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Sweet, savage seduction: secrets of a romance writer.

Sweet, Savage Seduction Secrets of a romance writer.

I had my doubts about ever becoming a successful romance writer the night Arcadia's Kathleen Drymon, a master of the genre, read one of her steamy love scenes to a small group of professional writers. Her curly cloud of hair framed her piquant face as we listened, spellbound.

Kathleen, the author of such provocative novels as "Velvet Savage" and "Wild Desires," spins a fine yarn, making the impossible sound entirely plausible. This time she was giving us a preview of the ecstatic sex her fans adore, from her forthcoming novel "Midnight Bride."

I leaned forward, listening intently. Each word was designed to arouse the senses and transport her readers into a fantasy world. At first Kathleen's Southern drawl, incongruously flavoring the Regency dialogue, set off a chorus of giggles. But we soon forgot our initial amusement.

It's heady stuff! No wonder people line up to buy her books. (She recently made the Waldenbooks Best Seller Romance list.) As she warmed to her subject, I started to blush. How could I hope to write love scenes like this one, sharing my wildest fantasies with the world? I peered at the rest of her rapt audience, whose members were a testament to Sarasota's female literary talent. No one else seemed perturbed. Eleanor Boylan, popular author of the Mrs. Clara Gamadge mystery series, her white, cropped hair in place, every inch of her the no-nonsense professional writer, looked thoughtful. Maggie Davis, popular author of such best sellers as "Eagles" and "Miami Midnight," with "Blood Red Rose" slated to hit the stands next August, smiled with approval. Carol Gaskin, known for her juvenile fiction and presently at work on an exciting new nonfiction story for kids, "Secrets of the Samurai," listened intently. Dark-haired Jill Jones, co-author of a book about the elderly, "The Bonus Years," was, like the rest of us, taking notes as if we were at a business meeting.

During the discussion that followed, I thought about my own early attempts to turn out a romance novel. Like so many aspiring writers, I figured I could write a novel at least as entertaining as some of the published stuff I'd waded through. I decided to try what's called category romance, because I'd read that it was the most receptive to new writers. I tackled the genre with high hopes, even though the guidelines were as intimidating as the instructions accompanying my college exams. After all, I reminded myself, the romance genre accounts for 40 percent of all book sales.

Seated before my brand-new word processor, I turned for inspiration to memories of the way my husband and I had met. Picture this:

It's 1971. Two lonely, middle-aged people, a widow and a man on the verge of divorce, are seated at a piano bar. The lights are low and the poignant strains of "Strangers in the Night" begin as their eyes meet. Sparks fly! He asks her to dance, she melts into his arms and the music swells. A year later, after the divorce and a series of blissful interludes, they are happily married.

Romantic? Sure. But as my writer friends pointed out, all wrong for category romance for the following reasons.

1. The '70s are out as a time frame. Romance novels are either contemporary or take place before the turn of the century in the form of historical or Regency romances.

2. The protagonists are too old. The heroine should, ideally, be in her 20s, the hero several years older.

3. The heroine never consorts with a married man!

4. The first encounter is one of the most important elements and it's got to knock you between the eyes on the first few pages. It can't be as mundane as picking up a man in a bar. The hero and the heroine have to "meet cute." The circumstances must be highly original... a head-on collision on the road, for instance, in which the hero turns out to be a famous plastic surgeon who patches up the injured heroine and turns her into a beauty. Or the heroine, a small-town teacher, excited about sailing to Africa for her first safari, falls overboard during a spirited volleyball match on deck. One of the handsome crew members dives into the turbulent waters and holds her afloat until they are rescued. He turns out to be a writer, working his way to Africa to write an article about the safari. (Not bad! This could be a real pot-boiler!)

5. A total lack of conflict. The love story can never be predictable. The courtship is always stormy, the protagonists always misunderstood. A series of misadventures has to occur before the obligatory happy conclusion.

It took me a long time to recover from my initial rejection, but after attending several romance writers' conferences, dutifully taking copious notes during the sessions, I was ready to try again. The result was the acquisition of an agent who was impressed with my ability and a completed novel entitled "Dream Lover" aimed at the Harlequin romance line.

Alas, my aim was poor. Commended for "competent writing," it was returned for revision. They thought my hero, Elliot, was a wimp who wore glasses and had a job - curator of a museum - that suggested he was "stuffy." (They didn't even like the name "Elliot.") "A hero needs to be more than intelligent," they scolded me. The heroine felt too sorry for herself and wasn't spirited enough. There wasn't enough conflict: The protagonists liked each other too much, too soon. I strayed from the rigid guidelines by involving my heroine with two men, even though one was, ultimately, the villain. And worst sin of all: I backed off from the sex scenes.

That was going to be the big problem. My Victorian upbringing was inhibiting me. Writing love scenes seemed like peeking into strangers' windows. How do other writers do it? I agonized. Grimly, I made up my mind to try once more, reminding myself that readers of romance stories are having a harmless fling between the pages of a book instead of between the sheets. It's the trip to Europe they can't afford. It's everything that's glitzy and glamorous and out of reach.

"A pair of strong arms steadied her," I wrote, trying to remain detached. "One big hand spanned her waist and she was enfolded by a huge, muscular body. The man was so close that she could see the dark stubble on his cheek and feel his warm breath on her face. Dismayed, she felt herself tingling against his long, hard length."

Not bad. I started typing faster and faster, breathing harder, caught up in the sensuous magic of my words. I made sure that I was alone when I wrote. I don't think that husbands are totally convinced you're not recalling a former sweetheart when you're describing the charms of your fantasy lover.

At last, after some heavy editing, I produced a love scene that, I felt, was worthy of reading aloud to my author friends. And I realized that I was getting to like it! Romance writing, say most veterans of the genre, is addictive, worse than any drug. It can destroy personal relationships - presumably if the current man fails to live up to the qualities of the current, fictitious hero. And it's fattening: writers complain they can feel their haunches spreading, inch by inch, as they sit motionless for hours before their computers. But they're consoled by the way they can reach into the heart of an ordinary housewife and weave a magic tale from the fabric of her secret dreams.

My first breakthrough came when True Story, which I started smuggling into my bedroom when I was 14 years old, accepted a story of mine called "Shattered Image."

"Before I knew it, he was easing me down on the couch and I couldn't seem to stop him," I had written, my heart pounding. "He slid his hand under my dress and traced a fiery path on my thigh."

Pretty good for a beginner! And it gets easier all the time, the prose taking form like magic from your flying fingertips.

"The frenzied activity in the gym was suddenly deafening to her. The beat of the music pounded in her diaphragm and rolled over her like hard, seeking hands ..."

You can tell that I'm no longer inhibited. I'm enjoying my own writing. I'm inhabiting my heroine's body, living every minute of her adventure. And best of all, this sweet, savage seduction is deliciously, totally safe.
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Author:Bergen, Brooksie
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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