Anatomy of a Romance Cover

Authors, who tend to have little control over how their books are packaged and presented to readers, often complain that the covers of historical romance novels tend to be too generic, neglecting to capture what’s unique about the content in the pages behind the cover.

I’ve been very lucky with the covers that have come from my publisher. I absolutely love the cover for Tempting Bella, my second book, which features a wedding dress.  And once I heard that naked man chest outsells other covers by a rate of 10 to 1, I asked to test out that theory for Engaging the Earl, my fourth book.  I also wanted Earl to have the same  look and feel as Bella and was pleased with the result.

Tempting Bella-Engaging the Earl

When I decided to self-publish my fifth title, the opportunity to have complete control over the book’s final look was both daunting and exciting. I turned to Carrie at Seductive Designs for guidance.

Since Spy Fall features a parachuting heroine who also pilots hot air balloons, I very much wanted Mari’s unique profession to feature prominently on the cover. I happily scoured stock photo sites for images of a cover couple and hot air balloon. I came up with the perfect images, which turned out not to be so perfect. In the end, I happily dumped my first choices for the photos Carrie suggested and the result is a cover I adore.

Spy Fall (final) 800 @ 72 dpi low res

But, getting to this final look took some work. And I’ve asked Carrie to tell us a little bit about what went into it.

Carrie: The look of Spy Fall started with Diana’s request to have a really great “S” for the word Spy.  That was the one thing that she knew she wanted to emphasize from the very start.  I think a lot of authors who haven’t had a cover designed for them before are surprised at how important the fonts of the text are to create a cover that gives the right impression. 
I initially chose the couple and background in the middle sample. But once I saw it laid out, I went for the look on the far right, which Carrie went on to refine.

Diana initially chose the couple and background in the middle sample. But once she saw it laid out, Diana went for the look on the far right, which Carrie went on to refine.

You can see from these initial samples that the text of the cover didn’t vary much from beginning to end. Which is actually pretty unusual, but I had a vision of how I wanted it to look overall and it worked (which doesn’t always happen).We didn’t really know what images we were going to use, but I had a pretty good idea of the fonts that I thought would work well for the title as well as for Diana’s name, and where we were going to place all of the text.

We finally decided on the couple in #3 because of the connection between the two models. It’s intimate and touching and the female model plays a very dominant role in the image. She seems strong, yet vulnerable and protected by her hero at the same time which was perfect for our lady Spy. I love that the couple plays such a strong role on the cover, and the beautiful blue greens of the sea that evoke the danger and turbulence that our heroine faces.

While the colors are vibrant we kept the color palette fairly simple so as not to overwhelm you with too much too look at. By keeping to blues, greens and yellows, it let’s you really focus on what’s important, the couple, the hot air balloon and the text. It doesn’t try to visually represent all aspects of the story, just the most important ones.

There are a lot of little things that make the design work, but I don’t think you want me to get into the minutiae…like how the slope of the coastline leads into the fall of her dress and how they are holding hands. Or that the line of their heads angle down to the hot air balloon parallel to the coastline. And that the “action” of the cover reads left to right. It starts high on the left and angles down to the right. That’s not a happy accident, it’s deliberate. Little things like that that you probably didn’t notice, but when you see it it’s pleasing to the eye. Your brain likes it, even if you don’t know why 🙂

In the end it’s a combination of aesthetics, color, finding and personalizing the right images to fit the story, and maybe one or two happy accidents in addition to careful planning and communication between Diana and myself. I’m just thrilled that the cover is being received well, and that Diana loves it and how it represents her story. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into making a cover that readers will find appealing.

Diana: What makes a good cover?

Carrie: I think the best way to try to explain it is by giving you some comparisons. First, let’s take two different covers that were released within weeks of each other for the same author, Janice Kay Johnson, in the Romantic Suspense genre. Janice is a RITA-award winning author of more than 80 books, most of which are with Harlequin, and she’s now starting to self publish some of her books herself.

I created a cover for Janice’s new series, Shroud of Fog is the first, and another cover artist created a cover for another of her romantic suspense novels, Dangerous Waters. They were released within weeks of each other. Same genre, same author…totally different sales. I don’t know the full sales history of either book, but I do occasionally check books that I’ve created covers for to see how they are selling compared to an author’s other books, and against their competition.

