Gayle's Alter Ego
Articles, Essays, and Blogs
I've written over the years:
The Book That Made Me Love Historical Romance
My Writing Rituals
My Writing Schedule Through the Years
Rediscovering a Favorite Sport
A Veteran Romance Writer
Classic Story Lines
A Writer's Job
Confessions of a TV Addict
So…did I hook you? Of course I did! We’re lovers of romance, and one of the reasons we enjoy romance novels is seeing how the characters fall in love, and what goes on between them when they’re alone. Authors can handle love scenes several ways of course, from “closing the bedroom door” to graphically writing so much we get flushed just reading it. But frankly, it’s a very difficult thing to write—and not just because we have to forget that our moms will be reading it. But we have to be very careful that our characters aren’t too happy immediately after making love. Of course we know that the sex was good! They’re our hero and heroine! But we always have to make sure there’s a lot going on emotionally, and within the external plot, so that by the next morning, they’re rethinking what they did, or seeing it in a different light, and perhaps telling themselves it won’t happen again.
Unless it’s the end of the book, they can’t be happy and in love, or all the tension goes out of the plot. Yet an author has to be so careful that there’s a good reason the characters retreat from each other, not just, “Gee, I shouldn’t have done that.” In Never Trust a Scoundrel, there’s a wager between Daniel and Grace that he can’t seduce her; all she has to do is resist for two weeks. During this time, Grace goes from wanting to defeat him, to wanting to reform his rakish ways, to wanting him to fall in love with her. And when she gives in to his seduction at last, she has the terrible fear that now he will tire of her, that maybe she was just a challenge to him all along, that she was the only one falling in love. I played up her trepidation throughout the story, so that hopefully the reader will worry right along with Grace, and pray that Daniel doesn’t disappoint her.
See--lots of worries, even after great sex!
I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was younger. And then when I was 15 and attending a slumber party, a friend brought a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s SHANNA. The cover blew me away—Ruark sitting on a tree stump, his back to us, his face buried in Shanna’s neck as she’s draped over him, gorgeous tropical flowers all around. Everyone else at the slumber party went to sleep, and I stayed up all night reading that book. And I was hooked. Shanna was a bad girl, no doubt about it, and needed to grow up and be tamed. Ruark was the noble hero, done wrong by her and by a villain—but do I even dwell on the villain plot? No. It was the romance that swept me away, how she could deny her attraction for him, yet still be seduced by him. Who wouldn’t be seduced by him? He’s still my favorite hero. And when Shanna was forced to play his mistress on the pirate island! Loved that. I can quote you lines of dialogue, because I’ve surely read it 40 times. It’s not the same kind of book as those being written today. Kathleen has a very poetic style that isn’t in fashion now. But SHANNA is the book that brought me to this wonderful world of romance.
Of course I had to read her backlist. THE WOLF AND THE DOVE was the first medieval romance I ever read, and I loved the era. No wonder my first six published books were medievals. I’ve really enjoyed returning to the era now that I’m also writing as Julia Latham. There’s something about knights in armor, swords, and castles.
Okay, so I didn’t get “The Call” recently. For those of you who haven’t desperately tried to sell a book, “The Call” is when an editor offers to purchase your manuscript. It is a day that no writer forgets. It took me 13 long years and three completed manuscripts before I sold, so I had been waiting for that magic moment a long time. It was January 22, 1998, and my agent told me the good news at 2:45 in the afternoon. See, I remember everything!
And another reason
it’s so easy to remember is because I was
the mom hosting my son’s high school swim team for dinner
Twenty-six starving young men. I received a message to call my agent
when I was
in the middle of grocery shopping. When I arrived home, I called her
2:45) and heard the wonderful news that
Writing rituals are the things I do every day. Some seem silly and obvious, but others help me get into the flow of the story, and put myself back into the scene so I can keep writing. First, my alarm wakes me up…
No, no, I’m not going to go that in depth. But I do manage to check my email just before I go downstairs. I write on a laptop not connected to the internet. I have to go all the way upstairs to another computer to read email, research online, etc. I would be too distracted if I could access that stuff easily. So after a check at the computer, and pouring myself a huge mug of ice water, which I refill several times a day, I head down to my office in the basement, hopefully by 8:30 or so. The first thing I do is write down the time I start and eventually, the time I stop, and what I’ve accomplished for the day. It gives me a good feeling to page through and see that I’ve actually accomplished something on the book that’s giving me fits!
