Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Location, location, location

I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses or divas!) I hang with when I’m in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner. We’re more a regular lunch group than a critique group, but several times a year we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!).

And one of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become - what else? - a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.

We have our own rooms, meet for coffee in the morning and set goals for the day, work all day, and then reconvene at night for dinner and to discuss progress and spitball plot problems.

When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately - the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you. And as it happened, we were able to stay in the house again for a week as I was writing the book last year.

We came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.

(I’m telling you, writing is a little scary. More than a little scary, in this case…)

Now, some of us had some truly spooky encounters in that place. Every time I turned around there was knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a ghostly team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that were just too creepy to go into after dark. One night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark. And another one of us had the classic “Night Hag” visitation: she woke up feeling that someone or something was sitting on her chest. Brrrrr…..

One prevalent theory of hauntings is that a haunting is an imprint of a violent or strong emotion that lingers in a place like an echo or recording. I’ve always liked that explanation.

Well, this house was imprinted, all right, but far beyond what I had expected.

Because besides the requisite spooky things… that house was downright sexy. There’s no other way to say it. Seriously - hot.

I had ridiculously, I mean – embarrassingly - erotic dreams every night. There were rooms I walked into that made my knees go completely weak. The house, the gardens, even the golf course, just vibrated with sex.

Now, maybe that was just the imprint of creativity – the whole mansion is constantly inhabited by writers and musicians, and as we all know, creativity is a turn-on.

But also, consider the history. As I said – Weymouth was a “Yankee Playtime Plantation”. Rich people used that house specifically to party - in the Roaring Twenties, no less. (Think The Great Gatsby!). God only knows how many trysts, even orgies, went on. So could sex imprint on a place, just as violence or trauma is supposed to be able to imprint?

It makes sense to me.

And the history continues today - the mansion and gardens are constantly used for weddings, loading more sexual energy into the place, and last night, for example, there was a junior high cotillion practice in the great room, which I snuck down to watch – talk about sexual energy bouncing off the walls!

That sexual dynamic surprised the hell out of me, but it completely worked with my main character’s back story - she’s a young California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancé cheating on her. (Actually, she dreams her fiancé is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.) So her wound is a specifically sexual one, and one of her great weaknesses is that she’s vulnerable to being sexually manipulated.

Add to that that the most prevalent explanation of a poltergeist is that it’s hormones run amok: that the projected sexual energy of an adolescent or young adult can randomly cause objects to move or break.

So of course I went with it. It wasn’t anything to do with my outline, but California girl that I am, how can I not go with the obvious flow?

I think it adds a great dimension to the story, in a way I never could have anticipated, and I’m pleased to have been true to the - um, spirit - of poltergeists.

And this year, one of the books I’m working on at the manor is my dark paranormal for Harlequin Nocturne, about a witch and a shapeshifter. Shapeshifter erotica – in THIS house – well, you can imagine…

So I have two questions, first, re: research. Has a place you’ve researched ever significantly changed a story for you? How?

But also I’d love to know – what’s the sexiest place you’ve ever been, and why? I wouldn’t mind having a list to file away. You never know when you might need it.

And here's a bit of the introduction to the house, from The Unseen:


……..They had turned off the narrow road and onto a dirt one that led up to the stone gateposts from the photos. Laurel felt a little buzz of déjà vu at the sight of the sleek stone hunting dogs seated atop them, permanently frozen at attention.

A metal gate stretched between the posts, padlocked. Audra reached for the keys on the dash, and Ian gallantly jumped out to unlock and open the gate for her.

As he did, Laurel caught Audra eyeing her in the rear view mirror and felt uneasily that they might not be pulling as much over on her as Ian assumed they were.

But before either of the women could say anything, if either was going to, Ian was back in the car, presenting the keys to Audra with a smile.

They drove forward, gravel crunching under the tires, past a perfect curve of pink-blossomed crape myrtles lining both sides of a split rail fence along the road. Wind stirred the tall, spare pines around them. Laurel found herself craning forward to look. As the house appeared between the trees, she felt a jolt.

It was an English country house of white-painted brick with a steeply pitched roof of what looked like real gray slate, two chimneys, a round upper balcony with white-painted iron railing, and gray shutters. It seemed whole from the front, but the overwhelming feeling was that it was not. There was part that just seemed to be missing.

And angry, Laurel thought absurdly.

As Audra drove the circle to come up to the front, Laurel got a glimpse of the rest of the house, and realized what was so wrong. There was another whole house connected to the front one, this one much longer, made of brick with white columns and trim, set perpendicular to the white front part. Unbelievably, there seemed to be yet another white house behind that, at the other end of the brick part, but just as soon as Laurel had spied it that glimpse was gone. Audra stopped by the path leading to the front door and shut off the engine.

