Finding Your Strengths

All writers are not created equal.

Some are gifted at world building, others excel at pacing, some write witty dialog without breaking a sweat (looking at you, Whedon). Whatever your skill, you should identify it and make the most of it?


Let’s pretend that your greatest strength is dialog. And then you write a book with a character that never speaks to anyone. Everything is description and inner monologue. Guess what? That book is not going to snap the way your previous books did.

Worse, your readers who come to you looking for a specific style of writing might be turned off.

Think of writing a book like you would plan to dress for a photo shoot; even if you’re changing the style of the clothes you still want to accentuate your best features.

So how do you find your strengths? Here’s four quick questions that will help you find your best angle…

1) What do you like writing best?
If you find the descriptive scenes just flow, you might have a knack for world building. If you always know where to end a scene for the right dramatic tension, congratulations, you’re one of the lucky few who has a talent for pacing.

2) What scenes do you think of first?
If the dialog comes before the character description, you probably have flair for dialog. If you know your characters better than you know your neighbor, you are a natural character builder, and I bet no one has ever called your characters “flat.”

3) What do your reviews say?
Look at your critiques and reviews say? Do they mention lush worlds, colorful characters, or snappy sass? That’s your talent!

4) What do people ask for your advice about?
When someone sends you a message and says, “How would you do this?” you know you’ve found your strength.

Previously Published January 2016

Mother of Teens: How To Write With Little Kids At Home

On one of the writing forums I belong to someone asked how anyone could possibly write with little kids around. What they really wanted to know was: CAN YOU WRITE WITHOUT PUTTING YOUR KIDS IN DAYCARE? Not everyone has a partner, nearby family, or the money needed to create a kid-free environment when they want to write.

There is a myth that you can’t write while you have little kids around. Or that you need to have a partner who will take care of the entire household while you sequester yourself with your muse to commune with pen and page.

And, like all other myths, it’s a big, fat lie told by some author desperate to get out of watching Frozen for the fifteen-millionth time.

You can write with kids at home. You can write with kids in the room. You can write with kids on your lap.

My first story (Even Villains Fall In Love) came out the same year my son was born. That means my two youngest kids have never known a time when Mommy wasn’t a published author. I wrote a trilogy between the time my daughter was born and the year she turned four. Four kids, three cross-country moves, and three books. If I can pull that off, so can you.

1 – Set reasonable goals and set acceptable reasons to miss writing. If you stress out because of impossible goals, or because you’re trying to write with a newborn, you’ll make yourself miserable. Don’t.

2 – Steal what time you can. When the baby naps, while CARS is playing for the 3rd time today… I’ve finished novels with babies nursing or a toddler on my lap. Use a boppy pillow and run spellcheck.

3 – As kids hit the Needy Years (3-5) where they nap less and need attention, make a writing space for them. My 5yo isn’t in school yet, but she’ll give me a quiet 30 minutes if I give her a dry erase board, markers, paper, and a place to sit near my desk. Thirty minutes usually means 500-1000 words. Thirty minutes daily means a novel is finished in 3 months.

4 – Prep to write so that when you sit down to type that is all you need to do. Outline, use note cards, use sticky notes, whatever… just make sure that computer time is spent writing, not trying to think. Check out the plotting session I did to get you started. 

5 – Give yourself 30 minutes a day. You might get 300 words, you might get 1000, but with 30 minutes a day (weekends off) you can write a novel in 6 months.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block (the expanded post)

Originally this was written for Savvy Authors in 2013, and then Leslie brought it back November 16th because she was struggling with NaNo. Reading through it, I saw a few places where I could expand on ideas better, so here is the revised edition of Breaking Through Writer’s Block!

I don’t believe in Muses.

I’ll never blame a magic fairy’s disappearance for why I can’t get my writing done each day. But I do believe in writer’s block.

Sometimes it’s very obvious why you can’t write: there’s a cat in your lap, a kid sitting on the keyboard trying to color on your face, or the power’s gone out. In these cases, you feed the cat, distract the kid, and grab pen and paper to plot out your next scene. These are easy to see problems with equally easy fixes. Other forms of Writer’s Block aren’t as easy to identify or cure. Writer’s Block comes in three basic forms: Physical, Emotional, and Logical.

Physical Writer’s Block

This doesn’t mean the keyboard is missing, it means there is something physically wrong with the author or the environment. Fatigue, hunger, and illness all make it hard to write.

Signs you have physical writer’s block:

  • Staring at the screen yawning
  • Thinking of food but not the next scene
  • Shivering
  • Sweating
  • Coughing, vomiting, doped up on medicine
  • Distracted by things around you

When you hit a stumbling point where you can’t work, do a quick self-diagnostic and try to remember when you last ate a healthy meal. A real, all-five-food-groups meal that provides the brain with energy.