Shroud of Fog was released Jan. 31, 2014 and is currently ranked 17,918 in Kindle sales. It’s seemed to have steady sales from the get to. Maybe not NYT bestseller list sales, but it has sold well for the author. Dangerous Waters was released Jan. 17, 2014 and is currently ranked 224,509 in Kindle sales. That’s a dramatic difference in sales for books by the same author in the same genre in the same time frame. True, not all books are received the same, but neither book has many reviews so I don’t know that you can say that one book is necessarily better than the other…at least not based on reviews. So you could say that the cover design might be driving sales up for one, and down for another (this is just a theory).

shroud of fog-dangerous waters copy
Let’s take a look at Dangerous Waters first. The book description describes a couple attracted to each other while on the run, desperate, and in danger. So a woman looking over her shoulder makes sense. It’s set in a small town where the heroine rescues the hero in a lake at twilight so the lake makes sense. I think where this cover goes wrong is that the heroine is made less important than the lake. She’s almost like a ghost in the water. And while the blues and oranges are bright colors the landscape isn’t appealing enough to have the most important role in the cover imagery. The cover artist used fonts that were easily readable, which is good, but dark letters on a dark background don’t stand out well when you are browsing titles at a small scale. We have three things that don’t really work well together. The woman is hard to see when the cover is small, the text is hard to read when the cover is too small, and the landscape picture that dominates the cover isn’t as appealing as it should be. These three things combined work against this book (at least IMO).

Now let’s take a look at Shroud of Fog. The book description describes a woman seeking refuge, a killer threatened to be exposed and a wounded hero trying to protect the woman that he’s come to love. It was important to both the author and me to find a couple that gave the impression of love and tenderness. With the woman resting her head on the man’s shoulder and his hand caressing her cheek, you are visually connected to the hero protecting the woman and their blossoming love. And since the author’s books aren’t explicit romances, neither is the image.

Next we wanted to portray that sense of danger, and what could be more creepy than a shadowy figure in the woods? The sense of danger is just as important as the love story since it’s a romantic suspense novel, so they occupy equal space and are given equal importance on the cover. The colors are deliberately muted so that it’s more about the imagery than about the color. Sometimes color can work for you, and sometimes it can work against you. In this instance, I think it gave it a more misty, scary quality that ties in with the title Shroud of Fog. The fonts are also bigger so that they can be more easily read at smaller scales.

It’s interesting to see a comparison like this for a well-seasoned author where you would think a cover wouldn’t matter as much, but clearly it does. I think a great cover will help tell the author’s story visually using the most compelling elements. Keep it simple, make sure it’s easily legible, and hopefully is the best version of the author’s vision for her story.

Diana: Your second example involves a cover you revamped… 

Carrie:  It’s a cover for an author who wanted a book cover redesigned. One was designed by another cover artist, and then the author approached me about redesigning the cover using the same imagery. What kind of difference can there be if you use the same image on a cover? A LOT!

a measured risk
The hero in this book is a dominant male so the first thing I did was flip the image from having him on the right, to having him on the left. Visually the hero is going to seem more dominant subconsciously when on the left. The second thing I had to address were the details like her hair and dress. These were recolored to fit the story, but in the first version, all of the detail of her hair was lost when changing it from honey blond to black. Trust me when I say details like this can be tedious, time-consuming work, but when you get it wrong, you notice that it’s not right.
One of the best compliments that I can get is that you don’t notice all of the changes that have been made to stock images to personalize it to the author’s story. However, the biggest flaw in the previous version is the background. It overpowers the entire cover. The background has the same kind of visual importance as the main couple, in fact it fights for dominance…and when you have an alpha hero like the one in this story, that’s not what you want. We’ve got a beautiful male model to work with so why would we want to overpower his presence with a very busy background? It’s called a background/backdrop for a reason. It should compliment rather than distract.
Finally, I changed the fonts and the placement of the text. The author has a very long last name so placement can be tricky, and by placing her name in the center of the cover, which usually lends the name more importance, it actually kind of gets lost because of all of the visual busyness at the top. So even though her name is now at the bottom, and one of the last things you might see, it is more prominent. Using a different font, and emphasizing the work “Risk” (which carries through the rest of the series) for the title completed the new look. Same image, two totally different looks.

After the author switched out the cover image her sales immediately shot up to a level that she had never seen before (according to an email she sent me). I was very happy that the new cover did it’s job and helped readers find a lovely love story.

You can ask 10 different people and probably get 10 different answers. A good cover is somewhat subjective, but by keeping it simple, stunning and legible, you can never go wrong.