The way I get myself back into the story is to summarize the previous chapter. I tend to write about 15 pages a day, so I usually finish a chapter in there somewhere. I keep a chapter summary to one page in length, and write one small paragraph for each scene in that chapter, keeping track of important things that happened in that scene. At the bottom of the page, I even summarize the whole chapter into a couple lines. By the time I finish this, I’m right back in the story again. I use my chapter summaries when I get a revision letter from my editor. It helps me see an overview of the book, and track where I need to make changes. But sometimes, I just can’t remember where I put a certain plot point in the book, and rather than reread everything, I go to my summaries to find it with ease.
And then it’s time to write. As I said, I shoot for the daily page goal that will allow me to work five days a week, leaving me a few weeks to revise at the end before the manuscript is due. I leave my office about 1:00 to exercise my dogs, then eat my lunch while watching my soap (One Life to Live). I read emails again, and then I’m usually back at my desk by 3:30. If the day is going well, those 15 pages can be done by five, but sometimes it’s 7 or 8 before I’m done. And since life happens, if I can’t meet my goal for the day, I make it up on the weekend. And on days when I’m revising or plotting or reading copyedits or updating my website, I try to work 8 hours or so.So that’s my writing process.
I started writing when I was thirteen years old, but didn’t pursue publishing seriously until I was in my 20s. It took me thirteen years to become published. I have two manuscripts sitting under my bed that will never see the light of day. My writing schedule has fluctuated a lot in that time, due mostly to my children.
When they were little, I used to sneak time to write (this was before I was published). They went to bed early, and so did my husband (he used to work an early shift). After 9:00, I would closet myself in my office and write for a couple hours. Writing was so new and marvelous that I would look up and find it was 1:00 a.m.! I was just so amazed that I could write a book. And I was lucky in that my husband has never been the kind of man to begrudge my need to write. He knew how important it was to me. He’s still my biggest support.
Sniff, okay, enough of the
mushy stuff. The
good thing was, writing like that kept me
in the story, because I tried to use whatever free time I had. But the
of this was that sometimes I was just exhausted, especially after I
work part-time, programming computer-controlled machines. Hard to find
brainpower to write when even reading the newspaper at night seemed too
demanding. Sometimes months would go by before I’d write
again, especially when
I got stuck in the plot. Thank goodness for my critique group. We meet
month, and that forced me to write. But I never gave up on my goal. The
rejections were getting better and better. I came up with a new
After all the joy and amazement and pride settled down, I realized that no longer could I put something aside for months. I had my first deadline—nine months later. I’d never written a book in under two years. Heck, one took five! Way too much research and procrastination. I’m better at both now. I was still working part-time, so I only had evenings and weekends. My logical brain kicked in, and I started making daily page goals, allowing myself a month to revise at the end. Much tougher, especially now that my kids were playing soccer and lacrosse, swimming year round, or singing in the school musical. But I was determined to be a professional writer.
Within a year I was able to quit my other job and write full-time. It was definitely easier, but I discovered a whole new set of challenges. The weakness of procrastination still gnawed at me. And trust me, I’m not big on cleaning. It was the paperwork, the carpooling, the college admissions, the sports tournaments. And as an author, there are websites and contracts and page proofs and bookmarks. I slowly learned that I could get the most actual writing done in the morning, so I taught myself to be a lark instead of an owl. No more staying up late. In bed by 11:30, up by 6:30.
And it’s still the same way now that my last child is in college. My evenings are no longer filled with their events (and I miss that so much!). But I find that I have no wish to write at night anymore. I try for five days a week, 6-8 hours a day. That lets me write 2-3 books a year (since I write under Julia Latham, as well).