If it’s been more than four hours it’s probably time to hit save and grab some food. If you’re yawning and rubbing your eyes take a nap or go to sleep. Tired writing is bad writing.

Shivering, sweating, or distracted? Adjust the temperature or location.

Loop on cough meds? Call it a night and go watch a movie while you eat an orange for the delicious vitamin C!

Physical writer’s block is something you can walk away from. Get up, move, address your physical needs, and the words will come back. Your brain is not a machine, it can’t work at 100% for 24 hours straight. Giving your body a break is the quickest way to fix this form of writer’s block. Food and good nap will solve 90% of your problems, trust me, it’s been scientifically tested by millions of authors.

Self-care is not selfish. Beating your body up, or neglecting it, isn’t good for you in the long term. Or for your career. Authors joke about living off coffee and alcohol, but at the end of the day it is a joke. Your brain is a delicate organ that needs certain things to do its job correctly. Stay hydrated. Get the sleep you need. Take regular breaks to stretch, walk, and get some sunlight. Give your hands a nice massage after a long day of typing. And make sure wherever you write is comfortable and supports a healthy posture.

You have a bright future in front of you; you should be doing everything you can to make sure the body you’re traveling in is as healthy as it can be. (That sounded less creepy t

Logical Writer’s Block

When everything is right with the author and the environment sometimes the story creates the stumbling block.

Signs you have logical writer’s block:

  • The scene is wrong but you can’t say how
  • You can’t picture where the scene is going
  • You reread the scene and it’s boring you
  • You are ready to set the manuscript on fire
  • Your crit partner asked a question about a plot point and you burst into tears

Don’t fret, plotter or punster this happens to the best of us. Everyone will one day write themselves into a corner and not know what to do. Save your work, close the manuscript, and take a deep breath. Now is the time to do a triage.

Start with the most basic question: Why do you love this book and need to write it? If you don’t love it, put the book in the retired book folder on your computer and move on. There is no time for you to spend months writing and editing a book you don’t love.

What scenes are you excited to write in this book and why? Even if you’re pantsing this thing and making it up as you go along there are scenes you know you’re looking forward to writing. Analyze why you love those scenes. Susan Dennard calls these Magic Cookie Scenes. Every chapter should be built around a scene that you really, really want to write. The more fun it is for you to imagine, the more likely you are to write the scene. If you’re not feeling it… cut the scene and find another way to write that information.

Is the outline holding you back? This is a common problem for new authors and die hard plotters. Outlines are great but sometimes books outgrow them. Outlines can remove the element of surprise and prevent plot twists. If the book has outgrown the outline, trash the outline. Make a new one. Or don’t. Some books are better off written as spontaneous acts of creation.

Do you not have an outline at all? Grab the pen and paper. Write down the worst things that could happen to the character (make a list of about 20 – go wild!) and then decide what absolutely must happen so you can get the ending you want. Plot as least as far as your next plot twist. If you don’t like outlines try a plot box, an Excel sheet, or post-it notes on the wall. Do whatever you need to do to visualize the story.

Are your villains doing their work? Poorly written villains are a death sentence for a manuscript. Take a good hard look at your villains. Are they the heroes of their own story? Do they have good motivations? Do they have a cunning and intelligent plan? Are they doing their work or do you have a cardboard cut out and a hero punching at shadows.

Do you have all four plot twists? Plot twists should come at irregular intervals throughout the book. In a 90,000 word manuscript the plot twists would come at 10k, 35k, 60k, and 88k. That last twist at the end is the satisfying closure and the lead to the next book in the series. If everything is going according to the hero’s plan than you need to shake things up a bit. Let the hero lose a battle. Kill the beloved family pet. Burn the safe place to the ground.

If you get through all of this and are still having problems you need to consider that you may have a dead book on your hands. It’s a sad truth that 90% of what all authors write will never hit the shelves. One in ten started manuscripts becomes a finished book. One in ten finished books becomes a published work. Don’t fall into the trap of letting a dead novel keep you from moving forward with your writing. And, remember, even if you trunk this book for a year or ten you can always come back to it at a later date.

Emotional Writer’s Block

The number one cause of writer’s block is fear.

Signs you have emotional writer’s block:

  • You’ve muttered the phrase, “I suck at writing.” at least twice today.
  • You’ve just read an amazing book and know you will never compare.
  • Someone is pressuring you to quit writing and get a real job.
  • You are pressuring you to quit writing and get a real job.
  • You’re worried the book won’t be good enough.
  • You’re not sure you can handle the pressure of deadlines.
  • You’re not sure what you’ll do after this book is done.
  • You have a habit of not finishing projects you’ve started.
  • You are a perfectionist or recovering perfectionist.
  • You’ve recently received a rejection or hyper-critical critique of your work and you’re questioning everything you’ve ever done.
  • Your worrying about low sales.
  • Your obsessing over market trends.
  • You’re comparing your published work to the bestsellers and convinced your new book won’t make the cut.
  • You’ve started browsing online job forums looking for an opening as a scorpion petter.