Diana: What covers are you loving right now?

Carrie: I personally tend to be drawn to a more artistic-looking cover that is both beautiful and striking. Some of my newest favorites are Grace Burrowes’ Captive Hearts series.  I love the colors, the flowing fabrics…everything about them speaks to the designer and romance reader in me. I think they are just STUNNING (and I’m sure cost a pretty penny, too). 


Engaging the senses in your writing

I was talking with my eleven year old son the other day and he was explaining in great detail about these people who I later learned are from the fictional online gaming world of Wizard 101. This isn’t the first time he’s done it, either. Both my kids regularly refer to characters from TV shows or electronic games as though they’re real. It drives both me and my husband crazy.

But then I started thinking that isn’t this what writers look for when we craft our stories? We want the characters to feel so real to the reader that they could be someone you know—or would like to know. Or could imagine falling in love with. Who doesn’t want to get that little catch in your gut like the heroine does when the hero gives her a smoldering glance?

How do you write to fully engage your reader?

Here are some examples of how to use your five senses to bring your reader into the story. These excerpts are from the partially edited second book in my Tangled Hearts series, Forever In My Heart, which will be coming out soon.


Vicky bit into a forkful of baked ziti and reveled in the divine combination of garlic, basil, tomatoes, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses along with the slight bite of red pepper.


Back in the main room, Maggie poured his coffee, and he took it along with a cinnamon bun to his usual table by the window. Slathering the top with butter, he took a huge bite into a sticky explosion of brown sugar laced dough.

Sight and Smell

Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. A few strands escaped and curled against her neck. She smelled like berries, apples, and cinnamon and he had to fight the urge to reach out and see if she tasted as good.


He reached out and touched her arm. A spark jumped between them. She must have felt it, too, because she jolted. All these years and his blood still heated up being near her.


Surprised, she cried out and acted on pure instinct—or stupidity. She elbowed him in the gut. He grunted a moment before the gun clanked to the gun. She attempted to step aside, but her assailant grabbed her arm and punched her in the jaw. It wasn’t a strong punch, but it caused her to gasp for breath. Grabbing the cake carrier, she swiveled and smashed him in the head. He yelped and fell, swearing when he hit the hard ground.


In case you can’t tell, there are lots of food references in Forever In My Heart. I leveraged my Italian background in my story and enjoyed creating what I hope are scenes that make the reader imagine being inside Vicky’s café or at least make you crave something decadent. 🙂

Cinnamon buns anyone?

While writing this post, I did realize I shy away describing sounds in my story. It’s given me a renewed energy look for ways to go into more depth as I continue with my edits.

What tips do you have to engage your reader in the story?


(Photo)journaling as inspiration

When I was around thirteen years old, like many teenagers, I went through a period of journal writing. I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to write, and it went very quickly from something I thought of as fun, to something I considered a chore. If I didn’t write in my journal at least every other night, I considered I was failing at journaling.

I guess I felt like I didn’t have much to say. I wasn’t a typical angst-ridden teen. I had a great life, and I knew it. My biggest complaint was having to do housework on the weekends. I didn’t really like boys at that point, thanks to having two relentless older brothers who teased me mercilessly. Why would I voluntarily add another boy into the mix?

Drawing came much easier to me than writing words. I spent hours in my room, listening to my stereo, sprawled out on the floor with sketchbooks and pencils.


Mostly I used pictures in books or on album covers as my inspiration. I drew Dennis DeYoung, Linda Ronstadt, George Michael, Frank Sinatra. I copied an album cover onto the back of my brother’s denim jacket, and painted it (New Riders of the Purple Sage). I drew my feet, my hands, my dog, a self-portrait.

Drawing is a great hobby for a writer. It forces you to really observe. I soon went from drawing in my room, to getting outside and drawing from nature. It’s amazing what you see when you lie on your stomach in the grass. There’s a whole new world down there. Once I turned seventeen and got my driver’s license, I headed down to the beach, sketching everything from lighthouses, to fishermen baiting hooks, to windsurfers preparing to hop on their boards. The Jersey Shore has its own culture, and it has always fascinated me.

It was about that time that I became friends with a guy I worked with. Tony Gonzalez was (and still is) a photographer (see, and I soon added photography to my list of journaling tools. Tony and I would head down to Long Branch and shoot under the boardwalks, using black and white film.




I love the nuances in grey scale. It makes the subject’s details obvious to the eye, adding light and shade, highlight and depth, texture and mood. Take, for example, this photo of an ant on a daisy.


