Three Dirty Birds Talk…About Writing and Writing Books


As a direct result of a random tweet by Zoe X. Rider, the Three Dirty Birds column/blog posts was born. It’s just myself, Ana J. Phoenix, and Zoe, talking about whatever turns our crank.

And, without further ado, I present our inaugural post:

Welcome to Three Dirty Birds Talk, where three dirty birds talk about writing, sex, wine, and whatever else takes our fancy (usually sex).

Today, we’re talking about a writing book we’ve all read and fallen in love with, but is it right for the erotic romance genre? Does it have a satisfying climax?

The book in question is Story Trumps Structure by Steven James, which purports to be a writing book for pantsers. (But you can still read it when you’re not wearing pants.)

We’ve decided to go through it, chapter by chapter, and see if it fits any better than our pants.

So, Chapter One: The Ceiling Fan Principle

Kate: I can’t read this title without thinking about all those old comedies where a guy gets hooked on a ceiling fan and spins around until he’s suddenly flung off, decimating the bad guys.

Ana: Would that still count as something going wrong?

Zoe: For the bad guys.

Kate: Despite my rather ADD attention span, what he’s actually talking about is how a story never really starts until something goes wrong.

Zoe: I think this is the first writing book I’ve read where that’s been spelled out so clearly right from the get go: something has to go wrong, or you don’t have a story.

Ana: I like that it’s really easy to understand and remember for my ADD mind.

Kate: ADD seems to be a common thread around here…

Zoe: Were you saying something?

Kate: Never.

Zoe: I think we sometimes create these characters that we fall in love with, and we just want to toodle along and see good things happen to them. (Well, maybe not you guys. You guys might like torturing your characters.)

Ana: I’m going to pretend like that doesn’t apply to me.

Kate: Ha! Considering the end I wrote into Bite Me last week, I have to say, I resemble that remark.

Ana: He does say readers want to see things go wrong to the characters they care about. Not sure I agree with that. I mean, yes, it has to happen, but I don’t know that people really read hoping to see something horrible happen. Consciously.

Kate: I think it’s more to do with knowing that everything will turn out all right in the end, unlike in real life. They enjoy reading about things going wrong, because, in a romance anyway, there will always be some sort of happy ending and closure. It’s hopeful.

Zoe: It’s rewarding, seeing people overcome the odds, as uncomfortable as the journey can be getting there sometimes.

Ana: I think that’s a big part of what I like about reading romance.

I’d agree with you there.

Ana: Like when I see a character being mangled I’m looking forward to seeing him put back together. (Comfort sex anyone?)

I love hurt/comfort when it’s done well. LOVE.

Ana: I love hurt/comfort.

Kate: Oh, good, I have an audience when I get around to the side story from Knight. There is something that he misses in the book, is all the different forms of romance writing there is. Hurt/comfort is a story arc that he doesn’t really address, mostly because this is a more general ‘book for all genres’, but I think, also, because he’s a thriller writer and any romance in his book would be a subplot. Or a fridge.

Ana: I’m in love with my fridge.

I really liked the point he made about “Characters make choices to reduce tension (after something goes wrong.” It gives you active characters.

Kate: That’s a useful distinction, too. Especially since some characters make choices that reduce tension temporarily, but end up ratcheting it up in the long run. Short term thinkers, my characters. (Not. So. Bright.)

Ana: Well, most choices characters make should eventually ratchet up the tension. Even if the character thinks it’s well thought out. (Not that a lot of my characters seem to do much thinking. Not with their heads, anyway.)

I think of that as the “because” effect. “Because the character decided to do (or not do) this, this happened.”

Kate: When I’m critiquing, I call it ‘supporting their choices’. There has to be enough in the way of characterization or foreshadowing to make the choices logical, then the logical consequence follows.

Zoe: Which goes back to the character’s desire: he/she’s going to be making choices based on that.

Ana: I think we can safely say desire is key. (Maybe even for non-erotica)

Kate: Lol. Desire is what drives characters, some change they need to make in their circumstances or themselves.

Zoe: Or even the desire to avoid some change.

Kate: And then something goes wrong…

Ana: I love how he mentions the erotica genre once and then never brings it up again.

Zoe: Because erotica’s the only genre, you guys, where people are allowed to have sex early in the story without it ruining the story!

Ana: I know! That’s why I write it!

Kate: Okay, so overall, what did you ladies (and I say that advisedly) think of what Mr. James had to say in the first chapter?

Ana: Some good, some bad. (The bad being the lack of erotica, of course.) I liked what he said about tension-driven stories, because I think that’s something a lot of beginning writers tend to neglect.

Zoe: Yeah, I think he put some important stuff right up front and said it pretty clearly.

Kate: That clarity was huge for me. Some books are so dense, and you’d swear the writer is writing it more to show how smart they are than to actually teach. I thought he did a good job turning things on their heads, like talking about how you need to think about what should go wrong, instead of what should happen. I did sense a little disdain(?) maybe for the romance genre?

Ana: Reading the book sometimes made me feel that he didn’t understand the romance genre very well, and probably doesn’t read it much, but I can forgive it. (Not sure I can forgive the lack of erotica, of course. Too many writing books tell me my characters can’t have sex. Or, at least not with body parts being mentioned!)

Zoe: I sensed some disdain for plotters too. But I just kind of read past that, because around that, there was good stuff.

Kate: That’s true. There’s good stuff in this chapter, but if you write romance or, I suspect, fantasy, you might have to roll your eyes a few times.

Ana: So, ladies, want to give me some ideas on how to keep the ‘romantic tension’ up in a book where you have your characters fall into bed with each other in the first chapter? (Or well, before the ending, anyway.)

Romance and physical sex are two different things. When I want to up the romantic tension, I focus on the emotions. Not on the crotch.

Ana: Well said!

Zoe: Right—in romance, you’re keeping them from a happy ending…till the ending.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our first rough foray into Three Dirty Birds. We’ll be talking about Chapter Two (how to open a story) over at Zoe’s blog on Wednesday!

About the author: Kate Lowell

6 comments to “Three Dirty Birds Talk…About Writing and Writing Books”

You can leave a reply or Trackback this post.
  1. gillianstkevern - June 23, 2014 Reply

    Hey! I’m currently reading Story Trumps Structure for the first time (am 42% through, just about to start Chapter 9) on a recommendation from Ana, so I’m really happy to see this discussion going! I am really interested to see what the three of you think about escalating tension and the questions he poses writers as you progress through the book.

  2. Kate Lowell - June 23, 2014 Reply

    You’re certainly welcome to join in on the discussion in the comments. We’d love to hear other people’s impressions of the book!

  3. Ana - June 24, 2014 Reply

    Glad you found your way here, Gillian!

    • Zoe X. Rider - June 25, 2014 Reply

      Oh good, you’re dragging more people in, Ana. 🙂 And someone who likes vampires, even! We can keep her.

  4. gillianstkevern - June 25, 2014 Reply

    I am happy to be kept! I’m now 77% threw Story versus Structure, and am finding it more useful the further into it I get. I am pretty sure I won’t be able to resist adding my opinion in the comments of your future posts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Email address is required.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.