“Welcome to the Folger House.”

The solid oak door creaked open into a small entry with glazed brick floors, surprisingly dark compared to the lightness of the house outside. The room had a greenish tinge, from the garden green-painted wainscoting running halfway up the wall. Laurel was reminded of the Spanish-style houses around Santa Barbara, and she had a sudden, painful memory of - the dream - and her midnight ride from the hotel. She pushed the thought away and forced herself back to the present as she followed Audra and Ian into the house.

Across the green entry there were two steps up into a second, larger entry with a fireplace and a long wood bench like a church pew facing it. Laurel glanced over a family portrait above the fireplace mantel, a crude, colorful painting of two parents and two children that gave her a strange sense of unease, but she had no time to study it before Audra stepped forward to begin her narration. “This is actually the newer portion of the house,” she explained, “The part that was added on when James and Julia moved in permanently.” Laurel looked around her at the cool, quiet rooms.

Past the fireplace were stairs down to a small empty room of indeterminate function to the right, with the same glazed brick floors, and what looked like a bathroom beyond. On the left there was a short hall with a glimpse of a dark-paneled study at the end. Very odd rooms to have at the entry of a house, Laurel thought. There was dust like a fine sprinkling of baby powder everywhere, but otherwise the house was in surprisingly good condition.

“Hmmm,” Laurel smiled vaguely at Audra.

On the fourth wall of the second entry there was a door into a much wider and taller hall with dark hardwood floors and white walls. Laurel and Ian followed Audra into it. An elegant staircase curved up to the right, with a tall bay window that looked out over enormous, overgrown gardens. Past a window seat, the stairs took another upward turn and disappeared.

Ian took Laurel’s hand again as they walked forward. She frowned at him and he nodded ahead toward Audra, shrugging helplessly (with a What can I do? look.) Laurel pressed her lips together and went along. His hand was strong and warm around her fingers and she was suddenly electrically aware of his presence beside her.

At the end of this hall there was an archway, with three short steps leading down, and then out of nowhere, a huge room, the size of a small ballroom, with two fireplaces, smoky mirrors in gilt frames lining the walls and a wide, rectangular expanse of hardwood floor.

Laurel was about to follow Audra through the archway when she felt a chill run through her entire body.

“Here,” she said aloud, and Ian turned back to look at her. Laurel pulled her hand from his and touched the doorjamb and thought she felt the faintest shock, like static electricity. “They cut the house here.”

“Yes, I believe you’re right,” Audra acknowledged, with an appraising glance at Laurel.

They all moved down the steps into the great room. Aside from a few end tables with marble tops, the only furniture in the room was a battered, dusty grand piano.

“This is the older house,” Audra said, unnecessarily; the feeling of the room was completely different, much older and more complicated. The ceiling was high with a raised ornamental design in the dome, and the crown molding had plaster medallions at intervals all the way around the room. Two bay windows with dusty panes flanked a set of equally filmy French doors which led out onto what must have been absolutely stunning gardens, several acres of them, now so overgrown with wisteria and yellow jasmine and honeysuckle Laurel thought instantly of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

The bare floors shone even through their layer of dust and Laurel noted they were heart of pine (heart pine) but far older than the floors in her own house… she could see the wide planks had been fastened by hand-carved wood dowels instead of nails.

Then she froze, staring at a spot halfway across the floor.

Ian opened his mouth to speak to Audra, but Laurel dug her nails into his palm and pointed.

In the solid layer of dust on the floor, there were footprints. Smallish and soft-soled, like footsteps on the beach, headed away from them, toward the archway to the next room.

But they began in the middle of the floor, and left off well before the doorway, just five or six of them, and then nothing but undisturbed dust.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nanowrimo, Day 16, Stuck? Make a list.

While I was teaching at the retreat I talked about last post, I kept stressing over and over and over again the usefulness of making lists. Specific, personalized, Top Ten lists.

I am pretty sure there is no story problem that cannot be solved by stopping the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, breathing a bit, and then sitting calmly down to make a list of examples of the way great storytellers (YOUR favorite storytellers) have dealt with the particular problem that you are tearing your hair out and grinding your teeth over.

Can’t figure out a great opening? List your Top Ten favorite or most striking opening images.

Your villain isn’t villainous enough? Make a Top Ten Villains list, and take some time to really break down why those bad boys, or girls, turn YOU on. (More here….)