IMG_9112IMG_9112 b&w










The color photo’s story is cheerful, a happy little ant tooling along on a daisy stem, the yellow of the daisy’s center like a ray of sunshine. The black and white photo, however, tells a different story. The wilted flower now looks harshly dead, and the ant appears more sinister. It’s as if he sucked the life out of the flower, and is marching on to attack his next victim.

Whoever said “A picture is worth a thousand words” was a wise person, indeed. Not only do my photos remind me of details upon which I can draw in my writing, they are also the jumping-off points for stories. Take this photo of the Duomo in Milan.


If you don’t know the Duomo, it is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world, and it took nearly four hundred years to complete. That last fact, alone, is fodder for a writer. Imagine the lives of the cathedral builders, artisans, craftspeople! In fact, Ken Follett did, in his amazing novel, The Pillars of the Earth.

I love to take photos of people, as well as places. Aren’t you just dying to know the story behind this violin player on the streets of Rome? Or to make one up for him?002


Is he really a poor man looking to make a few euros to get him through the day? Or is he laughing behind that big smile, rolling in dough and just enjoying his retirement, playing a part? Is he married? How many children does he have? Grandchildren? What is his house like? Since my stories always start from the human element, often my photos give me ideas for stories I want to write in the future.

Whenever I travel, my camera goes with me, along with a little notebook to record details about certain photos, or tactile experiences. What was the air like on that day when the mist hung over the water? Did my skin taste salty after walking in the fog at the shore? Did I twist my ankle walking down that winding cobblestone road in Orvieto? How cool was it to use only a golf cart for transportation in Costa Rica?

If my pictures are good enough, every little detail of my experiences, including tactile ones, can be recorded with a click of a button, to use at a later date when I’m back in the confines of my office, working on my next story. They help flesh out the people, places and things. For me, characters and settings rich in details are what make a story worth reading.

Do you journal, with words or pictures? What do you get out of it? Dish with me.  🙂




Author Website Design 101

Recently, I spoke to a colleague who made her first sale. I remember the feeling for me, almost a year ago…a little numb, a lot anxious, and very excited. During my journey, I began establishing the social networking tools for publication: Twitter, Facebook, and a website. Signing that contract changed my perspective on my toolset. As a result, I refined my author repertoire in preparation for “release day”.

One of my big changes is that I completely revamped my website. Never having done a website or a blog before, I had started out with a free WordPress blog that doubled as my website. While that helped me get my feet wet, I wanted something with a little more pizazz. My domain was hosted through so I started there but ended up choosing Wix to create the actual website. Having a tech background, I didn’t mind rolling up my sleeves to figure out how to use the application, which is very user-friendly.

Below are some things you need to consider before you get started.


What is your author brand? Not your book brand, although the genre you write is a part of branding you as an author. What do you want your readers—yes, you’ll have them—to think about when they hear your name or first come into your site? If you write dark, paranormal stories or romantic suspense, you may want darker colors or a picture that will allow the reader to convey this at first glance.

Since I write contemporary, I struggled with my brand. Finally, I decided to keep it simple. I picked colors I liked and found an image of vines that reminded me of my Tangled Hearts series.


Playing second string, or, the importance of supporting players

Much attention has been given on this blog to main characters, their GMC (Goals, Motivation and Conflict), their character traits, and their story arc. What, then, of secondary characters and the supporting roles they play?

Like your hero and heroine, secondary characters need to serve a purpose in your manuscript. Following are some common secondary character types in romantic fiction, and their examples from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

File:Pride and Prejudice5 1940.jpg

The Comic Relief

When the going gets tough for the H/H, this character provides levity. The wise-cracking little brother, the brutally-honest best friend, the class clown. This person is often the wisest character in the story.  Whenever this character appears, he should make the reader (and hopefully your H/H) laugh. Mr. Bennet 

Layer Cake: How to Bake the Best Book

Okay, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a huge Suzanne Collins fan. From a readers perspective, Hunger Games was a story that rocked my world because it was unlike anything I’d read. A compelling heroine, who I was rooting for from page one. A setting that sparked my imagination. A plot that held my interest . . . for three books!

From a writer’s perspective, wow, she still rocks.

I’m revising a manuscript, and as I do so, a mental checklist is slowly being applied. It’s a technique I use in my 5th grade writing class, where students go through their writing and make sure they’re using similes or alliteration, etc.