Fear of the unknown is the leading cause of writer’s block. You get so tangled in the What Ifs and Maybes that you can’t focus on the story.

Perfectionism insists the book will never be perfect. And, I’ll be honest, no book ever is. No author alive looks at their published novel and doesn’t see something they want to change. I know, I’ve asked around, we’re all like that.

Concerns that you’ll fail, that you’ll never be as popular as That Big Name Author, or never make a living off writing make you question if you should spend so much time with fictional people. We’ve all been there. Most authors visit this place at least once a book, even the Big Name Authors who you think sip champagne as bestsellers magically appear on their hard drive. Doubt is part of art.

All forms of creation involve a stage where the creator questions themselves, their art, their intentions, their future. The trick is to not let this moment of self-reflection keep you from creating something beautiful.

Look at the facts: rough drafts are ugly buggers and they always will be, no one makes a living off of writing until they have at least 5 books on the shelf (and even then it’s a stretch), no one else is going to write the book you are thinking of, you can’t be anyone else, no one else can be you, and if you love this book you should keep writing.

Sure, there are reasons to quit. There’s a time and a season for everything in life and sometimes you had to admit this isn’t a writing season for you. Most authors having taken a year or ten off for everything from dabbling in other careers to going to college to just not wanting to write. If that’s where you’re at, embrace it!

But if writing is what you love – if sitting down to write each day makes you a better, happier, healthier person – than toss your doubts in the trash can and keep writing. The world wants to read your story.

Writing Realistic Romantic Relationships

There are a couple of hard and fast rules for writing romance genre that you need to keep in mind if you want to write category Romance.

  • Anything market as Romance must have a Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending. Anything less than that, and you will eaten alive by romance readers.
  • Unless you are using the Fated Mate trope you need to build a realistic relationship.

Realistic relationships are built on a couple of things: shared interests, trust, reliability, loyalty, compatibility, physical interest, chemistry, and enhancement (in which being together makes each person stronger).

Shared Interest: What do we have in common?
Trust: Do I trust you with my secrets, my life, and my body?
Reliability: If I trust you, will you be there when I need you?
Loyalty: If we run into trouble, will you side with me or them?
Compatibility: Are we on the same page, working towards the same goals, and do we have the same values?
Physical Interest: Do we find each other attractive?
Chemistry: Are we happy together? 
Enhancement: Do we make each other better people when we are together?

A lot of authors try to get by with physical interest (He’s so sexy I can’t keep my hands off him!) and it tends to fall flat. One, “I can’t stop myself!” is a self-control issue and, two, no one wants to finish a book and think to themself, “They’re not going to survive the first flu together let alone stay married happily ever after.”

Shared interests get a couple to pay attention to each other. Trust, loyalty, and reliability develop with friendship.

Compatibility covers religion, ideologies, future goals, ect… you need these to make a couple look like they’ll work out.

Physical interest and chemistry change a platonic bond into a romantic one.

Enhancement is what sells the romance. It’s the idea that being in this relationship makes everyone involved better & happier. If you want to write an abusive relationship, enhancement is the thing that’s missing. The characters may trust each other and be attracted, but they are worse being in the relationship than they would be alone.


The trope you’re writing determines how these stages develop…

In Enemies-To-Lovers the characters start with chemistry or physical interest, then common ground, and trust is last.

In Friend-to-Lovers you start with common interests and trust, and then wind up at physical attraction.

In Fake Engagement you start with Shared Interest, move to Reliability and Loyalty, Trust, then Physical Interest, Chemistry, and Enhancement.

And so on…

Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)




Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After


Welcome to the beautiful, danger fraught world of Commitment.

The Basics
Commitment is a place few authors dare to tread. Committed couples? Where’s the romance in that? (Confession: I totally think you can write a great romance with married characters and this is why EVEN VILLAINS FALL IN LOVE exists.)

Traditionally life after the wedding is summed up in one of two ways: They Lived Happily Ever After -or- The End.

One sounds like life was all roses and wedding cakes for eternity, and the other sounds just a little like I Married An Axe Murderer. Neither of those are very promising for story writing. Luckily, science hasn’t been as cynical of the committed life as fiction writers. I would go so far as to suggest that happy married life is one of those well kept secrets that only the locals know about.

So why aren’t happy faces making the headlines? First, good news doesn’t sell, second, Commitment is a very difficult stage to explain. There are so many variables that people can (and have) devote a lifetime to explaining why some couples stay together, and others fall apart.


The Science Behind Commitment

The euphoria of early Lust is gone. The feel-good rush of oxytocin from phenomenal sex wears off. Here is another victim of Cupid’s arrow, in love. And now the fore brain steps in, crushing the screaming hind brain with the sharp stiletto heel and makes a choice.