Your story isn’t hot enough? Have some real fun and list your top ten steamiest sex scenes – and/or best kisses. (Warning: try to have some loved one close at hand for later… better yet, make a night of it – rent the movies and... analyze... those particular scenes together. Don’t you just love research?)

Not enough suspense? List your top ten most thrilling suspense scenes (More here)

Top Ten Character Introductions (see here). Top Ten Climaxes (story climaxes, I mean now). Top Ten Heroes and Heroines. Top Ten Inciting Incidents. Top Ten Calls to Adventure. Top Ten Crossing the Threshold/Into the Special World scenes. Top Ten Image Systems (see here).

Are you starting to get how incredibly useful - and fun – this can be?

Make the lists. You’ll be unstuck and on to a whole new level of writing before you know it.


The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Taking the gift

Hmm, disappeared there for just a little while, didn't I?

Well, I overcommitted for October and it spilled into November and I finally, FINALLY had my last travel stop/interview/event last night - that is, until next week - but apart from some cool publicity, next week is going to be just about writing, MY writing.

Whatever that is.

No, actually, I know exactly what I'm going to be writing, I just need to sit down and go over these blog posts and follow my own advice.

My last stint has been teaching this Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop on a beach in Charleston. I got great teaching done and zero writing done. But sometimes that's a good thing, as I finally came to realize, and as you might as well, as I recount my experience here.


The Jump Start Master Class is an incredible week long retreat for writers and aspiring writers sponsored every year by the Lowcountry Romance Writers. It's all women except for one man, who is taking those odds very much in stride, and the focus is paranormal, historical romance, and romantic suspense, although to my delight there is one horror chick so I don’t feel like the complete voice of doom.

I had a fabulous drive from Raleigh to Charleston, nice to be on the road again. The great thing about driving toward South Carolina is that you get all that beach music, which I never knew it was its own genre of music until I actually lived in the South, and then I could see it in EVERYTHING - the Spinners and Temptations and Marvin Gaye and everyone.

I got to the bridge over to the island where our retreat house is, just at sunset - WOW. I drove straight out to the beach strip and pulled into this - incredible - mansion. To say it is luxe is the understatement of the year. Exquisite. Cherrywood floors, which for some reason do me sideways, and three levels of absolute perfection, elevator accessible of course - but in a very beach, livable way - there's a lot of Southwest influence, which is where the family of owners is from. This porch that I'm out on now, or terrace or whatever you call it in the South, has multiple living areas, with fireplaces of course, and the ocean is right there, in front of me (past the pool and volleyball court, naturally) and that SOUND, and the air - I'm just in a tank top and I'm fine, and this incredible fragrance - it's not jasmine, but something sweet and completely intoxicating, and there are turtles, apparently, out there in the sand doing their thing in a way that is so protected that you can be arrested for turning on porch or pool lights after sunset.

And my room. Well, the word is suite. With sweeping ocean view, entertainment center and kitchen, and spa bath. Yes, I could get used to this.

I truly believe that anyone who commits to this kind of week-long writing intensive, at the prices that get charged for them, is ready to move to another, professional level, and I've never been disappointed in the calibre of students.

We had a fantastic dinner and got to know each other a bit, and out of 25 people about half are either psychiatric professionals or law enforcement or social welfare. Unbelievable stories at dinner, I'm so psyched to be here - as usual, I'm going to learn every bit as much and more as the students.


Funny, here, how it’s incredibly cloudy, layered and stormy and brooding and you look away for a second and when you look back the whole sky has gone dazzlingly sunny, just the slightest wisps of clouds. I have noticed, oh man, have I, how Southern temperaments are just like that weather. Violent moods and storms that shake the earth and are forgotten in the next minute. Not what I’m used to.

It’s another warm day but not so humid, easier. I’m on the terrace again (and that sweet smell is jasmine, I found the vines) and I am noticing that in the overgrown yard next door there is a swing set, rusting, covered in brambles. Tragic. It would be lovely to swing and look out over the ocean. But an overgrown swing set is a good image…

Romance conferences are great - for many reasons, but what I’m thinking of specifically right now is the swag. Authors who can’t come contribute these extravagant giveaways for the swag bags – lush beauty products, flavored condoms, chocolate lip gloss, chocolate cock suckers (chocolate, chocolate, women and chocolate – someone’s in the kitchen right now making double chocolate biscotti). Once in a while there’s even a mini-vibrator. I used the body lotion from my bag and now, in the sun, my whole skin is sparkling with tiny iridescent flakes – the label on the bottle says it’s mica. It’s making me feel like a mermaid or something.