My students loved the Hunger Games as well. So, in today’s post, I thought I’d share with you a discussion our class had about writing. How Suzanne Collins layered her story, and ways we, as writers, can add depth to our plots.

I know you might be thinking, come on already, you’re blogging about a 5th grade writing lesson. But keep reading, you might be surprised by what you know, and don’t know.

Ingredients Of A Great First Line

Golden Heart necklace2A special CONGRATULATIONS to our very own Femme, Joanna Shupe, whose historical manuscript, Drawn to the Earl, finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart contest! We’re all thrilled for her and wish her good luck in Atlanta!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve agonized over the first line in every one of my manuscripts. We’ve been told we only have a few lines, a paragraph, or maybe a page to draw the attention of an agent or editor. Talk about pressure. I recently attended a workshop on writing a fabulous first line, given by the wonderful Sarah MacLean. Let me share some of the ingredients Ms. MacLean shared to help writing your first line a little easier. I found them helpful and I hope you will, too.

In the Beginning: Tips on Starting Your Novel

Welcome! Congratulations to Roni Denholtz who won a $20 Amazon gift card in our most recent contest. We’ll contact Roni through email in order to coordinate her prize. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and I hope you enjoy my contribution this month.


When I first started writing, one of the concepts most challenging for me was finding the right place to start my story. My very first manuscript opened with the heroine stifling a yawn. Seriously. Needless to say, feedback on said story mentioned that the opening was, well, boring. Gee. Who wouldda thunk it?

If I’m being honest, I must admit that I’ve had to rewrite the opening of every single manuscript I’ve ever written, save the current one. (In fact, I have one manuscript where the opening has been redone FOUR times.) So I’ve done quite a bit of research into the current popular thinking on the best place to start a story. I say “current” because tastes and reader expectations change over time. Not only that, there seems to be a decided difference on what the established, popular authors can do and what is expected from newer authors. So don’t read this blog post and then go pick up a Johanna Lindsey or Nora Roberts book to compare your opening to theirs. There is a reason why the bestselling authors can do whatever the hell they want. This post is not aimed toward anyone who has ever had a hardcover book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

So where to begin? Even if you’re a pantser, you should have a rough idea of where your story is going before you start writing. These may be loose thoughts rattling around in your head like marbles, or a obsessive/compulsive outline of every thought, scene, and detail in your book. Assuming you’re ready to start writing, the first thing you want your story to do is grab the reader’s attention. We want them to keep reading, right? If a potential reader is flipping through your book and happens to read the first paragraph, you want to engage them until they can’t put the put down. Lots of factors contribute to a strong beginning, so let’s touch on a few here.

The First Few Pages

No one can tell you exactly how many pages you have to snag a reader, an editor, or an agent’s attention. Some folks say five, and some say fifteen. Some even say all you get is one stinking paragraph. But what you should take away as the answer is NOT MANY.

Author Nathan Bransford says, “When you’re starting a novel there are only two things you’re looking to find: Voice and Plot.” Sounds easy, right? (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

But it is fairly simple. Think of it this way: you want to give the reader an idea of what your story is about and how that story is going to be told right from the get-go.

While no one can give you the magic formula to do this successfully, there are surefire ways to NOT to do it. Here are some common no-nos on starting your novel, paraphrased from the brilliant Kristen Lamb:

  • Info-dump. The story begins with lengthy world building, lots of facts, or backstory. Snooze.
  • Starting right in the middle of the action. You’ve got to give your reader a reason to care about what happens to your character BEFORE it happens. This point may seem like a direct contradiction of the above about info-dumping, but it’s not. You have to find a happy medium there. We want enough character building that we care about the character, but not a bunch of useless information better given later in the story (if at all).
  • Flashbacks and prologues. These are generally unnecessary, as they don’t move your plot forward, and they can be confusing for the reader.

Author Crawford Killian believes, “A novel (or a short story for that matter) should begin at the moment when the story itself becomes inevitable.” I love that description. It means starting in a place where the hero can’t possibly turn away from this new path. Also, you’ve got to show the reader what’s at stake, so the character’s concerns matter to the reader. Which leads us to the…

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is defined as “A plot point in the first act which disturbs the life of the protagonist and sets them in pursuit of an objective.” In other words, it’s the ball that gets the whole story rolling. We all know we need an inciting incident, otherwise there’s no plot. According to Scribe Meets World, the inciting incident:

  • jolts your hero out of his everyday routine.
  • is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot.
  • is something that must happen in order for your hook to kick in.

