Posted On January 31, 2011 by Print This Post

Shop Talk – Romance Writers Workshops Debriefed

Naming Your Characters – Alpha Heroes – Love Scenes – The Perfect Query Letter – Synopsis Writing – Plotting – Writing Humor – BDSM – Characterization – World Building

When I decided to take workshops last year, I was amazed at the myriad of classes available. It’s kind of like being at a shoe sale. You’re there to buy a pair of sensible pumps and you end up with several pairs of shoes you don’t need. I say this because I took at least twelve workshops in 2010. While I learned something from each one, I went overboard.

Some workshops sounded fun, but they didn’t fit my current needs. Some workshops weren’t interesting enough to keep my attention. And some workshops made me question my sanity and ask myself why I wanted to be a writer. Ironically, it was these workshops that helped me the most.

The Plotting Wheel: Instructors – Becky Martinez and Sue Viders
This workshop covers the ten integral parts of plotting a story. Characters-Crusade-Cause-Complications-Companions-Clashes-Crisis-Change-Climax-Conclusion.

The class consisted of ten assignments beginning with characters and ending with the conclusion. I thought I knew my characters, their GMC and the plot. After all, it was my story. Wrong. But why, Jennifer? I heard that a lot in the first couple of weeks. Becky and Sue made me reach for the pickaxe and shovel. Why became my mantra for the next few weeks.

Why does Casey refuse to get involved with Gray?
Uh, because she’s had a string of bad relationships.
But why has she had a string of bad relationships?
Um, because she doesn’t feel worthy of being loved.
But why doesn’t she feel worthy of being loved?
Gee, because her mother’s a cold-hearted social climber with a penchant for Italian leather goods, who physically and emotionally abused Katie.

The class forced me to dig deeper and flesh out my character’s true motivations, their attributes and flaws, the cause of their fears and needs. I was the shrink asking questions and taking notes while my characters lay on the sofa in my imaginary office and spilled their guts. The answer was there. I just had to find it. And boy, I suffered through a lot of ‘duh’ moments.

I learned the importance of fully developing my characters from the inside out. Because of this, I was able to weave their emotions and motivations into the plot more effectively and make the story more engaging. A great plot is nothing without strong characters.

Becky and Sue commented on every assignment and addressed all of the participant’s questions. I found it interesting that they each pointed out different problems when commenting on my assignments. The class handouts are definite keepers. I still refer to them to when I’m creating a character.

Synopsis Workshop: Instructor – Mary Buckham
As writers, we all know the synopsis is a permanent part of our landscape. A contest newbie, I’d noticed some contests which required a synopsis. There were several examples of synopses on-line and lots of blogs on how-to-write-a-synopsis. And they all had conflicting information.

In Mary’s class, the assignments required us to fill out a template. Each template covered one of the elements of a synopsis—characters, internal and external plots, the first plot and second plot points, the black moment and resolution. Combine the templates in their respective order et voilà a synopsis! It’s a simple, no-nonsense approach, and it’s a lot tougher than it sounds.
Answering the questions on the templates required more digging.

Again, I thought I knew my story, but Mary (a serious taskmaster, who’s also seriously nice) questioned my character’s motivations and pointed out possible plot holes. While I knew the answers, my problem was presenting them in a concise and coherent manner. By the end of class, I understood the importance of each component in a synopsis. I managed to write a 500-word synopsis for my projected 100K word manuscript. Let me tell you, amazed doesn’t even come close.

Mary also provided two different methods of writing a synopsis, one which includes back-story, derived from the internal conflict (for romance) and another, written with back-story based on external conflict (for suspense-action).

While there was a limit to the number of participants in the class, I was astonished that Mary followed everyone’s stories, gave individual feedback and patiently answered our questions. Writing a synopsis isn’t my favorite thing to do, but this class clearly defined the purpose of a synopsis and made it less scary. I completed a ten-page synopsis two weeks ago. I know I would’ve been in a straitjacket if not for this class. The handouts are the bible of synopsis writing. Learn from the master.

Writing Hot Delicious Love Scenes: Instructor – Nicole North
A kiss isn’t just a kiss when you’re trying to convey the emotion behind that kiss, how it feels and tastes. Providing examples through written scenes and videos, Nicole combines the necessary elements of a love scene beginning with vocabulary. What you say? Well, how many different ways can one describe body parts?

One of the things I liked the most about the workshop was the way it progressed, much like a build-up to a love scene. That is, there was a logical order to the lessons. After gaining a foothold on vocabulary, we explored sexual tension, motivation, and foreplay as well as the physical and emotional aspects of sex.

I learned a lot about writing internal thoughts and deep POV, which is necessary in a love scene. What are your characters thinking about during intimacy? Is your heroine mentally balancing her checkbook while the hero’s thinking she’s the next best thing to the NFL cable channel and a cold six pack? Does your heroine have an emotional response in addition to her physical one? If there’s one thing that stuck with me, it was how a love scene wasn’t really about the sex, rather how the act affected the character’s emotions and how it added to the conflict.

