20,000 Words

So I'm digging into my new novel, tentatively titled The Duke Who Never Forgets.  I've always been a plotter, and I pride myself on building at least one cool 'twist' into every book I write. With The Orphan Pearl, the twist comes when you find out exactly why the hero, Luke, is so convinced he's on the lookout for an orphan girl when he ought to be on the track of the Orphan Pearl.  This was my take on the Big Misunderstanding.  My attempt to write a story where two smart, intelligent people are kept apart by one crucial piece of misinformation.

With Sweet Surrender, the twist comes when Adam is accused of murder.  He'd been making love with the heroine, Caro, when the crime was committed and he's too honorable to name her as an alibi.  Caro has to choose between her reputation (which is everything to a Victorian debutante) and Adam's life.  That leaves Caro face to face with the reality of love for the first time - caring about someone else's welfare more than her own.

I suppose that's not a 'twist' twist.  It's more of a proper twist when Caro finds out that the thuggish boxer who attacked her in the first scene is actually a courtesy earl and heir to the dukedom of Hastings.  But for Caro the murder is a revelation.  It turns everything she's ever known about herself on its head in the space of an hour.

In my current book, The Duke Who Never Forgets, the big twist is front-loaded.  The hero, Julian, inherits a dukedom after his predecessor commits suicide.  But one look at the old duke's suicide note and he knows it was forged.  If the suicide note was forged, the previous duke was murdered - and Julian knows who forged the note, so he's pretty sure he also knows who murdered him.  Namely, the heroine.  Sophie.

So I like this twist and I like where it goes.  Sophie didn't kill the old duke.  How is that possible?  Why would he pretend to commit suicide?  Who's he trying to protect?  And who did kill him?  In order to find out, Sophie and Julian will have to dig deep into the past - and the terrible, bitter end of their youthful courtship.

As you can guess, this story has elements of mystery.  I'm building in clues and suspects.  Every character has a motive.  It's more complex than anything I've written before - and my stories are generally on the complex side.  I'm always struggling to make these complicated scenarios feel simple and obvious to the reader.

In any case, I need to write while I plot and so I'm trying to break the story of The Duke Who Never Forgets down into manageable chunks.  Hence the title of this post.  20,000 words.  I've got 20,000 words before Julian's going to realize that Sophie's not actually the murderess.

This is my favorite part.  When the hero and heroine are at opposite sides of a line in the sand, ready to do battle.  When there's attraction and chemistry but the characters won't admit it to themselves, let alone anyone else.  So now I get to ask myself: how much fun, awesome, enemy-lovers stuff can I do in 20,000 words?  How many ways can I find for my characters to lash out in frustration?  How many terrible, painful missteps?  How much worse can I make it, in such a short number of pages?

So, fingers crossed.  Hopefully this is the tool I need to divide and conquer.

Men Only Notice T&A

One of the bizarre pieces of advice that I hear all the time about writing from a male POV is that men don't notice the cute little details of a woman's figure or dress, they really only pay attention to T&A.  I find this deeply frustrating and so, in an effort to test (and hopefully refute) the theory, I've pulled books from the most sexist authors in my personal library and will now quote the first physical description of a woman that I find in each. Let's start with Michel Houellebecq.  A contemporary French author I happen to love, he's a literary sensation whose mind is stuck in the gutter and seems to enjoy making sensible modern women clutch at their pearls in horror.  Here's a guy who really, really wants to come across as a sexist pig.

"Djerzinski walked across the parking lot with one of his colleagues.  She had long black hair, very white skin and large breasts.  Older than he was, she would inevitably take his position as head of the department.  Most of his published papers were on the DAF3 gene in the fruit fly.  She was unmarried." (The Elementary Particles, 10)

One afternoon in October, Bruno found himself talking to Patricia Hohweiller.  She was an orphan and had to stay in school year-round except for the holidays, when she went to stay with her uncle in Alsace.  She was blonde and thin and talked very quickly, her animated face occasionally slipping into an odd smile." (The Elementary Particles, 44)

Two quotes, from the two POV characters.  Surprisingly the second, Bruno, is the more sexist.  Breasts feature equally here with...hair, weight, skin, speech patterns and professional status.  Not just T&A.  Not just physical, either.

Next is Ernest Hemingway - man, was he a famous sexist!  He really did not treat women very well, or seem to care very much about the grey matter between their ears.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window.  She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.  (A Moveable Feast, 5)

Now she came in sight, walking across the open toward the camp.  She was wearing jodphurs and carrying her rifle.  The two boys had a Tommie slung and they were coming along behind her.  She was still a good-looking woman, he thought, and she had a pleasant body.  She had a great talent and appreciation for the bed, she was not pretty, but he liked her face, she read enormously, liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much.  (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 12)

Apparently sexist pigs pay attention to haircuts.  They feature much more prominently than breasts in these first two piggish authors' descriptions.

