Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Romantic Education with Cathleen Ross

by Anna Campbell

Cathleen Ross is one of the first people I met when I started hanging out with the Aussie romance community and she's great fun. She's also really clever and talented and knowledgeable about romance and the romance market.

I'm privileged to be in a crit group with her, the A-Team, that meets sporadically. Well, mainly when I'm down in Sydney - it was easier when I lived there! Here's a picture of most of the A-Team taken at the RWA conference in San Francisco in 2008. From left to right, you've got Anna Campbell, Cathleen, Kandy Shepherd, who was a fantastic guest here recently to talk about her debut LOVE IS A FOUR-LEGGED WORD, and 2009 Golden Heart finalist Vanessa Barneveld, who often posts here as Authorness.

You can find out more about Cathleen Ross and her books on her website:

You can download her Spice Brief PSYCHIC SEX here:

Today, I'm delighted to have Cathleen here to talk about something that's a bit new for the lair.

Cathleen has put together a fantastic course on how to write category romance. Here's the lowdown on the course:

Writing for Publication – Category Romance is a course I developed over a period of a year because I wished there had been a course like it when I started writing over twenty years ago. It takes many years to glean how the conventions of category work. Most writers understand that they need a hero and a heroine to make a romance, but they don’t understand how to get “Hero alert”, the level of emotional punch, conflict and sexual tension needed for a romance of 50-55,000 words.

I interviewed sixteen published romance writers for their views covering the alpha hero, the heroine, setting, characterisation, conflict, sexual tension and writing techniques so that students could get up-to-date information about what is required to write a category. Each module of the course has exercises that students do at home to build up their knowledge, followed by seven assessment tasks.

Students often have difficulty with plotting but I spend time going over their plot, teaching them how to deepen it so that there is enough conflict to drive the novel to completion. Another area that students find difficult is writing the love scenes. Believe me, it’s more than just “docking procedure”. They learn to weave in the five senses and the emotional punch so that readers are drawn into the story.

By the end of the course, students come out with three chapters and a synopsis, which is enough to submit to the Mills and Boon’s London office. It’s exciting to see students I have helped either win competitions or sell their novels. Although writers have to have the vision and drive to produce a book, having a published author to offer advice along to way, makes a huge difference.

TAFE OTEN’s 27079 Writing for Publication – Category romance is $580 Australian dollars.

For students interested in doing the course the link is:

Cathleen, this course sounds fantastic. I, like you, wish there had been something like this around when I started writing. Is it just for Australians or do you think it’s just as relevant for international writers?

The course is for writers who want to write for Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Romance and Silhouette Desire. The college I work for is a distance learning college so we have students from all over the world. The course is sent to students on a CD and students submit their assignments through the college website. I log in and print them off. I usually write my feedback straight onto the assignment and post it back, though sometimes I either ring or email the student and we brainstorm plot, conflict, characterisation together, going back and forward until the plot feels right. Occasionally, if the plot still feels off, I email one of the authors below and ask their advice as they are at the coal face dealing with the London and NY editors.

Can you tell us some of the writers you had involved in helping you put the course together? What were some of the really salient points they brought up?

I’ll be in trouble if I mention one name and leave out others, so I hope you don’t mind me putting in the list of great authors who helped me by contributing to the course: Anna Campbell, Michelle Douglas, Anne Gracie, Robyn Grady, Barbara Hannay, Melissa James, Bronwyn Jameson, Fiona Lowe, Melanie Milburne, Trish Morey, Valerie Parv, Maxine Sullivan, Paula Roe, Cathleen Ross, Denise Rossetti, Annie West.

These writers had a wealth of experience which they generously agreed to pass on. Stand outs for me are: Presents author, Annie West who does a knock out alpha male and Sweet author, Michelle Douglas who does such tender characters. They explain step by step how to create them. Emotional punch is essential for category and expert Barbara Hannay shows how to get that depth with her plot twists and turns and I mustn’t for get to mention a certain terrific author named Anna Campbell who talks about how to get the emotion into a love scene so that it’s more than ‘docking procedure’.

How are the assessment tasks structured? Do the participants receive a lot of feedback on their work? How long does the course take to complete?