This was my first workshop. It taught me how to write a well-balanced, emotionally satisfying love scene through the use of dialogue (establishes the personality of the character) and the senses (very important), deep POV and internalizations (get inside his/her head), and humor (personalizes the scene).

I’ll admit I’m shy about having people read my stuff. However, Nicole created a comfortable environment for the class participants to share their assignments. I’ve taken two other workshops from Nicole, Sexual Tension and Instinctive Characterization, which were well worth my time.

A gifted and enthusiastic instructor, Nicole gives plenty of feedback and patiently answers everyone’s questions. I’ll share a secret with you….the class handouts alone are worth the price of the workshop.
Nicole’s teaching a workshop beginning February 1st on Description and Detail: Bringing Your Story to Life.


Are you still with me? Let’s talk shop! Tell us about some of your favorite or most useful workshops.

On Wednesday, join us for an interview with world traveler and author Loucinda McGary.

Jen’s Bio:

Jennifer Tanner writes contemporary romance with a sprinkle of humor. By the time she was ten, she’d read through the entire children’s section in the bookmobile and began forging her mother’s signature in order to check out adult-themed books. After twenty-five years in the transportation business, she now writes full-time and fantasizes about a spotless house and perfect risotto.Currently finishing her first manuscript, Jennifer is a member of the RWA and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two cats.

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46 Responses to “Shop Talk – Romance Writers Workshops Debriefed”

  1. Thanks, Jennifer!

    Mary Buckham helped me with my first query letter and synopsis several years ago. She did a fabulous job helping weed through all the unnecessary blather.

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | January 31, 2011, 5:41 am
  2. I recently attended a workshop at our local chapter hosted by the fabulous Rosemary Clement-Moore and she was talking taglines, queries and blurbs. I have to say that she broke down taglines in such a way that they make soooo much more sense now and really, once you have the meat of that tagline, you can do the rest pretty easily! Great post Jen.

    Posted by Heather | January 31, 2011, 6:16 am
  3. Hi Jen. I’m a workshop slut. I really am. I love them. I just finished a fabulous workshop by Angela James on editing. I’m also taking a class by Laurie Schnelby Campbell on plotting and motivation. I guess my theory on learning is that we always have room to grow.

    Some of the best workshops I’ve taken have been by Margie Lawson. Her EDITS workshop changed the way I look at my work. Great stuff!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 31, 2011, 8:57 am
  4. Hi Jennifer,

    I’m taking my first writing class right now with Laurie Schnebly about Plotting. Part of a New Year’s resolution to get serious about writing. You’re right about the amount of classes. Thanks for the recommendations.

    Mary Jo Burke

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 31, 2011, 8:59 am
  5. Morning Jen…

    Great post! I just finished Nicole’s workshop, she’s really helped me work on my love scenes….and while I haven’t taken the plotting wheel (yet!) I did take Becky and Sue’s characterization workshop and can vouch for it being a great one!

    I’m a workshop junkie….=) there’s so much to learn!

    thanks for a great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 31, 2011, 9:15 am
    • Carrie Cae:

      I’m glad you liked Nicole’s Love Scenes class. Her class on Sexual Tension is good too. I love the examples and the handouts. I’ll watch a couple kissing on a t.v. show and try to find words to describe it. I can’t leave it alone!

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 31, 2011, 1:43 pm
  6. Good morning, Jen!

    I think you make a good point – writers should consider taking the classes that make the most sense based on where they are craft-wise and process-wise at the time of the class. I find if I take classes that have little to do with my current work, I become sidetracked and even stumped in my writing.

    Another interesting class is DD Scott’s Muse Therapy class. Writers who’re feeling burnt out or just need a boost may find DD’s course helpful. Laurie Schnebly, who was just at RU last week, is also a great teacher. As Adrienne mentioned, Margie Lawson has several great course offerings. I also just finished a Plotting Bootcamp taught by Delilah Devlin and Elle James – very helpful since I’m starting a new manuscript.


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | January 31, 2011, 11:09 am
    • I took DD Scott’s class…she’s a riot! =)

      Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 31, 2011, 11:21 am
    • Kelsey wrote… I find if I take classes that have little to do with my current work, I become sidetracked and even stumped in my writing.

      Exactly! I kind of go into semi-panic mode and wonder how much I need to know to get my story down. I’ve learned that the basics…like characterization and plotting are the most important. However, I’d take more than one class on characterization and plotting just because a different instructor can put a new spin on it and teach me another way of looking at things. Toni McGee Causey’s guest blog last week on POV was so different from the previous POV workshop I took.

      I’ve seen DD Scott’s Muse Therapy class sign ups before too. I’ll have to check it out.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 31, 2011, 1:55 pm
  7. I just finished taking Nicole North’s Writing Hot Delicious Love Scenes. I would have to say, it was one of the best workshops ever. We had so much fun in class and the exercises, while hard were pleasurable. Nicole really made me think more about my characters and gave all the students personal feedback.