People here are great. The entire house is now vibrating with deep creativity. Four of us who just had their periods have started them again from all the free-floating estrogen, just like in college. Everyone is so excited. And for me there is nothing like being able to draw a fantastic plot line out of a beginning writer – who up until that second didn’t even think she could do it. I tell people: “You would not have had the idea if you were not capable of executing it.” (Something I am always fervently hoping for myself…)

Whether they do execute it or not, you never know – that’s more about endurance and a certain ruthlessness than about talent. But I have been privileged and proud to see people I taught show up at a conference a year later with book deals – NOT saying I did it, but that I could see that it would happen, and told them so.


I taught my class again today and people are now constantly laughing out loud in surprise when they saw how brilliantly formulaic film structure is and how much easier their lives are going to be from now on, knowing a few simple tricks.

And my horror chick is a real author. One of those that I wouldn’t dare give notes to, she is so dead on about what she’s doing. Naturally the most nervous one here, almost fainted before she had to read, and the most surprised that what she’s written is what it is. And it is so great and logical and right that the Universe has put her here because I’m one of the few women out there writing what she’s writing and I will be able to save her about a year of grief and possible disaster when it comes time to get an agent, the right agent, and between me and my other dark female author friends we can help her navigate what’s going to be her new life.

(And this happens over and over and over again at these workshops and conferences – for authors, for aspiring authors, for me personally. If you do it, the Universe understands that you’re serious about your writing and lifts you to the next step in a way you could never do for yourself.)

She’s one of the ones I bonded with last night, staying up way too late watching an excruciatingly bad horror movie called Orphan. But finally there was a plot twist so sublimely ludicrous we were screaming, laughing – worth ever single minute we wasted with the rest of the movie.

Sunset was about three hours long, wave after wave of color crashing over the clouds, with a full moon on top of that, and dinner was Fettuccini Alfredo, from scratch.

No. It doesn’t suck.


Things I love about this place.

- The spiral staircase, going up three floors, that polished, cherry wood…

- The elephant tapestries on the second floor. Ganesh, god of happiness.

- The knockout 180 view of the ocean you get walking through the archway into the living room.

- The theme of palms – I’ve always loved that as a design element anyway, and I was in THE palm room, they were on everything, pillows, pictures, shower tiles, ceiling fan. Just like the Atlantic ocean is a softer ocean than the Pacific, these are softer palms than California palms, feathery and feminine.

- That sea foam. Didn’t Venus come from sea foam – the sperm of Zeus? Never got how of course the Greeks would think that, before this trip. Totally fitting for a romance retreat.

- Omg, the food. As anyone who has read this blog for a while has no doubt noticed I am NOT a foodie but we have had some spectacular meals - one night crab legs and oysters, which were cracked and fed to us by the Charlestonians – this beautiful auburn-haired lithe elegant woman named Cathy, with the sexiest, butteriest accent – standing in front of me with a knife and opening oysters for me – full well knowing the picture she was creating and the primal pleasure of it all…

- And sparkly Lisa from Florida, who owns an apparently quite famous bakery/café in St. Augustine, the Cookery, made a five course Hungarian feast: sweet beets with sour cream, flat herbed egg noodles for goulash, this incredible sour cream and dill cucumber salad, green beans. And homemade, soft granola in the morning… ummm….

- The surfers. It cracks me up to see surfers trying to surf the baby waves here, but some of these guys were actually catching some rides…. Mystifying. Looked great in the wetsuits, too.

- The butterflies – so many of them, little animas, everywhere, fluttering right in front of our faces, fearless: bright yellow ones and tiger-striped.

- The company of women. The comfort level - open, loving, supportive, sexy, giggly, earthy, hilarious.


As you can probably tell, I had a cosmically wonderful time, and got some seriously good teaching done.

And yet I kept getting these anxiety – not attacks, but prickles, that I was not getting any of my own work done, that any time I had a free moment, not that there were many, I’d walk on the beach or get talked into another horror movie marathon or just sit on the porch baking in the sun and staring out at the ocean.

Why do we do that to ourselves?

I’ve been touring NON-STOP for over a month now, because of the Halloween thing and because The Harrowing came out in the U.K. in September. It was a total, Universal gift to have a week on the beach, in such overwhelmingly beautiful circumstances. I wasn’t slacking, I was teaching, and yet I was beating myself up that I had gotten no further on deciding my next book (that would be after the next TWO that I’m writing at the moment).

Is there not something a little crazy about that?