There are seven assessments and the students have one year to complete the course. I get the students to submit characterization sheets and a loose plot in assessment one because with category I think you really need to know your characters well and what motivates them. Seasoned authors understand the conventions of category but new writers don’t, so I explain the necessity of a suitable conflict/s and how it has to be up front in that first chapter. By the time the students have finished the course, they have written three chapters, a synopsis, a love scene, a kiss scene and a query letter so that they enough to submit to Harlequin Mills and Boon.

What was the hardest part of putting the course together? What was the easiest?

After ten years of attending RWA National conferences and over twenty years of writing, I wrote this course in forty hours. It came together so quickly because there was so much romance knowledge in my head. What was difficult is that they made me program it under the supervision of a brilliant designer but I’d never built a website before. I’ve come out of it with a far great technical understanding than when I went in.

I think this is a marvellous resource. Would you consider doing something similar for the single title market?

No, because single title doesn’t have the parameters of category romance.

Some people believe you can’t teach someone to be a writer. What are your feelings on this question?

I know writing can be taught, but it helps to have passion. I’ve seen students start off with fairly mundane ideas until I put a bomb under them and say, “what about this, have you tried that? What I’m really doing is just helping them develop their imagination muscle and confidence. I like to get my students to a publishable level or at the very least placing/winning a competition. I run a private book editing service with author, Kandy Shepherd, which we don’t advertise because we’re already busy, but several of our clients have sold their books after we helped them, so I know that it is possible for students, who are prepared to put the work in, to rapidly improve.

You’re a multipublished writer yourself. Can you tell us about your writing and where we can get your books?

I love writing sexy, psychic characters who bite off more than they can chew. My latest release "Psychic Sex", Harlequin Spice Briefs has been published in NAUGHTY BITS, the Spice Briefs Anthology. I've also just sold DIRTY SEXY MURDER where my psychic heroine discovers there is more to Brazilian waxing than the ‘ouch’ factor to Lyrical Press.

Cathleen, do you have a question to get discussion going?

Can everyone write category? Writers need to find their voice and they can only do that by writing. People often start with category but that’s not necessarily where they end up. What publisher did you first aim for and if you did sell, where did you end up?

Cathleen has very kindly offered one lucky commenter today a copy of NAUGHTY BITS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT EROTIC FICTION from Harlequin. It includes her Spice Brief "Psychic Sex". So get commenting, people! And don't forget to pick Cathleen's brains about the writing course and category romance.


mariska said...


Helen said...

Congrats Mariska have fun with him

Hi Cathleen what a wonderful help you are to those who want to write I love reading category romance but am not a writer.
I am sure it is a very popular course do you have many people doing the course ?

I gotta say it is a great interview Ladies Anna thanks for inviting Cathleen today.

Your books sound great I will be watching for them at the shops I would love to read them.

Have Fun

flchen1 said...

How lovely to meet you, Cathleen! I'm not a writer either, but a happy reader of category and single-title romances. I started out mostly reading categories and still love many of the lines available.

It does seem like many wonderful writers get their start with category titles, but I do think that doing them well is quite a talent! Storytelling is a gift in itself, but presenting the story well and within the parameters of different lines seems even more tricky. I do love it when writers who have roots in category don't completely abandon it when they hit their stride with longer/different books.

Thanks for visiting, and best wishes, Cathleen!

Congrats on the GR, Mariska!

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Mariska, one chook for you! Congratulations!

Helen, aren't we lucky in Australia to have so many great authors? I'm awed at the talent!

Anna Campbell said...

Fedora, I've tried to write category and I very quickly learned an incredibly respect for people who can tell a great story in that compressed space. In a way, it's easier to write a longer book! I read across both category and single title too - there's so many good stories in category!

Helen said...

We are very lucky Anna

I know I have read books by all of the authors Cathleen mentioned and I gotta say I loed them all.

Have Fun

CC Coburn said...