Though I'm writing about
skiing, this is reall about
rediscovering a long-ago pastime. Way back in the dark ages I used to
ski. I learned from my father when I was a
freshman in high school and borrowed my mother’s skis. I was
always a figure
skater, and found that if you can snowplow when skating, you can
skiing. (FYI: snowplowing is a basic move to stop or slow down, where
your knees and point your toes together.) I even went on a co-ed ski
Skiing also helped me get the attention of my future husband, Jim. We were fraternity brothers--it was an engineering fraternity, co-ed. As you can see, I did not follow that career path… Anyway, I wanted Jim to know I was available. I called him up and asked if he and any of the brothers were going skiing that weekend, as I had just broken up with my boyfriend and wanted to have some fun. Subtle, huh? They weren’t going skiing, but he eventually asked me to a basketball game, and the rest is history.
Two years ago, we decided to
ski again, after twenty-some
years away from it. Our kids gave us helmets for Christmas, in an
that we need protection. But to my utter surprise, skiing came back
never left the sport. I still love flying down the hill, looking at the
beautiful snow-covered scenery, and enjoying quiet talks with my
husband as we
ride the chairlift up through crisp air. Since then, we've gone to
As a writer, I spend much of my day alone, in a basement office where I have one window to see the house and trees across the street. Luckily, I like being alone all day (my youngest daughter looks at me in horror when I say this). But my husband, who’s also self-employed, is in and out all day, and of course, we spend our evenings together. But I’m basically a solitary person, always have been.
But I have dogs, so perhaps I’m not so solitary after all. Eight years ago, our children finally convinced us to get a dog. I took my youngest to see a litter of boxer/lab puppies, so she could choose. She was eleven, and sat down amidst puppies, but only one would play with her, so she wanted him. My husband, who’d been studying the puppies, thought this one was crazy, always waking up his siblings. But Laura wanted him, so he became ours.
And yes, he’s crazy. We named him Apollo, since he became part of our family during the winter Olympics, and my girls were enamored with the speed skater Apollo Anton Ono. Apollo barks like crazy when people belly-laugh. We assume it’s because he wants to join in, but it can be annoying, and nothing we’ve tried through the years ever changes this about him. We’re used to watching prerecorded sitcoms, so we can pause the recording after we laugh and Apollo joins in. Apollo also barks when you repeat telephone numbers or spell things out. Again, no idea why. There’s something about the way a person’s voice is monotone, I think.
Yet for all his craziness, he’s never chewed things around the house, or had accidents. He sleeps very well on and off through the day, waiting for me to emerge from my office. I don’t write with him in there—he’d be under my feet, and lifting my elbow to get my attention. Sometimes I can hear him outside my door, sniffing beneath it deeply, as if to subtly alert me that it’s time—time to walk or time to eat. After a morning working, when I emerge from my office, he’s waiting there, ears all alert, and you can see him wondering if it’s finally time to walk. When I pull out a sports bra, he goes nuts with excitement. He’s kept me walking 2-3 miles every day, rain or snow.
Two years ago, we added another dog to our household, Uma. She’s an Alaskan Husky, and has become Apollo’s sister. They squabble like siblings, and in her excitement when we’re about to walk, Uma turns on Apollo aggressively to get out her excess energy. He shrugs her off and watches me excitedly, hoping I don’t change my mind. That’s about her only eccentricity. The sled dog sometimes emerges, because when it’s one degree outside, she sits in the snow, surveying her kingdom. She’s certainly not a crazy dog.
As you can see, I love my dogs. They give a solitary person like me companionship, and when the writing isn’t going well, I can escape into their world of play and contentment.
You might think that as I writer, I work alone all the time. I usually do. But I find that coming up with a new book plot involves a lot of vocalization. My critique group is awesome at brainstorming, and I know I couldn’t do it as well without them. There’s an energy in a group of writers as a story begins to take shape among us. It’s a great feeling! There are other moments during the actual writing phase of a book when I need help with a plot point. My husband is really good at brainstorming—as long as it’s not anything involving emotions—or my writing friends can brainstorm by email or by phone. But otherwise, it’s me and my laptop for eight or so hours a day.
Except when I go on a writing retreat. These are such fun! Four friends and I travel a few hours to a small A-frame in the country that my mother owns. In the combination living/dining room (or on the deck if it's summer) we all open our laptops, spread out, and start working. Really, we honestly spend most of each day typing (or plotting or researching). We break for meals together, and the occasional brainstorming. We’re each in charge of a meal, and at night we watch a movie, but still, we get a lot done. I can often write 20-30 pages each day. It’s amazing what you can accomplish away from family, the phone, laundry, etc. I’ll still work in a little exercise, even if I have to run up and down stairs if the snow is too deep outside to walk.