Do I love this person?

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
– Mr. Darcy answering when he fell in love

Like so many, Darcy confused love with Lust. He was well in Lust with Elizabeth Bennett within moments of meeting her. The true love came later when he acknowledged that there was more than a physical desire. The moment of acknowledgment, when you make a conscious decision to be in love, is when the Commitment phase starts.

This can overlap the other stages. Scientific evidence suggests that love isn’t even a matter of sequential stages, but a cycle [reference].

We are familiar with the daily light cycle: sunrise, sunset, darkness, sunrise again.

Think of love in the same way: initial Lust and desire, Attraction and fulfillment of Lust, conscious decision to protect the object of Lust that becomes a self-less design in the form of Commitment, True Love incites feelings of Lust.

The Variables
If you really want to drive a scientist crazy start an experiment with too many variables (things that could vary). For instance, ask them to find out what makes a person age 30 fall in love. The age and gender can be controlled. You might be able to narrow down the data but asking only women of a certain nationality, religion, or region, but after that? Variables! How were they raised? What books do they read? What food do they eat? It all plays a part.

For the sake of my sanity we are narrowing a very broad and complex topic down to the easy to identify variables :


– Personal Prejudice: Freud has a field day with this and while he isn’t used by psychologists today, he didn’t have a point: your brain is hardwired to notice certain things. The fore brain (stilettos and STANDARDS) makes a concious decision about who you will date. This involves looking more than jaw lines and rippling pectorals and moves into the area of noticing social cues, indicators of wealth, past relationships, and expectations of what you want.

No matter how well suited an individual is from an evolutionary stand point your personal prejudices will get in the way. Did you get burned by someone named Chris in high school? The chances of you falling in love with another Chris are low. Did you adore your parents? You’ll probably marry someone like them. Are you looking to move up socially? The chances of you falling in love with someone from a lower social strata are limited.

– Sphere of Influence: Some people divide this into Peer Group and Family, but I don’t. By age 25 most people have either moved past their nuclear family or have become friends with them. If you are writing YA or historical fiction you can use the Peer Group vs Family influence as conflict, but for our purposes here they are the same.

The Sphere of Influence is what people you care about will say about the relationship. The classic example is Romeo and Juliet. They were falling in love, definitely in Lust, but the disapproving family killed their chances of Commitment and brought about a tragic end.

A more modern example might be a college student posting a picture of someone they met on FaceBook and asking all their friends if they should go for it.

How much the Sphere of Influence affects a relationship depends on how much each individual involved relies on other people’s opinions to make choices and establish their sense of self-worth. The weaker an individual’s sense of self is, the more they rely on the judgments of the Sphere of Influence.

– Social Conjecture: This aspect of expectations has the least influence on whether or not a couple form a Commitment. This is what you think other people you don’t know think you should do. If you think society is pushing you to have a career before marriage but none of your friends actually say so, the idea falls here. You think society wants you to work more than marry, but there is no proof or weight to the idea.

This can also include taboos or laws that prevent a relationship from developing.

– Physical: Repeat after me: I cannot love someone I have not met.

I know this breaks the hearts of all the Fangrrlz out there, but Justin Bieber does not love you. No. He doesn’t. You may lust after him, and Edward Cullen, and Harry Potter but it doesn’t change a thing. If the person doesn’t know you exist, they can’t love you.

You can’t love someone who doesn’t know you. You can Lust after them all you like, but it isn’t love.

Please note: Physical ability to fall in love does not mean physical proximity. Many happy couples maintain faithful, long-distance relationships. For all those long-distance relationships to work there has to be a moment where you meet physically, catch the persons scent, and let the hind brain do its job of assessing genetic compatibility.

– Emotional: I think the biggest symbol of this is the wedding ring. In Western society the wedding band is a clear indicator that the person with the ring is Off Limits. Body language and behavior will also signal whether a person is willing to engage in a relationship of some kind.

Emotional indicators are often confusing, and this is great source of conflict for a writer. It is a great source of doubt and confusion for anyone dating.

A person can Lust after anyone they want, but there needs to be a positive emotional response from the Lustee if the relationship is going to have a happy ending. Even in asexual or aromantin individuals there is some level of emotion, it may not lead to a sexual relationship, but sex isn’t required for romantic relationships of any kind.

– Reciprocation: You cannot love someone who doesn’t know you exist, and you can’t establish a Committed relationship of the romantic kind with someone who doesn’t reciprocate. When someone says, “I’m so in love! Why won’t he notice me?” the answer is, “You are in Lust. That’s the norepinephrine talking. Get a life.”