Hi Cathleen, Great to see you here and to learn more about your wonderful course. And to learn (privately) :-) how many students you have - that's quite an achievement! As for your question, gee, I started writing so long ago I forgot where I started submitting! Truly! maybe it was to Presents, becasue that's all I knew about, but I quickly learned I'm not geared towards Presents at all. The American lines kept calling to me - Supers, SSE's, Temptations - oh, how I LOVED Temptations - in fact my favourite Temptation author, Carla Neggers
:-) moved on to single titles - which is what I hope to do one day too.
I started writing my debut novel, "Colorado Christmas" for Temptation about a hundred years ago, then they brought out Love and Laughter, so i aimed it at that, then another comedy line, then when that folded I wasn't sure what to do. Fortunately, Harlequin editors are extremely perspicacious people. Paula Eykelhof said my story and voice were perfect for Harlequin American Romance - the rest is history! "Colorado Christmas" comes out this week in the States and I couldn't be happier than writing for Harlequin American. :-)

Authorness said...

Hi, Cathleen and Anna!

Cathleen, the writing advice you've given me over the years has always been spot-on. You've got a great eye for what works and what doesn't. Your students are so lucky to have you! A practical course like yours is a must for writers of all levels. There's always something to learn when it comes to writing.

When I first started writing as a thirteen-year-old, I wrote YA stories for my age group. Then I discovered Harlequin romances, fell head over heels for them, later tried to write a Blaze...and my brain imploded. It isn't as easy as it looks! Now I'm just content to read Annie West, Tawny Weber and dozens of equally talented category authors writing today.

~ Vanessa, who went back to YA and is sticking with it.

Beth said...

Welcome to the lair, Cathleen! A course on writing category romance is such a fabulous idea and your books sound wonderful *g*

At the beginning of my writing career I targetted Harlequin/Silhouette and luckily, that's where I ended up - just not with the line I originally aimed for :-)

But it all worked out better than I ever imagined because I LOVE writing for Superromance and my stories fit the Supers' line perfectly *g*

Thanks for being with us today!

PJ said...

Welcome, Cathleen! I'm not a writer of stories but I sure love reading them and categories are among my favorites. I have a great deal of respect for a writer who can give me a satisfying, full-story experience in a limited number of pages. It's a skill!

Cathleen Ross said...

Hi Everyone
It's great to be invited to the lair. I manage a writing program - Writing for Children, Writing Short stories and Category Romance. I have over one hundred and fifty students, but as the Category course is new I have fewer students in it. Fortunately I have off site authors marking work but I do most of the category writers as I adore helping them learn about this complex, wonderful genre.

Susan Sey said...

Good morning, Cathleen! thanks so much for bringing your experience & expertise to the lair today!

I tried writing category for a while and was wretched at it. I have absolutely no ability to write a coherent story--let alone a story jam packed with emotion--in 50-55k words. Shoot, my grocery lists usually weigh in at 50k.

I have all the respect in the world for category writers. To tell that much story in so few words is a gift.

congrats on your upcoming Spice Brief! That cover is seriously hot! Can't wait to pick up a copy of my very own!

Joan said...

Naughty Bits? LOVE that title (and so do the glads, oddly enough)

Welcome to The Lair. I am with Susan in that I do not have the capacity to write category length stories. I admire the HECK out of those who can.

Category and Single Title ARE different and that is a difficult concept for new writers to grasp. It got brought home to me in some of my early contest experiences when clearly the judges were scoring within those shorter parameters.

And mariska! Woohoo on the GR! Lime may get jealous though so keep an eye out!

carla said...

I agree that category and mainstream are different, but I feel with category if a writer can learn the skills needed, they can take them to mainstream romance. Nothing is ever wasted in this business.
Cathleen Ross

Nancy said...

Hi, Cathleen--Welcome! I read your story in the anthology and thought it was terrific.

I don't think everyone is suited to writing category. Category books have to be tight, starting fast with not a lot of subplot going on. They're very focused books. I think anyone who studied the form and adhered it, without a lot of side trails, could do it, but it wouldn't necessarily be easy.

And the writer would have to be able to write romance. Some people can write short books but have trouble focusing on the relationship because that's not their primary interest.

I don't feel well suited to category writing. I'm more comfortable with the longer storylines and more subplots. Keeping the story tight on the couple and moving it along would be harder for me.

Buffie said...

Hey Cathleen!!