How about Milan Kundera?  I have never found Kundera to be sexist but I know many people do.  I skimmed the first twenty pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which are full of lascivious scenarios and no description of a woman's body more than a sentence long.  The most literal and physical is this:

She arrived the next evening, a handbag dangling from her shoulder, looking more elegant than before. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 9)

Hmmm.  His first literal description involves a purse and not much else.

Let's take a look at Saul Bellow, another famous sexist.  He makes a point of describing characters as he introduces them, so we should get a hefty helping of T&A, right?

"The one unmarried daughter, Eleanor, had a gypsy style and got herself up in flaming, bursting flowers and Japanese dyes.  Fat and pale, with an intelligent Circassian bow to her eyes, very humane, overreconciled to a bad lot, taking it for granted that she was too fat to get a husband and forgiving her married sisters and mobile brothers their better luck, she had a genial cry, almost male and fraternal." (The Adventures of Augie March, 40)

"The girl's name was Hilda Novinson, and she was fairly tall but small-faced, with pallor and other signs of weakness of the chest, light-voiced, hasty-spoken, and shy....With her Russian facial angle and pale eyes, placed low and denying you a direct glance, she had the look of an older woman.  She wore a green jacket, she smoked, she walked with a raft of schoolbooks held to the breast and in open galoshes, the clasps clinking." (The Adventures of Augie March, 47)

No T, no A.

Henry Miller seems to live up to the stereotype - finally!  As far as I can tell he starts his description of a woman with her vagina and then adds other details as they take his fancy.  Here's a quote that I don't feel too bad about repeating (none of his descriptions are clean):

"She had a German mouth, French ears, Russian ass.  Cunt international." (The Tropic of Cancer, 15)

So, for once, full points.  Any romance authors featuring Henry Miller as their heroes will be right on target if they focus on the reproductive organs when writing from his POV.

Finally, Emile Zola - a bit of a perv in real life, all of his books (at least all the ones that I've read) are about destroying women in some brilliantly symbolic way.  He's like a literary Lars von Trier.  Here's his first description of Nana, the prostitute at the heart of the novel Nana, which ought to be a real softball for the "it's all T&A" camp:

Nana, very tall and very plump for her eighteen years, in the white tunic of a goddess, and with her beautiful golden hair floating over her shoulders, walked toward the foot-lights with calm self-possession, smiling at the crowd before her"  (Nana, 17)

In the next page or so he continues with his physical description of Nana.  We find out about her "large light blue eyes," her "pink nostrils," the hair at the nape of her neck "which looked like the fleece of an animal." (18)

These guys ought to be the worst of the worst - authors who take pleasure in objectifying women - and yet only Henry Miller's first impression of a woman focuses insistently on her secondary sexual characteristics.  Most of the authors are more likely to notice a woman's face, her way of dressing, moving, speaking, her haircut and attitude.

And presumably when we write a romance, the hero does not belong to the lowest common denominator.  But even if he's proud of being a pig, he sees the whole human being.  He can't help it.


People talk about how important it is to trigger all five senses in writing all the time.  True.  But how to do so in an interesting way?  I just read a fascinating article (The smell of virtue: Clean scents promote reciprocity and charity.) about the influence of scent on behavior - clean scents, in particular. First it cited a 2005 study that found people maintain "a cleaner environment while eating" if they can smell citrus cleaning products.  That's a pretty direct cause and effect - cleanliness begets cleanliness.  The author of this new study tried to draw a correlation between literal cleanliness and symbolic cleanliness, i.e., moral behavior.  He wanted to know if clean smells can make people more virtuous.

The answer appears to be yes.

In one experiment, volunteers were segregated into two equally clean rooms.  One had a neutral odor, however, while the other had been sprayed with citrus-scented Windex.  It smelled "clean".

All the volunteers then played a trust game.  I'm going to quote here:

"In a typical trust game the sender is given money that he can choose to keep or "invest" with an anonymous receiver.  Any money sent is tripled, and the receiver then decides how to split the tripled money.  For example, if the sender passes all of the money and the receiver reciprocates this trust by returning half of the tripled amount, both would be better off.  However, sending money can be risky if the receiver chooses to exploit the sender and keep all the invested money....

Al the participants in the current experiment were told they had been randomly assigned to play the role of hte receiver and that their ostensible counterpart had decided to send them the full amount ($4) which was now tripled to $12.  They had to decide how much money to keep or return to the sender.  Participants could exploit their counterpart by keeping all the money or they could honor the trust by returning some portion to the other party....

Participants in the clean-scented rooms returned significantly more money.

Significantly more money.  Wow.  Just because the room smelled like Windex.

The take home lesson for a writer is that smells need to be interactive.  Not just wallpaper.  Don't just ask yourself, "What does this place smell like?"  Try asking, "What smells here are important?  How does my character respond to those scents?"

Scent gives us access to our character's lizard brain - the realm below conscious awareness.  And that means we end up with more complex and more human characters.