The chemicals from the first stage of Lust make you obsess over someone. The cuddly feel-good chemicals of Attraction come when the person begins to pay attention. The Commitment stage of love is a mutual choice. Unless they make the same choice as you, it isn’t Love, it’s infatuation.

If you are writing a romance of any kind please print that sentence out and tape it above your monitor. One sided affection is creepy-stalker-love. Not romantic!

Spiritual Persuasion
Most researchers would put religion under Sphere of Influence, and yet again I disagree. Spiritual or religious belief is a amalgamation of personal prejudice, sphere of influence, and social conjecture and I think it needs it’s own space.

What religion does that social mores don’t is offer a long-term consequence to your actions. It’s more than getting snubbed at dinner parties because you married the wrong person, it’s the personal belief that your choices in love will have eternal/immortal consequences. And then it adds another layer of social expectation on top of that.

Picture this scene some 3000 odd years ago:

Boy: Father, I’m in love!

Dad: Great, what’s his name son?

Boy: I fell in love with a woman, Father.

Dad: What? NOOO!!! What in the name of Zeus do you think you’re doing? This is a conservative Hellenistic household and I won’t have you shaming the family name by bringing your liberal Jewish smut in here!

Boy: But, Father! I love her!

Dad: Oh, no you don’t! You can’t love a woman! They’re barely smarter than cattle! Now, put on your toga like a good boy and we’ll go to church.You’ll go to the orgy and you’ll like it!

Despite the hind brain kicking you and insisting that two of one gender to not evolutionary sense make, society has often pushed away from evolutionary tendencies to secure homosexual, incestuous, or caste -based relationships as the norm.

Society is very fond of forcing the naturally slutty human being into monogamous, or infertile, relationships. And religion with the threat of eternal damnation and/or the end of the world for not marrying your sibling is often the mechanism of enforcement.

What makes these spiritual beliefs different from Sphere of Influence is that the beliefs learned in childhood are so firmly ingrained in the Personal Prejudice that a person may not even look outside the walls of their spiritual belief when considering love or a long-term relationship. It becomes a block to ideal evolution on multiple levels.

Procreating with a sibling is a Bad Idea (looking at you House Lannister), but other things (only marrying in a tribe, race, religion, or caste) can be equally limiting the dispersal of genes. And nobody but a geneticist will care about this in real time, which makes this a fun fact to remember when writing societies that tightly control the movement of genetic material.

Last Thoughts
Romantic love and sex are always consensual. Everyone involved should be happy and enthusiastically willing. There are many opinions on what is right or wrong, or what makes the ideal relationship/couple/parenting group, but that is always a personal choice. Don’t judge someone else’s happiness. If it’s working for them, and it’s a consensual relationship between adults, you smile and let live.

There is too much hate in the world, and if you take on the mantle and title of Romance Author than your job is to bring a little more happiness and love to the world. So make sure it’s an inclusive happiness.


Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)



Stages of Love – Attraction

Yesterday we talked about the science behind Lust. The mad, crazy, passionate time when you are truly obsessed with another sentient being, or at least obsessed with getting in their pants and scoring a DNA exchange.

After a short period of time the original chemical lust wears off. Reality sets in and you start to really see the person. Yes, the genetics and pheromones might be enough for the hind brain (the crazy bit with the spear – remember?), but the fore brain has STANDARDS.

The Basics
Actually, a lot of attachment has to do with the hind brain screaming, “Ahh! There’s a parasite in my uterus somebody find me ice cream!!!”

While the hind brain stuffs ice cream in it’s mouth to drown the obscenities the logic centers perk up and go: Hot tamale! I ain’t raising this kiddo alone!

The brain works overtime, hustling the chemicals to produce permanent bonds that will make sure someone else is around to change the baby’s diaper at 3am. The conscious mind may tell you that you are madly in love, that this is fate, you are truly soulmates… and that’s sweet. Really, I’ve been with my husband over a decade and I applaud you (or your character) for thinking that.

It’s a lie, but it’s such a pretty lie.

The Science Behind Attachment
Let’s go back to one of the examples we addressed yesterday. Pride and Prejudice: The Worst Proposal Ever!

What do we see here?

Mr. Darcy is running on mad Lust at this point.

The first time I heard this part of P&P (I listened to the audio before reading) I nearly died laughing. By the standards of the time Darcy was acting on what he understood to be love. But the attachment portion of the relationship wasn’t there. Yes, Lizzy Bennett was a wonderful choice from a genetic stand point, the chances of her being in-bred with the same line as Darcy’s in-breeding was fairly low, but from the view of science this was a no-go.


Obviously because the Dracy’s weren’t in the habit of doping their guests drinks with Oxytocin at dinner, and Darcy had overlooked the key ingredient of staring into Lizzy’s eyes for prolonged periods of time [reference].