I have to be honest and say I will need to re-read your blog to see what you actually talked about as my eyes, mind, and everything else was immediately distracted by that hot, HAWT cover!!! Sheesh, Banditas, you really know how to wake up a gal in the morning ;-)

** off to TRY and read the post **

Sue Brandes said...

Hello. I am not a writer. But; I love to read. I started out with just suspense romance but; found I really enjoy a variety of books. As long as it's a good story I will read it. Have to agree as I was distracted by the cover too. LOL.

Christina Phillips said...

Hi Anna and Cathleen! Cathleen, this course sounds fantastic. I could have done with something like this when I started writing as I didn't even know what emotional punch was. I originally targeted HM&B Presents, and the invaluable feedback I received from editors helped me to write tight and focus.

However, I eventually sold to Berkley Heat :-)

jo robertson said...

Great, informative interview, Anna. Thanks for inviting Cathleen to the Lair and a hearty welcome to you, Cathleen.

You seem to have an incredibly busy schedule. How do you manage to balance all of the work demands with a personal life?

I think good category writers are goddesses! To write so much in so few words is an amazing talent.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey, Ms. Campbell, you're all over the place today!

Hi Cathleen, welcome to the Lair! Wow, I love all those yummy, sexy covers!

What a fabulous idea to start a course in category romance. Where were you when I needed you?? *g* Seriously, I wish I'd had you around these last few years when I was pitching my stories to Silhouette Desire. I've always wanted to write for Desire but I just couldn't get the voice or the depth of emotion just right. I'm happy to say, I finally figured it out, though. Just this week, I sold my second book to them. Yay!

Congrats, Mariska! Hope you and the Golden One enjoy the day together!

Nancy said...

Mariska, I forgot to say congratulations on the rooster!

Lady_Graeye said...

Afternoon Cathleen! Thank you for being here today! I would love to take that writing coure. I love to write but need someone to show me how to put it all together without rambling. Your books sound great. I will have to look for them next time I'm at the book store. Again, thank you!

Christine Wells said...

Hi Cathleen! Anna, thanks for bringing Cathleen to us today.

That writing course you've developed sounds fabulous. I think a lot of people think they could just knock out a Harlequin romance in a weekend and they don't realize how competitive it is and how much work and skill goes into crafting each book.

I write Regency historicals, as you know, so I was lucky enough that I could target both category and single title with the same books. Hats off to all those authors who tell a compelling, full-bodied story in such a short space. I really admire them.

Congrats on the rooster, Mariska!

Annie West said...

Hi Anna and Cathleen!

I've seen the course Cathleen developed and it's so comprehensive. Good on you, C! I realise the huge amount of work that went into it. I remember you developing it and thinking what an ambitious project it was. The lovely thing is that I've since spoken to a couple of people who signed up for it and they were so very enthusiastic! Congratulations on a job well done!

As for where I started and where I ended up: as you know, I write for Harlequin Presents but boy did it take me a long time to realise that's where my voice and style belonged! I tried various other styles of romance before that and thought I got good feedback and didn't get that lovely acceptance from a major publisher. Discovering your best 'fit' is so important.

Sharon Archer said...

Hi Cathleen and Anna

Terrific interview! And your course sounds just amazing, Cathleen - a wonderful resource and an absolute must for apprentice writers. I imagine you are kept very, very busy indeed!

Loved the picture of your A-Team... so much more glam than the A-team I used to belong to when I worked in a medical laboratory. Just glancing at that pic now - five of us in long-sleeved, green hospital gowns with latex gloves on. Oh, yeah, very hot! LOL


Shayne said...

Hi Cathleen,
I've done an Australian Romance Writers bootcamp (excellent), went to RWA conference in August and have read Valerie Parv's two books and am reading widely across genres (but leaning to single title). I've written a category title ms (but which?), which I know requires a huge amount of work. My hubby says just get the thing out there, keep writing and don't do anymore courses.

Still curious though, is your course just for beginners?


Anna Campbell said...

Helen, Cathleen got together some terrific talent to contribute to her course. Glad you're already a fan!

Anna Campbell said...

CC, congratulations on the release of Colorado Christmas. I remember back when I was trying to write Harlequins too - wish Cathleen's course had been around then!

