get it right.

In my case it transpired that the happy ever after for one book could clearly come sooner, while the second sister was still trying to work out her love life. Think too about which story has more secrets or revelations that make it ideal for a second rather than a first instalment. In this case, Amelie’s story lent itself to being published second since there was so much mystery about where she’d gone. I could resolve Cat’s story and still have unanswered questions about Amelie. In retrospect all that seems obvious but it took some time to make the final decision.

Consider your timeline, map it out then check it again and again and again.

I thought I knew the general timeline, but when it came to the crunch I found myself reconsidering. How long it would take an estranged couple to break through the ice separating them, and rekindle their passion? How long would it take to fly from Greece to an island off the south of France? How long to make certain legal changes? Fine tuning happened only as I wrote the second book, but I needed to have enough latitude to make both stories workable at the same time. Keeping a timeline – or two parallel timelines that you can see at a glance is a definite bonus. I wish I’d done it before I started, even though it probably would have changed.

Decide what you’re going to reveal about the characters/circumstances from the other book and make sure they work.

Sometimes a story will require you to divulge a past event or current issue. But, if you reveal that major issue/event, how will it impact on the other story you’re yet to write. Again, thinking time is necessary to set the parameters. There are good reasons why Amelie doesn’t know about Cat and the fact they’re sisters. The revelation of Cat’s true identity had to be handled in the first book in such a way that it didn’t destroy the storyline in book 2.

Include real time links between the stories.

I suppose I could have managed to write Cat’s story as totally separate to Amelie’s but where is the fun in that? Besides, making contact with the sister she’s never known is a huge part of Cat’s emotional journey. Rather than include that off the page, I have Cat and Amelie interacting, which also (I hope) creates more interest in Amelie so readers might want to read her story too.

One scene used twice.

One of the ways I brought the two sisters, and the two stories, together was to have a scene between them included in both books, though from different points of view. The scene was necessary for both stories, but it had the bonus of providing emotional insights into both characters. Apart from that, it was lots of fun to have the same scene with the identical dialogue, viewed from the point of view of two different characters. This was a phone conversation so neither sister could see what was going on around her sibling as she spoke. In both books that conversation was pivotal to what happened next.

My simultaneous stories are ‘His Majesty’s Temporary Bride’ (Harlequin Oct 17) and ‘The Greek’s Forbidden Princess’ (Harlequin Nov 17). Here’s the back cover copy. 

His Majesty’s Temporary Bride

Out of the shadows…  

As the illegitimate secret daughter of royalty, Cat’s life has been far from luxurious. After years of bullying, she’s set against a return to her childhood home. But her princess half sister has mysteriously disappeared ahead of her engagement to charismatic King Alexander.

…into the bed of the king! 

Cat agrees to stand in for her—but she didn’t agree to the electric attraction between her and Alex! He might have no idea who she really is—but when their insatiable desire threatens to strip away every boundary between them, Cat cannot hold back from the temptation of Alex’s caress…

The Greek’s Forbidden Princess

Illicit nights with the billionaire… 

News of a tragic accident plunges Princess Amelie’s life into turmoil. To escape the swarming press, she takes her newly orphaned nephew and runs, seeking the protection of one man.

Lambis Evangelos desires Amelie beyond all reckoning, but refuses to taint her radiant beauty with the guilt of his past. For years he’s resisted his longing for her luscious body—until Amelie’s arrival at his doorstep draws him too close to her forbidden temptation…

His secluded Greek island is a refuge from the world. There, Amelie and Lambis have no choice—they must yield to their fiery, uncontrollable passion!

First published on Kelly Steel Writer’s blog.