Lust is all about sex, all those hormones, the testosterone in the saliva, the dopamine pinging the brain’s reward center are all aimed at getting naked as fast as possible. Norepinephrine, the chemical responsible for obsessive focus in the early stage of Lust is the bridge between the wild monkey sex and the point where you start picking out baby names [reference].

Expiration Date: Four Years
The second stage of love, Attachment, is dictated by two primary hormones.

Oxytocin – is responsible for you wanting to cuddle, and is usually released during sex. The hind brain (Mr. Rough-Hewn Spear) wants sex for sex’s sake. It feels good! It spreads the genes around! Yay! Oxytocin is the rest of the brain’s sneaky way of making you stay with someone long enough to raise the kids.

Interestingly enough, oxytocin is also released just after birth and when a woman nurses. In the laboratory scientists have messed with block oxytocin (thus making a rat reject it’s young) and doping subjects with oxytocin (making a rat fawn over other young) [reference]. I’m waiting for the perfume industry to come out with a perfume that has oxytocin in it. Just think of the results!

Vasopressin – which controls your kidneys as well as your fidelity index. Low levels of vasopressin are associated with infidelity in mammals. Scientists are still working on the why behind this.

All of this feel-good chemical love does not add up to a wonderful marriage, Happily Ever After, or anything else a writer can put to work. This explains why you want to cuddle, and why relationships cool down after a certain period of time. Evolution set the child raising alarm clock for four years, at that point, the hormones wear off and other things kick in [reference].

Yesterday I eviscerated Scarlet (and the GI Joe script writers) for her portrayal of smart girls. Everyone falls in love. This is a normal biological function the same as breathing. Short of a malfunction in the hormone producing centers of your body this is not something you can control.

I love the paranormal books that try.

Pheromones are one of those tidbits of science that have become almost cliche. I groan when I see an ill-advised author whip out pheremones as a reason why the characters can’t keep their hands off each other. Yes, the smell works. But you can’t build Happily Ever After out of smells and Lust.

The oxytocin and vasopressin in the Attachment phase are what glue Lust to Love.

Poor Mr. Darcy needed Elizabeth’s brain to flood with a healthy dose of oxytocin before she would think of saying yes. Yes, they had a physical attraction, Lust was working fine. Yes, all the factors for an ideal Commitment (Stage 3 Love) were there in the forms of wealth and approving families (at least on her end). What Darcy and Elizabeth lacked here was the Attachment in the middle.

Remember how I said the fore brain has STANDARDS? Eventually those prejudices and conscious desires kick in and you realize the person you’re raising the kids with isn’t what you wanted in life. Evolution doesn’t care about a persons socio-economic status, religious views, or sexual orientation. All evolution and the hind brain care about is making more Homo sapiens sapiens.

The oxytocin makes you cuddle, the vasopressin makes you hang around, but what keeps the relationship going is a new a stage of love altogether.

Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)


Stages of Love – Lust and Rough-Hewn Spears

Love is a many-facted thing. We pine for it. We write about it. We dream of it. We mourn the loss and yet somehow always seem to wind up with our hearts broken again… Love is rough.

And as much as people claim to know about love we often forget that it’s actually complex, chemical multi-step process. Between Lust and Love there are a lot of steps, and a lot of little glands producing chemicals that make you go DERP! This is a break down for writers who want to know the building blocks of falling in love so they can play with it, tweak it, and use it to their own fictional ends.

The Basics
There is more to life than love or hate. Love comes in many stages, as few as three, and as many as eighteen (if my research is correct). Between those stages are a whole host of variables, outside influences, inner doubts, but the basics of love come down to some pretty simple things. And, really, it’s all chemically induced.

The Science of Lust
The first stage of any relationship is categorized as lust. As writers, this is where you usually start. There are entire genres devoted to the Lust stage of a relationship.

I’d like to say here that the whole, “…eyes meeting across a crowded room and she knew that he was the perfect man…” is a lie, but it isn’t. You won’t get real love from a smoldering gaze, but you can do the basic check for Lust in under 30 seconds.

What happens in the lust stage is that you are identifying the physical markers for an ideal mate. This has nothing to do with sonnets and everything to do with wild monkey sex. In the first thirty seconds your hind brain (the little uncivilized part that wants to throw rough-hewn spears at the cars on the freeway) sums up every new acquaintance as: potential mate, help, rival, useless.

The hind brain is seeking phenotypes (physical markers) that signal a healthy genetic compliment. Both genders look for a balanced and symmetrical face (unbalanced faces are associated with genetic defects).

Popular opinions that say men are only interested in butts and boobs has a grounding in science. Men are hard-wired to look for mates with good childbearing hips and adequate curves on top, a sign that the female in question is physically developed enough to carry a child. Western men also prefer smaller jaws and noses, and larger eyes [reference].