We all have pet peeves.  Writers tend to have a lot of very nitpicky, word-related pet peeves - hobbyhorses, in Laurence Sterne's phrasing - and the word decimate is one of mine. People use decimate to mean "wiped out" or "totally destroyed" all the time.  The usage is common enough that it's become correct, according to most dictionaries, which I resent.  (Did you know dictionary entries are ordered by age?  The oldest use of the word comes first, the newest last.)

The thing is, English already has plenty of words that mean "wipe out" or "totally destroy": devastate, annihilate, demolish, obliterate, wreck.  Why take a word with a unique meaning and history and lump it in with a bunch of interchangeable synonyms?

I'll refer to wikipedia for further explanation:

Decimation (Latindecimatiodecem = "ten") was a form of military discipline used by officers in the Roman Army to punish mutinous or cowardly soldiers. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning "removal of a tenth."[1]

A unit selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten; each group drew lots, and the soldier on whom the lot fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning or clubbing. The remaining soldiers were given rations of barley instead of wheat and forced to sleep outside the Roman encampment.

Because the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in the group were eligible for execution, regardless of the individual degree of fault, or rank and distinction.

The leadership was usually executed independently of the 1 in 10 deaths of the rank and file

And the wikipedia article links to a more complete explanation here, which sources the term in a couple of Latin histories.

The really great thing about a word like decimate is it allows us to be specific.  It derives from a practice that was literally horrific - intended to inspire horror - and it allows us to describe small losses that have a huge impact.  If one-tenth of a city is destroyed by an earthquake or flood, it's been decimated.  If you have ten family members and one of them dies, your family has been decimated by loss.  If one house on a street with ten houses burns down, that's decimation.

Using the word properly allows us to give those losses the weight they deserve.  It reminds us that life isn't a numbers game.  Little ten-percent horrors can derail us, change our lives, turn everything topsy turvy.

So.  In short.  Decimate.  To reduce by one-tenth.  Go forth and use it properly.


I figured out pretty early on that one of the best ways to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses in my own writing was to find readers.  And, using the principle of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine," I decided that one way to acquire readers would be to sharpen my own skills as a reader. My first inclination, as it must be for a lot of people, was to pull out my red pen and get busy with the line edits.  Target grammatical errors like a heat-sensing missile.  Circle awkward word choices.  Flag lazy sentences and ruthlessly ex out adverbs (ruthlessly, get it?  Har har...).

Not anymore.

The first thing to change my perspective?  I'd handed an early draft of The Orphan Pearl to a reader whose first comment was, "I didn't like your heroine."  Totally blew my mind.  She could have gone through and made dozens of little biddy corrections and she wouldn't have done me half as much good as she did by telling me how she felt.

I've had a few people compare my heroine, Lydia, to Scarlett O'Hara - and she is that type of character, a survivor, which isn't always pretty.  I like her hardness, but I needed to bring out her softness and vulnerability more.  I needed to get readers on her side, rooting for her.  The novel changed a lot as a result of that one little comment.

Meanwhile, I began to realize that all my red pen activity wasn't helping the work I critiqued.

During Jacques Barzun's days as a literary advisor at Scribner, he coined the phrase "creeping creativity" to describe what happens when an editor applies a too-heavy hand to the book he or she is working on.  The editor stops editing and starts acting like a co-creator.  He thought this was a grave error, and I agree.

My line edits weren't improving my critique partner's writing because they fell into the category of creeping creativity.  I wasn't working with my partner's style, I was working against it.

For a while, I stopped with the line edits entirely.  I tried to offer, and refine, the kind of feedback I'd found most useful myself: I started telling my reader how I felt.  I tried to analyze my feelings, to give more useful responses.  I asked questions instead of offering answers.

The results were a lot better.

A couple of days ago, at a critique meeting, discussion about the most recent chapters I'd submitted got sidetracked on a discussion about whether or not my character would have been drinking water.  A couple of people pointed out that before the days of reliable water filtration systems, it could be dangerous to drink water and so people tended to prefer other types of drinks - beer, wine, etc.

I knew this, and had given some consideration to whether or not my character would drink water.  I had a couple of reasons for preferring water to other fluids - one of them being that water can stand in for other fluids metonymically (this is my ten cent word entry!) better than other drinks - and also, a general irritation with what I like to think of as the reification of history.  We like to simplify, so the idea that people avoided water sometimes becomes a hard and fast rule: no water, ever.  I don't buy it, but we all have to pick our battles.

The point?  We spent so long talking about whether or not my character would drink water that we ended up spending none on the scene itself.  Of course I'd like to conclude that the scene was so very perfect that there were no other flaws to discuss, but, honestly, I know better.  We're all easily distracted by little things.

Which is another danger of line edits.  It's very easy, as a reader, to be penny wise and pound foolish.  Go for the big ticket items.