Anna Campbell said...

Vanessa, I think last year's Golden Heart final tells you you're in the right place with your YA books! Yay, you!

Anna Campbell said...

Beth, you're a fabulous SuperRomance writer. I for one am glad you persisted with Harlequin!

Anna Campbell said...

PJ, it's a major skill, isn't it? I'm with you!

Susan, interesting how many of we single title types started out with Harlequin. I certainly learnt a lot when I was writing those books.

JT, I 100% agree that single title and category are different beasts. Although in terms of writing techniques, there's some crossover. You know, you need great characters and a compelling conflict and a good black moment, etc.

Anna Campbell said...

Nancy, I think water finds its own level. One of the things I learnt from writing category is that I shouldn't be writing category ;-)

Buffie, you always make me laugh. In a GOOD way ;-)

Sue, it IS a hot cover, isn't it?

Christina, great to see you here. Ooooh, I can't wait for your hot Romans to hit the stands. We have our own Roman writer in the lair - Joan's Romans have garnered enormous contest success and we're all waiting with bated breath for the next step in her career.

Anna Campbell said...

Jo, it is an amazing talent, isn't it?

Kate, huge congratulations on selling your second Desire! Whoo-hooo! I'm in the middle of the blog tour to end all blog tours. Talking about new beginnings at Romance Dish today and virgin heroines at the Avon Facebook Discussion board. Hmm, kinda the same topic if you think about it.

Anna Campbell said...

Lady Graeye, isn't this a wonderful resource for people who want to write category? In fact, I think a lot of it is relevant to writing any romance! Good luck with your writing.

Christine, one of the things I love about Harlequin and Mills & Boon historicals is that they're so open to different settings.

Anna Campbell said...

Annie, I love that you ended up in Presents. You write such classic Presents stories - and heroes, yum!

Sharon, isn't that A Team photo cool. Kinda funny that we had to go all the way to America to take it, though.

Shayne, sounds like you've hit the ground running. Good luck with your writing!

Pat Cochran said...

Welcome, Cathleen, and thanks, Anna,for bringing her to visit
with us.

I'm an avid reader of some sixty
years experience. I love to follow new authors as they grow and gift
us with their stories. Thanks for
helping to bring these authors and
their voices to us.

Pat Cochran

Anna Campbell said...

Pat, what a lovely message. Thank you! I always feel great when I find a wonderful new author too!

Mari said...

Thanks for visiting...I'm an aspiring writer also and you gave some valuable insights.

Cathleen Ross said...

HI Everyone
I love my covers too, especially the Psychic Sex one but my naughty critique partner said, "Harlequin is lacking in some quarters..." Go back and have another look ladies. Anna, will I be thrown off this blog? :)
It's interesting that other authors have found that they start with one of the lines I teach on but end up finding their voice and moving. That seems a natural pattern of discovery to me. Some authors really have that Presents voice - waving to Annie West here and others are gentle but funny - hello CC or great YA - like Authorness. I really think that having to write tight as in category helps hone writer skills, though Sue, Beth, PJ, Nancy, Joan you're right. Some people need a bigger platform to tell their stories. It's frustrating but it does take time to find out where you fit as an author.

Cathleen Ross said...

Mariska - where is that rooster? Thanks Helen,Fichen, Susan for your comments. Congratulations on the sale, Christina. I love that line and will look out for your book.Jo - most of my time is scheduled as I have to protect the writing time. I work, write night and day until my teenager sits on my computer to get attention. My husband throws tantrums but is planning a weekend away. Hurrah! We romance writers need to get our inspiration somewhere, right? My gorgeous boss took me off some marking panels because I can't fill my weekends with marking when I'm trying to finish a book, my romance students get my blood because I'm so passionate about the craft. It's hard to fit it all in but I've found yoga and meditation help ground me. Lady Graeye and Shayne, the course is packed with information and is for writers who haven't sold, yet. I have that ability to see how to fix a story. I really believe the difference between publication and not selling is all in the rewrite.

Anna Campbell said...

Thanks for swinging by, Mari. Glad the post was helpful!

Tawny said...

