Writing High Heat and My Favorite 2022 Romances
Plus a bit of THE ART OF SCANDAL News
THE ART OF SCANDAL Cover and Preorders are live!
If you missed it, the cover for THE ART OF SCANDAL is live!
By this point, you probably know that SCANDAL is about a woman pretending her broken marriage is fine for the camera while falling in love with a younger man, but it also touches on quite a few different themes that may not be apparent from the synopsis. One of them is being a Black woman in the public eye. The main character Rachel is married to the oldest son from a rich, Kennedyesque family, and is being groomed for a presidential run. The first chapter grapples with the expectation of perpetual gratitude that Rachel has endured for thirteen years of marriage. After a decade of microaggressive pressure to “deserve,” her position as Washington D.C. royalty, discovering her husband’s betrayal sparks an explosive fury that sends her down a life-altering path. Can you think of real-life examples of women dealing with the burden of being attached to powerful men?
Why My Sex Scenes Will Never Move the Plot Forward
As a reader, I enjoy all heat levels in romance. As an author, if I'm writing romance, there's probably sex on the page. It's part of my voice. Those are the type of love stories I enjoy telling, where the sexual tension functions as Chekhov's gun: it's relevant, purposeful, and filled with dramatic promise. It's a simmering plot point poised to go off.
Yes, sex can absolutely be a major plot point in romance. It's often placed at the 50% mark, which is typically a point of transition for the characters. Before the midpoint, they might have been reacting to the inciting incident, while after the midpoint, they're being proactive, driving what happens next. Sleeping with their love interest can be a sign of surrender, the point in their character arc when they start letting go of the misbeliefs that have been holding them back all this time. So can sex further character arcs and move the plot forward? Yes, absolutely. But is my decision to put that scene on the page have anything to do with forward movement? Not really.
When I write a sex scene, the plot movement stops. Unless something happens in the middle of the scene (e.g., they get interrupted, or one character sees a scar that makes them realize their lover is a serial killer), the decision to show the reader this encounter instead of telling them it happened is just that: a decision to show instead of tell. Telling is always faster. Telling is story movement. Showing is about the reader’s emotional experience while reading the book. And more often than not, if I'm showing two people making love, it's because I want their passion to be felt. When I refer to their scorching chemistry the morning after, I want you to believe me because you experienced it yourself. Like a horror writer who wants your heart to pound with impending dread, I want to make your heart pound for different reasons. Everything that comes after should be loaded with the emotions you experienced during that scene. Below is a list of five strategies I use to do that.
Know Your Characters as Sexual People: Before I draft, I fill out a character sheet that includes questions about the character's love life and romantic history. One of the questions is, "What type of sex do they enjoy?" This forces me to think about what makes these people compatible in bed or what they might struggle with during the first encounter with a new partner.
Tailor the Scene to Your Characters: Once I know my characters as sexual individuals, it is easier to write a scene that's unique to them. If I write a sex scene that I could easily copy/paste into a different manuscript with completely different characters, it's probably boring and needs to be revised. The logistics of a sex scene are separate from the emotional impact of a sex scene. Emotional engagement is what keeps us turning the page.
Focus on the internal as much, if not more, than the external. Books aren't a visual medium, and focusing solely on creating a picture in the reader's head can often result in paragraphs of stage directions. K.M. Weiland has an excellent article on using motivation/reaction units in prose. For each stimulus or motivation that my character encounters (e.g., a touch from their partner), there should be a reaction that consists of feeling or thought, then action (e.g., shivering or sweating), then possibly speech. This isn't a rule that I follow every time, but I try to keep it in mind to layer more internalization and sensory writing in those scenes.
Add dramatic tension. My characters commonly have realizations about themselves or their partners due to the inherent vulnerability in these moments. One obvious realization would be that they're in love. But sometimes, a character might identify the depth of that love and what they're willing to sacrifice now that they were unwilling to compromise when the story began. To avoid repetition (which can slow down pacing), I try to ensure that every scene establishes something new about the characters or the story.
Trust your instincts. If something feels sexy or passionate or just plain hot as I write it, then I have to trust that someone else who connects with my voice will have the same reaction. If I’m bored while drafting, the reader will likely be bored as well.
My sex scenes get cut and rewritten more than any other part of my book because I think they're one of the most difficult scenes to get right. When I stop plot movement to show the reader an encounter between two characters rather than just telling them it happened, I need to make sure it's worth pausing the momentum to experience that part of the character's journey.
My Top Ten Romance Reads of the Year
I read 60 books this year, so trying to narrow down my favorites feels impossible. This year I decided to separate them into genres, making it feel only minorly less impossible. Disclaimer: This list is not exhaustive or ranked in any way. There were so many amazing romances published this year. But the following really stood out to me as excellent examples of what makes this genre so diverse and exciting.
A Caribbean Heiress in Paris by Adriana Herrera
This was actually my last romance read of the year, and it was such a highlight. Historical romance was my gateway to the genre, and this book reminded me of everything I always loved about that category while also feeling fresh and exciting.
Pride and Protest by Nikki Payne
Full disclosure: Nikki and I are close friends. But that’s only because I read an early draft of this book and became so obsessed with her voice that planted myself in her DMs. If you’re looking for a romcom that will make you laugh out loud coupled with steamy chemistry between the leads that will make you sweat, then this is the book for you.
Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan
Second chance is my all-time favorite romance trope, and this book is a masterclass in all the reasons I love it. The angst is top-tier. The emotional stakes are sky-high. And the heat is absolute perfection.
On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi
This book is funny and smart, with an authentically messy romance between twenty-somethings fumbling their way to HEA. Angela Appiah was hands down one of the best characters I read this year.
Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake
Delilah Green was another favorite character I met this year. She’s sexy and messy and flawed in ways that made me desperate for her happy ending. I have the follow-up, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail, and it’s at the top of my 2023 TBR.
How to Fake It in Hollywood by Ava Wilder
I love angst. I love mess. I love angsty, messy romances about flawed people falling in love. This was a beautifully written knockout of a debut, and I can’t wait to read Ava’s follow-up, Will They or Won’t They
The Love Connection by Denise Williams
Denise is the queen of chemistry and banter. This novella was a short and sweet shot of both. And a romance novelist hero looking for inspiration? It was a five-star read from the first line. This book is part of a series of novellas collected in Love and Other Flight Delays, all set in an airport.
Long Past Summer by Noue Kirwan
By now, you can tell that I love a messy, angsty romance, and this one delivered. It’s a dual timeline, second chance romance that’s so beautifully written that I couldn’t stop thinking about it long after I had finished.
Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson
Some authors make you want to hang up your writing hat because you know you’ll never be that good. Alicia is one of those people. Phoebe is such a viscerally real character with one of the strongest voices I encountered in romance this year. I cannot wait for Alicia’s follow-up, With Love, From Cold World.
Tanked by Mia Hopkins
All my friends are probably sick of hearing me talking about how much I love the Eastside Brewery series. The fact that I follow Mia on social media and managed not to DM her, begging for an early glimpse of Angel’s book, is a miracle. It was absolutely worth the wait. Gorgeously written, scorchingly sexy, and the first book I’ve read that addressed the pandemic in a way that didn’t make me flinch. There’s a reason why this book has received glowing reviews from the NY Times twice this year. Trust me. Read all three books and treat yourself.
This will be my last newsletter of the year, and I want to say thank you so much to everyone who signed up to join me on this journey. Time is precious, and thank you so much for gifting me with yours.
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