Women are a little trickier. A woman who is ovulating, that is to say a woman who is in prime baby-making condition, will look for a man who is overtly masculine: strong jaw, large muscles, someone that reeks of testosterone. When a woman isn’t ovulating she is more likely to prefer a more feminine man, because the softer individual is regarded to be a better long-term care-giver. Men with more testosterone are considered to be flight risks. [reference].

There’s also pheromones at work here. The smell a person gives off will tell other people two things 1) if they are at a reproductive peak and 2) if the person has a complimentary immune system [reference]. Not an identical set, your siblings should never smell attractive because their immune system is too similar to yours. What your hind brain is searching for is an immune system that is radically different, thus allowing your subsequent child to have a better chance at life.

And that’s in the first thirty seconds!

Remember, this isn’t about love or logic, it’s about getting your gametes into the next generation with the best chance of survival. Your hind brain is all about world domination through gene sharing.

Within the next minute the rest of the brain will kick in and start looking for the social markers we are trained from birth to recognize as being ideal in a mate. Much of what you look for will depend on how your parents raised you. If your father was a loving Daddy who spoiled you rotten the chances are good you’ll find men with similar features very attractive. If Daddy was a drunk cuss who ran out on you, men that remind you of Daddy will get an instant black mark on their record.

Even if they aren’t actively looking for a mate the average person will make a mental note of perceived social status, wealth, and ability to provide within the first few minutes of meeting a new person. While you may never do anything with this information, and despite the fact that your logical mind will probably over-rule much of what you initially think, your first impressions about a person are going to have ties to the evolutionary need to survive and procreate.

Now we’re in Lust Part II. This is where your brain settles after the intial introduction has taken place but before any real emotional bonds have formed.

Limerence – a term coined by Dorthy Tennov in 1977 – is defined as:

“‘an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction for another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated”

I.E. Madly in Love

This is the stage so many writers ground their plots in. This is the stuff of conflict and romance and desire and passion. This is what drove Romeo and Juliet. This is what makes Pride and Prejudice so funny!

If Mr. Darcy had never entered the dangerous waters of limerence poor Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters would have faded into obscurity. Lydia never would have been rescued. Charles Bingley never would have returned to propose to Jane.

And like all good things that are too good too last limerence has an expiration date. Three months.

On average mad lust will get you through three months of heady love [reference]. Then the feelings fade.

What’s going on in the background is pure chemistry (cue Marlon Brando on the set of Guys and Dolls)…

The poor misguided Scarlett in our video clip was quite wrong about proving love. We can. If you really want to find out if someone is in Lust you just need to check for four little chemicals: adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin [reference].

Adrenaline is what makes your heart race.

Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and gives you an energy boost while improving your focus. This chemical is also responsible for prompting goal-oriented behavior and obsession.

Dopamine lights up the pleasure and reward center of the brain. This chemical is associated with cravings and addictions. That doesn’t even sound like a good thing, but it’s all part of falling in love.

Serotonin that gives you a happy feeling.

Your body actually rewards you for seeing this person that the hind brain as picked out as an ideal genetic candidate for its plans for world domination. Sneaky brain!

When you see the object of your chemically-driven obsession your pupils widen, making everything look brighter and better. Regular dopamine dumps combined with physical or emotional rewards from the relationship will determine what happens after the first three months.

In most cases the relationship falls apart at three months. As the body becomes accustomed to the chemical dump the rose-tinted glasses fall away and you start to see the flaws. The original spark from the dopamine fades and unless you move to the next stage (attraction) the relationship fails [reference].

But not always. An estimated ten percent of married or committed couples are still in the limerence stage [reference]. Even after decades of monogamous relationship.

Couples that stay in the first stages of love and lust are deeply committed, intense, sexually active (This is not permission to go have sex! Think before you strip!), and involved with each others lives.

Researchers have already proven what all good authors know: Couples that work together fall in love and stay in love [reference].

Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)

The Ultimate NaNo Prep Post (good for the rest of the year too)


This is the master post for everything I recommend to get you prepped for NaNoWriMo or a Fast Draft.

Remember, each author is unique and so is each book, so be sure to play with this and make it work for you. The way I think and the steps I follow might work for you, but it’s okay if they don’t.