Examples are someone dying, something is won or lost, a tornado is approaching, etc. It needs to be something out of the ordinary that happens to chart a new course for your hero. And this can’t be something the hero does, it’s something that happens to the hero.

Now that you know your inciting incident, the big question becomes WHERE in the story does it go?

Most experts agree it must occur in the first act, and should go as close to the beginning as possible to serve as the bait in order to hook the reader. The inciting incident creates tension, which compels the reader to keep reading in order to find out what happens.

The First Line

Oh boy. This is a tough one. First lines are tricky because they matter so darn much. Editors and agents are very busy, and if you want your work to be noticed, you have to pay attention to even the first words on the page. It has to be a grabber, and many blog posts I found lobbied for the first line to “surprise” the reader. No one can tell you how to come up with a witty or dramatic first line. That takes years a practice and lots of trial and error finding your own voice. I can, however, give….EXAMPLES!

Hooray! It’s time for samples. These are all great (in my opinion) first lines of popular romance novels. I’ve compiled a list of both historical, classics, romantic suspense, and contemporary. When you remember that the opening should give a good feel for the tone and voice, you can see why these first sentences are all outstanding.

Glory in Death, J.D. Robb

“The dead were her business.”

The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne

“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Catch of the Day, Kristan Higgins

“Falling in love with a Catholic priest was not my smartest move.”

Something About You, Julie James

“Thirty thousand hotel rooms in the city of Chicago, and Cameron Lynde managed to find one next door to a couple having a sex marathon.”

One for the Money, Janet Evanovich

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.”

Nothing But Trouble, Rachel Gibson

“Just because a man was lucky to be alive, didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.”

The Darkest Hour, Maya Banks

“He’d hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today.”

Bad Boys Do, Victoria Dahl

“This wasn’t a book club; it was a manhunt.”

Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.”

The Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas

“As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park.”

Did I leave off any of your favorite opening lines? We love hearing from readers, so please share!

And now I’m off to rewrite the beginning of my current manuscript. Happy writing!

Guest Post – Jenna Blue

Fellow NJRW member Jenna Blue joins us for a guest post this week. Don’t forget to comment! One lucky commenter in the month of January will win a box of handmade salted caramels. Please help us welcome Jenna.

How Does Writing Ruin Good Sleep? Let Me Count the Ways…

Hi All, Jenna Blue here, guest blogger. If you’ve been following the Violet Femmes, you know they are a talented, driven, generous, and classy quartet of writers. I’m honored to have been asked to contribute to their site.

Today, I’m covering the many ways that writing negatively impacts your sleep. Plus, my hints to catch better Zzzz’s despite your creative tendencies. First however, I’ll share a short anecdote about a night in my own writer’s life that illustrates a number of these nasty sleep disturbances.

A couple of months ago, I woke from a particularly scary action dream. Think Suzanne Brockman’s Navy Seals with a twist: I was one of the bad guys. My fellow baddies and I had holed up in a dark, shabby house. Without warning, a Seal reached in through the wide-open windows and garroted my cohort. As soon as he vanished, I had a clear view of another, standing not fifteen feet away. He held my eyes. He didn’t look bad—he looked good. Sexy and experienced. Rough and rugged, in full camouflage with pockets bulging from ammo. So representative of an American soldier—one you could trust, one who had a family. And yet, I knew he was coming for me.

I scrambled backwards on all fours then ran to the kitchen. I skittered back and forth yanking open cupboard doors, looking for a heavy pan in the pitch black. Time was up. I could feel him getting close. I grabbed a knife, short-handled but solid, the kind I carve up fruit for my kids with every single day. It felt heavy and comfortable as I turned it in my grip, ready to use overhand. Hoisting myself onto the counter, I tucked myself into a corner by the door. I shook in my boots, but was ready to attack from above.

Not so, in real life. I woke abruptly, knowing that my dream mirrored reality. I had heard something in the house. No—two somethings.

As I lay anxiously sorting out dream from wake, my body remained tense and my mind careened from one possibility to the next. Our son’s captain’s bed has an awful, groaning creak. Sometimes, the shaving mirror in the shower crashes to the floor. No—these noises had come from downstairs. That left the possibility that my daughter was sleep walking, or intruders had entered my home. My husband snored beside me, loud, making it a struggle to listen to the quiet.