The women I’ve met in my local chapter of Romance Writers of America have become my best friends. We meet for meals and movies and critiquing each other’s work. But there’s something special about spending a whole weekend together, sharing a common love of writing, whether we’re beginners or pros, published or unpublished. I look forward to it almost like it’s a vacation—but really, I get a lot of work done!
Publishers’ Weekly called me a “veteran historical romance author.” Veteran? That almost sounds old! ;) I feel like I just sold my first book, but it has been twelve years now, so I’m a veteran.
According to the dictionary, one definition of a veteran is a person with long experience in an occupation. I qualify for that. As I mentioned, I’ve been published for twelve years, but it took me thirteen years of writing and rejections and three complete manuscripts before I sold. So that’s twenty-five years—and that’s not including my childhood. I started writing at 13, and wrote short stories and novellas all through high school, only taking a break for a couple years of college (where I did a lot of writing anyway).
So I’ve been in the business of writing for a long time. I’m usually confident in myself and my process of writing. I know I can’t control outside forces—like a recession or a book cover. All I can do is write the best book I possibly can. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t moments of panic: “Can I do this again?” “Will I burn out?” “Will my editor think the book stinks?” But don’t we all have moments of panic in our work? No one’s job is guaranteed. We can only approach each day by giving it our best.
There are some good things about being a veteran. Even when I have moments of panic, I remind myself that I’ve been through all of this before, book after book after book. I can trust myself in a far greater way than I could twenty-two books ago. It’s not a fluke—I’m a writer. I have learned to trust my subconscious. When I have a plot problem in a book, I work on it for an hour or two, and then I leave the computer. After so many years, I know that my subconscious mind will continue to work, even when I’m doing the dishes or walking my dogs. Most of the time, my brain comes up with an answer, as if out of the blue. I always carry paper with me, because I have to write down the solution before I forget! I’ve been known to call my home answering machine while I’m walking the dogs, just to leave myself a message. It’s hard to decipher words when I’m so winded. ;) Sometimes I have to go farther, talking through the problem with my husband or my writing buddies. But I no longer panic throughout this process. I know I can find a solution to my problem.
Another way I’m a veteran is handling criticism. We don’t write our books in a vacuum. Besides my critique group (which is always very helpful with their suggestions) I know I’ll be facing my editor when I turn in a book. I could very easily panic. As the weeks go by while waiting for the revision letter, it’s easy to start imagining the worst. But I’ve learned that I can always find a way to fix what needs to be fixed. I’ve had minor revision letters, where I just had to fix a few small things, and larger ones, where a major plot element is failing—or God forbid, that the chemistry between my hero and heroine isn’t working. I set the letter aside for a couple days, rereading it a few times, all so that my subconscious can start mulling ideas. And then I break the letter down to one element at a time, and fix one plot thread through the entire book, before working on another. That method works best for me, because if I try to fix all the suggestions in each chapter, I lose track of what I’ve done.
So there’s my proof that I’m a veteran.
I sometimes use classic romance storylines to plot. I come up with story ideas many different ways, from watching TV, to reading history books. But sometimes plotting a new book begins with a favorite kind of story premise that I’ve been wanting to do: beauty and the beast, marriage of convenience, governess, etc. With the final book of my “Sons of Scandal” trilogy, Never Marry a Stranger, I decided I wanted the hero to be presumed dead at the beginning of the book. Why? I have no idea! It just came to me as I was trying to think of three very different cousins. This clan of a family is very scandalous, and I thought, what better scandal than having someone return from the dead?
The fun part is twisting the premise to give it a unique angle. The whole book can’t just be about a family reuniting with their long-lost soldier/son who happens to fall in love (although he does do that). It has to stand out. I want the reader to study the back cover copy and think, “Whoa, this is different!” So my twist on the hero returning from the dead was to have him discover there’s a woman pretending to be his widow. His family adores her, everyone is so happy they can be reunited. But what kind of book would it be if our hero said, “I don’t know that woman—throw her out!” No fun at all. Matthew figures she must have a whopper of a reason for doing something so dangerous and illegal, so he’s going to find out the truth. He pretends his war wounds have given him memory problems, and he can’t remember being married! That sets up a cat and mouse game as these two people learn the truth and fall in love.