How to Write 10k A Day by Rachel Bach
Magical Cookies Scenes by Susan Dennard
25 Ways To **** With Your Characters by Chuck Wendig (language is PG-13)
25 Ways To Write A Real Page Turner by Chuck Wendig
How To Write a Book In Three Days by Michael Morecock (a short book but still…)
The Master Fiction Plot by Lester Dent
5 Things Your Book Needs by Joss Whedon
A Deep POV by Wendy Sparrow
Can We Be Honest (Why do a fast draft at all?) by Liana Brooks

Plotting Beat Sheet (get your villains and twists first!)
Finding A Blockbuster Plot by Graeme Shimmin

Day 1: Establish a Baseline
Day 2: Finding a Plot
3: The Antagonist
Day 4: The Protagonist
Day 5: Motivation and Inspiration
Day 6: Set The Stage

THE EPIC PLOTTING SESSIONS (for fixing lost or broken plots and not letting them break in the first place)
Plotting Session 1: Structure
Plotting Session 2: Beat Sheets
Plotting Session 3: The Epic Plotting Video

Write a First Chapter That Gets Read
Subplots And How To Write Them
How To Write Endings by C.S. Lakin

Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)

Grande Finales by C.S. Lakin
Writing a Killer Logline by Graeme Shimmin
Query Examples
What To Do Before You Hire An Editor Or Write A Query

*I will add to the list as time goes by because just looking at this I can see what’s missing: world building, high concept pitches, queries… this barely scratches the surface! But it’s enough to get you started!

Plotting Beat Sheet

Plotting Session 1: Structure
Plotting Session 2: Beat Sheets
Plotting Session 3: The Epic Plotting Video

During the epic plotting video where Amy Laurens and I fixed her Very Broken Novel™ I showed you the beat sheet I made Amy fill out before we replotted her book. This isn’t a full outline, but it’s what I consider the basics you need to know before writing a book (or editing it if you forgot this step in the beginning). Even if you’re pantsing a novel, you need to have some idea of what you want the final form of the book to look like.

And then, after the video was posted, I realized it would be super helpful if you had the beat sheet available so you could copy/paste to your computer and use it for yourself. So, here’s my plotting and editing beat sheet just in time for NaNoWriMo.

Protagonist: This is your main character and the person whose choices influence the book the most.
Goal 1: Want does the character want in the opening sentence?

Antagonist 1: The Page 1 trouble maker who is preventing the protagonist from getting what they want.
Antagonist 2: The person the protagonist thinks is the evil villain of the piece.
Antagonist 3: The Big Bad Boss at the end who is pulling the strings all along.

Ticking Time Bomb: A time limit that means the protagonist can’t ignore the plot for 60 years. The time will suddenly shorten in the middle of the book.

Opening Scene: What happens on pages 1-5?
Twist 1 (25%): The protagonist realizes things aren’t what they seem.
Twist 2 (50%): The protagonist loses something/the ticking time bomb speeds up/a new player arrives
Twist 3 (75%): The protagonist takes a major loss and their goals seem impossible.
Climax/Big Battle: The protagonist fights against all odds.
End Scene: Emotional conclusion that leaves the readers satisfied.
Twist 4: On the last page make the reader see the book in a brand new way.

Emotional Statement of the Book: Every book is a thesis on something you believe, this is your thesis statement. Examples: The love of friends is stronger than the love of lovers. Good defeats evil. Crime doesn’t pay. Ordinary people can be amazing heroes.

Thematic Concepts (themes): Tied to the emotional statement of the book, what concepts are you exploring? Your thematic concepts will probably be similar throughout your body of work.

Visual Concepts: Colors, shapes, or images that repeat throughout the book. You can highlight how a person or thing doesn’t belong by giving them something outside this set of imagery.


Plotting with Amy Laurens and Liana Brooks – Part 3 The Plot Session

FROM LIANA: Grab some popcorn, a really big glass of water, and something to take notes with. This is not a quick plotting session, mostly because this was Amy’s original NaNo novel and a lot of scenes existed just to make word count. There were beats missing, motivations missing, villains missing. And we could have done this on any of my novels too, we just happened to have Amy’s nearby and it made a handy sacrifice to the cruelty of the world.

Today, the climax this has all been building towards. A couple of weeks ago I was super excited to able to visit Liana in Alaska (!!!!), and while I was there, Much Plotting Occurred. We plotted 6 novel/las that week, I think, mostly mine, and plotting so many stories in such a short space of time was *really* beneficial for my plotting skills. As well as the simple repetition of skills, it was also amazing to stick everything up on post-it notes on the wall and conceptualise the whole plot at once. I’ve done this before, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a handy door/wall/vertical space to stick post-it notes on for extended periods of time (since my writing time is extremely sporadic during the school term) and so I’d fallen out of the habit.

Anyway, we were fifteenÊminutes into replotting How Not To Take Over The World (officially abbreviated to HNOT) when we realised that we were actually covering A LOT of stuff that would be really useful to other writers – so we stopped, set up the computer, and filmed the whole session for you 😀 It’s totally uncut (except the brief pause in the middle where we stopped to get water and snacks) and live and messy and glorious and we’re both in our pyjamas looking TOTALLY UNGLAMOROUS, but if you can deal with that, there is some really useful plotting information here. Plus, weird accents. Yay! 😀

Have fun!

Plotting Session 1: Structure
Plotting Session 2: Beat Sheets
Plotting Session 3: The Epic Plotting Video
A Beat Sheet of Your Own