What a fascinating course, Cathleen. I'm awed at the work and knowledge that must go into this.

As you said, I'm a strong believer in category and single title being very different. The tightness, the focus and the smoother layers are needed to make a category book work. It's sort of like TV vs a movie LOL

I started writing targeting Temptation, then the line closed. But since my actual goal was really to write for one particular editor (she edits for most of my fave authors) I'm thrilled to have sold to her at the Blaze line when she moved over there.

mariska said...

He's here with me now Cathleen! It's Friday morning here. And we'd our coffee just now. (err can a rooster drink coffee? Lol)
I'm sorry, I didn't come early. It because I just still don't understand what 'writing in a category' mean is *g*
I'm just a reader who loves to read. Well my favorite will be suspense, mysteries, ghost stories with some Touch of romances.
Hey, You are a loving teacher, i'm sure your students love you:)

Anna Campbell said...

Tawny, as one of your most dedicated readers, I'm glad you sold to Blaze too!

Snort, Mariska! I've seen that rooster drink anything! ;-)

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, thanks, everyone, for your comments and questions. Don't forget to check back to see who won the book!

Cathleen Ross said...

I love my job Mariska. How lucky am I to teach romance writing? I once offered my duck a cup of tea. I often have afternoon tea with my daughter, the 4 rabbits, cat, my dog and my chicken. They fight for the bits of fruit and cake until my daughter practices her mesmerizing skills on the chicken to calm her down.

limecello said...

Hi Cathleen - thanks for visiting with us today! I'm an avid category reader - love them, and am rather familiar with a few lines.

Great post - :X I'm not a writer though [so much pressure!] But this was very interesting.

Congrats on the GR, mariska!

Michelle Douglas said...

Hi Anna and Cathleen!

Cathleen, I think your course is wonderful! I so wish it were around when I was first starting out (ooh, more years ago than I want to admit to). I think it's so empowering to have a published author and someone with loads of industry knowledge (I'm talking about you, by the way) to help a fledgling writer on their path.

As for me, I started out writing Sweet Romances because they were what I loved to read and that's where I was eventually published. I guess it just goes to prove that we should write what we love.

Wishing you all the very best with the course next year!

CC Coburn said...

You called ME gentle??? Laughing all the way to the loo on that one, Cathleen. :-)
At least you called me funny too, so I'll forgive you.
Good point about writing category teaches you to write tight. I had to cut over 20K from "Colorado Christmas" and a similar amount from "The Sheriff and the Baby" yet still retain everything in the story - what a headache! At times I just HATED those books, but now I'm loving them :-) (esp. since I can't do anything more about changing them now). hehehe!
I learned so much about tightening my stories down to the essentials from my lovely editor, Paula Eykelhof.

Kandy Shepherd said...

Hi Cathleen, sorry to come in so late on your visit to the lair.
Your course is so comprehensive and with all the information coming from writers published in the genre.
I wished it had been around when I first started writing romance!

Robyn Grady said...

Cathleen, I'm sure the students of course have no idea how truly lucky they are!
:Robbie waves to Anna,Vanessa, CC, Christina, Christine - hey, is that a new cover?!, Annie, Sharon, wow! This is a real party!:

This course must be a godsend to so many. How wonderful to discover the answer to so many niggling questions in a matter of weeks. It took me years!
I started out wanting to write category and I'm so glad I persisted! I'd love to try YA though ;)


Cathleen Ross said...

CC - I know what a shy retiring flower you are which is why it is such fun hanging out with you at RWA National. Robyn, Sharon and Kandy - thanks for dropping by. I am at Kandy Shepherd's farm at the moment and she is trying to convince me to go out and meet her bull, which chased me into the chicken pen yesterday, so she can get photos for her blog. Who needs a critique partner like that?
Cathleen Ross.

Kandy Shepherd said...

Ahem, Cathleen, what you fail to mention is that my bull is actually a steer and he is a miniature bull, a breed called a Dexter. His name is Squirt.
That said, the sight of you in my hen house, bailed up by Squirt (who only has one horn!) makes me laugh everyone time I think of it. It really was hilarious and you were laughing as much as I was.
It was one of those moments when I SO wished I had a camera with me!