    As a new writer, it is so important to know how to flesh out your characters. You want to fall in love with your characters and have others see your male/female protagonists the same way.

    Nicole’s attention to detail and plethora of examples while taking the course were informative and creative. I high recommend this course.

    I will be taking the next course, Description and Detail: Bringing Your Story to Life. I hope you will all join me in class!

    Posted by Lizzie Walker | January 31, 2011, 12:04 pm
    • Hi Lizzie!

      Thanks for stopping in today! Nicole’s class was the first workshop I took and because of that, I wondered if my level of writing was up to par with the rest of the class. Nicole made everyone feel comfortable and you’re right, she’s one of the best instructors I’ve ever had.

      With her, I’ve always learned things beyond the scope of the class. I hope you enjoy her description class!

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 31, 2011, 2:04 pm
  8. Jennifer – thanks so much for sharing this! I’ve heard wonderful things about Mary Buckham, but I didn’t realize she taught a synopsis class. I’ll put that one on my wish list.

    Lani Diane Rich’s Storywonk Revision class helped me get a handle on the importance of anchor scenes.

    Virginia Kantra’s workshop gave me insights on how to intensify the elements of romance.

    Suzanne Brockmann’s workshop helped me with character development and conflict.

    Donald Maass’ workshop helped me with developing inner conflict.

    I could go on and on! My writing has improved so much from these workshops – also from instructive blogs like the recent ones by Theresa Stevens and Toni McGee Causey posted here.

    Right now I’m calling a moratorium on workshops – I’m still trying to absorb all I’ve learned and incorporate it all into my WIP.

    My problem is that the more I find out what I should be doing to get the story right, the less certain I am that I’m succeeding. I hit a wall after taking several workshops in a row last fall, and could barely write a word.

    I’m gradually getting my mojo back, and my goal is to push this to the end before I take any more classes. I can always go back and fix things, but first I need to get the words on the page!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 31, 2011, 12:51 pm
    • Hi Becke!

      I hear ya! I was the same way with the last workshop I took. It wasn’t helping but hindering my writing. The best thing for me was to put my head down and write. I don’t know how this happened, but I’ve learned more about writing over these past five months by constantly writing. The RU craft blogs have helped me a lot. I’ve picked up useful tips and realized that sometimes, I just need a nudge to look at something in different light.

      Virginia Kantra has some useful tips on her website. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve always wanted to take a workshop with Donald Maas. I have his books “The Fire in Fiction” and “Writing the Breakout Novel”.

      Mary Buckham’s teaching several classes this year. One thing I liked about her class was that everyone was serious about their writing. There wasn’t any idle chit chat on the forum. The focus was on the class and the questions pertinent to the class material. Everyone talks about the dreaded synopsis but her approach, like Tracey said earlier, cuts through the unnecessary blather, and gets down to the basics, which are the same things an agent or editor’s looking for when they read your synopsis.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 31, 2011, 2:36 pm
  9. Thanks for the great overview of various workshops you’ve taken Jen!

    I took my first online writing workshop last year and it was wonderful. I learned so much. Mary Buckham is fantastic! Sometimes it is overwhelming trying to decide which writing class is right for your current needs. It was nice to get a breakdown of what each class involves and how they helped you.

    Posted by Roxanne | January 31, 2011, 2:17 pm
    • Hello Roxanne!

      Honestly, I can’t remember all of the workshops I’ve taken! I’ll be talking to Carrie and we’ll both scratch our heads and say, “I think I took that workshop, but I’m not sure.” 🙂 I just remembered I took a class on Word formatting. While that might sound silly, I had to buy a new computer and it had the new Word program in it. Drove me insane because I was used to the other Word version so the class was very useful.

      I have files for every workshop I’ve taken. There are only a handful that I still refer to when I’m writing. One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter whether an instructor is multi-published or unpubbed. It’s their ability to present the material in an coherent manner and give constructive feedback without stripping the writer’s voice. I took one class where the instructor “corrected” or rewrote our homework. It was her voice not mine. I quit the class. Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 31, 2011, 2:52 pm
  10. Jen – you’ve inspired me to go through the information on the classes I’ve taken and at least group all my resources together. At least that way I can get my hands on something when I need it. I was just looking for some world-building info from Linnea Sinclair and I can’t find it anywhere – argh!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 31, 2011, 3:59 pm
  11. Many many thanks for taking the time to talk about these in particulars. Your section on the Synopsis Workshop with Mary Buckham was so cheeky and inspiring that now I’m signing up to take her next class! The power of blogging strikes again!

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 8, 2011, 5:16 pm


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Romance University, Tracey Devlyn. Tracey Devlyn said: RT @romanceuniv Jennifer Tanner discusses her favorite workshops in Shop Talk – Romance Writers Workshops Debriefed […]

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