Well, finally I relaxed and decided I was just going to take the gift. And maybe instead of forcing a decision on my next book, I will just listen, and see what I might be being told to write, if I just manage to stay quiet enough to hear.

So that’s my message today. We’re given all these gifts, all the time. Life is so abundant, and a writer’s life seemingly even more so – just magic things, all the time. Do you take the gifts you’re given? Doesn’t it work better that way?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nanowrimo Day 1: Your First Draft is Always Going to Suck

Today's the day! I bet a lot of you are already writing.

So now all that prep gets thrown away and you simply start and keep going. And so I thought I'd post on just that, today.

It’s an interesting thing about blogging – it’s made us able to get a glimpse of hundreds of people’s lives on a moment-by-moment basis. I don’t have a lot of time (well, more to the point, I have no time at all) to read other blogs; I can barely keep up with posting to Murderati and my own blog. But I do click through on people’s signature lines sometimes to see what they’re up to; it’s an extension of my natural writerly voyeurism.

And a certain pattern has emerged with the not-yet-published writers I spy on.

It goes something like this: “My current WIP is stalled, so I’ve been working on a short story.” “I’ve gotten nothing done on my WIP this week.” “I have reached the halfway point and have no idea where to go from here.” “I had a great idea for a new book this week and I’ve been wondering if I should just give up on my WIP and start on this far superior idea.”

Do you start to see what I’m seeing? People are getting about midway through a book, and then lose interest, or have no idea where to go from where they currently are, or realize that a different idea is superior to what they’re working on and panic that they’re wasting their time with the project they’re working on, and hysteria ensues.

So I wanted to take today’s blog to say this, because it really can’t be said often enough.

Your first draft always sucks.

I’ve been a professional writer for almost all of my adult life and I’ve never written anything that I didn’t hit the wall on, at one point or another. There is always a day, week, month, when I will lose all interest in the project I’m working on. I will realize it was insanity to think that I could ever write the fucking thing to begin with, or that anyone in their right mind would ever be interested in it, much less pay me for it. I will be sure that I would rather clean houses (not my own house, you understand, but other people’s) than ever have to look at the story again.

And that stage can last for a good long time. Even to the end of the book, and beyond, for months, in which I will torture my significant other for week after week with my daily rants about how I will never be able to make the thing make any sense at all and will simply have to give back the advance money.

And I am not the only one. Not by a long shot. It’s an occupational hazard that MOST of the people I know are writers, and I would say, based on anecdotal evidence, that this is by far the majority experience - even though there are a few people (or so they say) who revise as they’re going along and when they type “The End” they actually mean it. Hah. I have no idea what that could possibly feel like.

Even though you will inevitably end up writing on projects that SHOULD be abandoned, you cannot afford to abandon ANY project. You must finish what you start, no matter how you feel about it. If that project never goes anywhere, that’s tough, I feel your pain. But it happens to all of us. You do not know if you are going to be able to pull it off or not. The only way you will ever be able to pull it off is to get in the unwavering, completely non-negotiable habit of JUST DOING IT.

Your only hope is to keep going. Sit your ass down in the chair and keep cranking out your non-negotiable minimum number of daily pages, or words, in order, until you get to the end.

This is the way writing gets done.

Some of those pages will be decent, some of them will be unendurable. All of them will be fixable, even if fixing them means throwing them away. But you must get to the end, even if what you’re writing seems to make no sense of all.

You have to finish.

I’ve had a couple of weeks in which my page marker has not moved past the number 198 because I keep deleting. Nothing I write makes any sense. I don’t have enough characters, I’m not giving the characters I have enough time in these scenes, I have no conception of yacht terminology and am spending hours of my days researching only to find I’m more confused about how things work on a boat than when I started.

I have Hit. The. Wall.

Yeah, yeah, cue World’s Smallest Violin.

Because – so what?

It always happens. I’m not special.

At some point you will come to hate what you're writing. That's normal. That pretty much describes the process of writing. It never gets better. But you MUST get over this and FINISH. Get to the end, and everything gets better from there, I promise. You will learn how to write in layers, and not care so much that your first draft sucks. Everyone's first draft sucks. It's what you do from there that counts.

That is not to say you can't set aside a special notebook and take 15 minutes a day AFTER you've done your minimum pages on the main project, and brainstorm on that other one. I'm a big fan of multitasking.

But working on that project is your reward for keeping moving on your main project.

Finish what you start. It’s your only hope.

And may the Force be with you, today and all month.

- Alex


If you live in North Carolina, I'm being interviewed by D.G. Martin on North Carolina Bookwatch, UNC-TV, this afternoon, Sunday, at 5 p.m.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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