Adding to my anxiety, I’ve been taking a Weapons for Writers class online (I highly recommend it if you get the chance!). One of the first assignments was to go through all our personal spaces and figure out what could be used as a weapon. So I’m wondering if the extra blanket I needed at bedtime can be thrown over an assailant’s head. It would only slow him for a moment, probably, unless my husband, far stronger than I, wrapped him in a bear hug, pinning him blind in the material. I’ve got a pen, of course, a writer always does, especially bedside, which could do real damage if wielded overhand like the knife in my dream. If my husband managed to pass me the phone, I could slide under the bed—I refuse to consider that I might not fit. There, I’d be out of the arc of a baseball bat and two grappling men, could call 911 and even set the phone to speaker so that the dispatcher could replay the tape later, if we were done in. I’d find one of the supports that are always falling out. It’s heavy wood, and with luck a screw would still be sticking out of one end. Then, I’d slip out silently from the foot of the bed and attack!

I’ve heard nothing truly threatening in all the minutes I’ve laid here listening. Still, it’s clear by now that I won’t rest until I’ve separated myself from the rumble and roar only two feet from my numbed eardrums and checked on things.

The kids are safe and sleeping. I retuck. I have calmed, but am not convinced. I consider going downstairs to the computer—I’m excited to submit some work on my romantic suspense to a couple of agents I’ve just pitched to, but have loads of revisions to input. Yet I don’t want to be down there alone. Aren’t you always yelling at the heroine, “No, don’t go down there, you idiot! You’re asking for it!”? I am. Plus, I’m smarter than that.

So instead, in the hallway at the top of the stairs I sink none too gracefully into what my kids now call—wait for it, it’s so very PC—a criss-cross applesauce position. I try very, very hard to erect a mental block against all the creepy villains I’ve read over the years as they trot through my mind as if they are on parade. Soon enough, the cold is seeping up through my butt, and my hips hate this position. Surely, I finally decide, there is no one downstairs.

I climb back in bed, but before I can drift off, my husband wakes. I get up with him. I’ll never sleep. Not with Navy Seals visiting my dreams, a mental tallying of weapons in my bedroom, and all manner of scary scenarios playing out in my overactive imagination. Five a.m. and I happily head downstairs. I hate reading dream sequences, but this one’s mine, and I feel a powerful urge to get it on paper.

So, there you have it: in one night, you’ve got half my reasons for losing sleep:

  1. Dreams that play out every bit as suspenseful as novels or movies.
  2. Research begging to be done.
  3. An overactive imagination.
  4. Too many creepy villains and scary plots read to date.
  5. The urge to put thoughts on paper, no matter the hour.

Here’s the others, many of which plague me regularly:

  1. Staying up late to read. Hello, this one’s a given.
  2. Browsing online for new releases or a favorite author’s backlist.
  3. Characters—mine or other authors’—that carry on in my head even once I’ve closed the book.
  4. Critiquing my pals’ manuscripts. I get just as into it as my own stories. Like reading a book, the laptop stays open way past my bedtime.
  5. Actively writing. Not matter how exhausted I am, if I’m into a scene, I don’t notice the clock ticking away my Zzzz’s.

So, readers, who are the characters visiting your dreams at night? Which authors cost you serious Zzzzz’s? Please post. The Femmes and I would love to hear from you.

And, finally, what are your tips for better sleep? Personally, I can’t cure the writing bug, I relish the pull of a good book, and I would never want to silence a muse who visits in the night. I do, however, swear by the following:

  1. Stick to a bedtime routine. Wind down the same way every night, and turn the lights out at a designated hour.
  2. Don’t use the living room as a bedroom or the TV as a nightlight. Conversely, don’t pay bills or work in your bedroom.
  3. Honor your body clock. If you need eight hours sleep, start the routine early enough to get it.
  4. Exercise. At least sometimes.
  5. Eat a good dinner—but not too much, not too early, not too late, not too rich. Save the chocolate for the afternoon slump. It’s known to cause nightmares.
  6. Don’t read a good book. “Ack!!! What!?!” Seriously, if you are desperate for a good night’s sleep, don’t pick up the awesome book. Grab something boring—anything that doesn’t include loveable characters, hot kisses, sexy heroes, heart-tripping suspense, or fabulous chapter-ending hooks lurking inside to keep you awake.

And last but certainly not least:

  1. Do something every day towards your writing goals. (This might not be making a certain page count. Instead, you might do a little research, brainstorm with a writing friend, or read a chapter in a grammar book.) If you do, you’ll sleep peacefully, knowing that little by little, you are making your dreams come true.