I mentioned earlier that I love to take a basic premise and give it a twist. I grew up reading Jane Eyre, so I decided to do a governess story. I gave Meriel, our heroine, a father who commits suicide, leaving his three daughters penniless. This let me do a marriage of convenience story (love those!), a companion story (where an impoverished lady takes a job as a companion to an elderly woman), and the governess story. But I had to be different with my governess. The hero is the duke she’s working for, but he’s not who he seems, hence the title, The Duke In Disguise. Another mystery to solve.
Perhaps you think that means I write every single day. But no, writing a certain amount of pages a day is only what I do in the active phase of writing a book. There’s so much more!
When I'm planning a new book, I spend about a month, full-time, working out all the details. I’m what’s called a plotter—a writer who works out a lot of the plot before actually writing the book. Some writers sit down with an idea, maybe figure out the characters, and then just start writing. Not me; the merest thought makes me shudder. I have to figure out who my characters are, construct their whole backstory, give them each goals, both internally and externally, that keep them at odds with each other through the whole book. I use index cards and write out all my scene ideas until I have a stack 3-4” tall. Then I write a synopsis of the book, a short story version, 25-35 pages in length. It’s amazing the problems I pick up on at this stage that I didn’t see earlier. By the way, none of this happens without extensive brainstorming with my critique group. Plotting seems to work best for me when I talk it out. Then my critique group reads and comments on the synopsis, and after revising again, I’m ready to write.
After I turn in a book, I receive a revision letter from my editor, and I spend 2-4 weeks making it a stronger book. It’s amazing what my editor catches that I just don’t see in my own work. Then I read the book again after a copywriter checks punctuation and continuity errors. I read it once more after they’ve formatted the manuscript to look like a book (but before it actually is a book). At this stage, it’s amazing that I still find grammar/punctuation errors that we all missed.
And then there’s research. When I started writing historicals, I did my research at our local libraries. I began to purchase the books that I use all the time, and now I have over 150 covering several time periods (I also write medievals as Julia Latham). Much as the focus of my books is the romance, it’s very important for the reader to feel part of the time period, so I work hard on this as well. I love reading about how people used to live—I’ve been known to over-research!
Next there is promotion. The internet has made it so much easier for authors and readers to connect and talk about what we love—books! I built and now update two websites, as well as keeping current my author micro-site on harpercollins.com, my publisher. I’m on Facebook, although I haven’t taken the Twitter plunge. ;) The week my book is published, I do drive-by signings in my hometown, where I hit every bookstore, Walmart, and Target to sign copies of my book. I also like to guest blog and talk about my newest book.
Confessions of a TV Addict
I am a TV addict. Reality shows, dramas, sitcoms, sports, I like them all. People often say, “But you’re a writer—don’t you read books?”
I always have an audio book going on my mp3 player. I can’t exercise or clean without it. And I’m trying to be more faithful to reading a physical book every week or two. But…I spend my days reading my own work and research books. TV is where I go to veg. At night I put my feet up and read the paper or crochet while watching my favorite shows.
I think I’ve come up with a deeper meaning for my TV habit: I like plots and characters. It’s what I do for my job, and it carries over to my favorite pastime. It’s fascinating to watch other writers at work, and that’s what I’m doing with something like Lost or Medium, how they twist my expectations and totally surprise me, how they show their characters changing and growing, so that I feel like they’re real people. I see the mistakes some writers make, and I try to learn from them.
Now you can easily say—“So how does that explain your fixation with reality TV?” Ah, but this is all about character! I’ve stuck with Survivor all this time because there’s nothing more fascinating than watching what happens psychologically to a group of people starving on an island together for a prize. Some people break down, some people take the show’s game premise as permission to lie/cheat, others can’t be anything less than honorable. It’s mesmerizing!
I do like the dancing shows, and that can’t be explained by an addiction to character study. Those are about competition and hot guys dancing. And then there’s my love of football and basketball—again, competition and hot guys. There’s a minor sub-theme here…
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