Long ago in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Jenna Blue hid one of her mom’s novels, a Kathleen Woodiwiss, in her nightstand drawer to be savored after lights out. Certainly she was too young to be reading anything that enthralling, but the die was cast.

She declared creative writing as her major at Penn State with the goal of becoming a romance writer, however she wasn’t willing to become a starving artist right out of school. The next best thing (one level above starving): a career in publishing as a book designer in New York City.

After a few ill-timed starts and many years of membership in Romance Writers of America and New Jersey Romance Writers, Jenna is finally making the dream a priority. Somehow, someway, somewhere between the demands of a busy career and a thriving family, she’s writing romantic suspense and enjoying every minute.

Can you see what I see? Visualization Using Props, Symbols, and Motifs

Last week on the Femmes, Janet blogged about being a “Fan Girl” or “Fan Boy”. Character visualization can help us strengthen our writing, by picturing what the hero, heroine, or even secondary characters look like. When I write, I try to put myself in my heroine or hero’s shoes—depending on whose POV I’m in. What do they see, hear, smell, taste, feel? Combining all these elements is an important aspect that brings depth into your story and evokes an emotional pull to the characters. It’s what makes us cry when something traumatizing happens or when the H/H finally make love. Even when the H/H kicks the bad guy’s ass.

What are some of the elements used in painting this picture and drawing out this emotion?


Do your characters have a favorite shirt or maybe a tattoo on their back? Something that distinguishes them from the other characters and defines them, uniquely? In my current WIP, my heroine, Kate, has a penchant for four-inch heels. For her, the extra height compensates for her vertical challenge and makes her feel on equal level as others around her. However, for the hero, they’re a serious turn-on.

“Edward glanced down at the high-heeled black leather boots Kate wore. They came up to just under her knee and hugged her calf like a second skin. As usual, the heel was close to four inches, and while looking at them made the blood rush to his groin, they didn’t seem practical for an afternoon of baking cookies.” (Excerpt from Love’s Second Chance by Maria K. Alexander)


An object can also be used to symbolize something important in the story. In my current WIP, the bad guy stalks the heroine and leaves dead roses as his calling card. All she needs to do is see it to know he’s been there or is watching her. In this case, the symbol is used as a way to intimidate the heroine, along with send her a message—I’m waiting for you.

Symbols can also be used as a way of outwardly expressing a person’s state of mind or the evolution of the character. In Carly Phillips book, Sealed with a Kiss, Molly is known for her fashion sense and bold colors. When the hero sees her at the start of the book, gone is the vibrant woman he remembered from a year past.

“…he realized that the woman who dressed for maximum impact was nowhere to be seen. Sure, she’d been in her red cowboy boots the day she’d come to see him, but he’d noted her bland-colored top then, and taking in her outfit now, he wasn’t the only one who’d changed. (Excerpt from Sealed with a Kiss by Carly Phillips)

By the end of the book, we know Molly has resolved her issues and is back to her old self when she shows up at the hero’s office wearing a colorful shirt and her red cowboy boots.


A motif is a recurring object or theme throughout the story. Sometimes, it can be used along with a symbol to convey something important to the story. I found a blog below that explains more about motifs. It gives an example of the ring in Lord of the Rings serving as a motif representing the battle between good and evil.

In the Harry Potter series, I think the Sorting Hat is a symbol that represents the choice of good over evil. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Sorting Hat gives Harry the option of picking Gryffindor or Slytherin as his house. In the Chamber of Secrets, the hat is brought by Fawkes and carries the sword of Godric Gryffindor, and is by Harry to destroy the Basilisk. In Deathly Hallows, the hat is presented to Neville, again carrying Gryffindor’s sword that is used to kill Nagini.

These tools can be useful in deepening the intimacy between the reader and the characters. Maybe the reader can relate to the heroine who has a short fuse and uses her anger as a way to deflect dealing with a situation. Or maybe the motif is used to symbolize something about the story itself. In one of my favorite books, Welcome to Temptation, by the fabulous Jennifer Crusie, the water tower painted to resemble a phallus foreshadows the questionable issues that will be posed in the story about a pornographic movie being filmed in the town.

How about you? What types of props, symbols, or motifs have you used in your books or encountered in books you’ve read? Post your examples and be qualified to win a box of sea salt caramels. Comment each week this month to increase your chance to win.

Happy writing!


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