The Fun of It All

I’ve been e-mailing with a friend who’s struggling with her romance novel. She’s very smart and she’s studied hard and she loves the genre, but she’s having a hard time understanding how to write romance, which I can understand because it’s a damn hard thing to do. So at first I gave her a pep talk on following her instincts:

First, no matter how good a teacher is, you take what makes sense to you and leave the rest. There is no one right way to write a romance or any other kind of story. All the teaching about structure and spine and the rest is to help you find the way to your story; if it clears out some of the stuff in your way so you can get the reader to what matters in your story in a cleaner, faster way, great. If it’s confusing, it’s not something you’re responding to as a story-teller, so ignore it. Writing classes are like a buffet: you take what looks good and you ignore the rest.

So the real answer to “how do you plot a romance” is “the way that fits the story.” Which takes you back to protagonist/goal, antagonist/goal, inescapable conflict. The official definition of a romance is a story of how two people form a committed relationship with the expectation that the story will end optimistically in regards to the relationship. Readers need to believe the two people will be together forever. But these can be people who’ve never met before, people who were married before, people who grew up together, people from different planets, whatever, and all of those stories are going to have different spines, different arcs, and demand different craft choices. So when you talk about plotting the protagonist’s goal in general, it’s no help to you because that general goal/plot may not be what your story is about.

Look at His Girl Friday. Hildy’s goal is to tell her ex-husband that she’s getting married again and then leave NYC forever to go to Albany as a wife. Walter’s goal is to get his wife/star reporter back. That’s a crucible, only one can win, and it’s both the emotional and the external plots. There are a million ways that particular plot could be played out, but once you know Hildy–broken-hearted by neglect from the man she really loves and desperate for a show of real love from him but tough as nails and a reporter to the core–and once you know Walter–crazy about Hildy and the newspaper game, possibly not in that order, and completely without scruples when it comes to getting what he wants, a conman to the core–then the way to plot this is pretty clear. Use Hildy’s love for journalism as a metaphor for her love for Walter (she’s trying to walk away from both), and have Walter use that against her (because he knows her so well) to get her to come back to both. There’s a lot more stuff going on there, but the important thing is, this isn’t Walter vs. Bruce, fighting over Hildy, which it could have been, Hildy vs. Walter, making him declare his love for her and promise to always put her first, which it could have been, it’s Hildy vs. Walter, fighting over her future, the one she thinks she wants and the one he knows she needs. It’s the same dynamic as Moonstruck and to a certain extent Pretty Woman: One of the lovers destroys the chosen life of the other to set him or her free. Those three movies are really different, but it’s the same plot dynamic played out very differently in each because of the characters, the kind of people they are and the kind of relationship the reader knows they need (nobody roots for Bruce and Albany in His Girl Friday; the fun is seeing how Hildy and Walter battle it out). . . .

I’d go back to your emotionally-charged ideas because that’s where the juice is. My first drafts are all over the place; half the time I don’t have an antagonist. But the emotionally-charged part tells me what my protagonist needs, desperately, and if I’m lucky, why he or she needs it. Then I go back and figure out why she can’t get it. And yes, part of it is internal but there has to be something external standing in her way, and in romance that’s tough because there’s not much keeping people apart that’s external these days. I wimp out and use an external antagonist to make life hell for the protagonist and the love interest; the struggle brings them closer together and whatever the heroine is fighting the antagonist for can be a metaphor for her internal struggle: an art forger fights to get back paintings that will reveal her identity only to claim that identity and sign the paintings at the end. A woman who doesn’t trust relationships meets the man she’s fated to love and walks away and Fate fights back and wins by making her confront her worst fears about attaching to people; the plot is about the romance, but the romance is the battleground for Min and Fate (and in the subplot between the hero and Fate). If you want a protagonist heroine/antagonist hero, look at His Girl Friday and Moonstruck, both beautifully written and tightly plotted. . . .

But that wasn’t it because this woman really knows her craft, knows her structure. It was something intangible, something she thought just wasn’t there in her work, and that made me think about how damn hard this is, getting that intangible on the page so that readers really believe this is IT, the big one, that the protagonist and her lover will lose something crucial if the relationship doesn’t last. It’s magic on the page when it happens but I don’t think you can explain how it happens. I think you just write until it’s there. Or it isn’t and you put the book away until you find a way to find it.

So the best I could do for her is this:

When I was rewriting Bet Me, I kept overthinking it. And then one night, I thought, “Maybe I should just go for it.” And I wrote “Hopelessly Romantic” on a piece of paper and taped it over the computer screen. And after that, I just went where the juice was, scenes with the two of them that made me happy even if the characters were miserable because even when they were miserable together, it was better for them than when they were apart. There’s that thing about falling in love where you know it’s a mistake and you’re too damn smart to do that again, but it’s just THERE, your heart beats faster when you see him, he smiles the minute he sees you, and even when it’s awful, even when you swear never again, you have to go back. It’s like those kissing salt shakers with magnets in their mouths, you just have to click together. If you can capture that, if you can give the reader that internal struggle to hold on to identity and individuality when everything in the physical world is telling you to blend into that other person, you’ve got a romance novel. Paul Newman told a story that always epitomized the great romance novel for me. He said he and JoAnne Woodward had a hellacious fight, said things that couldn’t be taken back, and he stormed out, never to return. Then he got to the car and thought, “Where the hell am I going?” and went back in. That whole “I can’t quit you” thing may be a cliche now, but it’s also the truth. You just have to make the reader feel that, too. The big thing that I’m always forgetting and have to relearn with every novel is that the story has to be fun. Not necessarily happy or funny but fun to read, the highs and the lows, the reader has to have a really good time suffering with the characters, even if the “really good time” means weeping helplessly.

But I don’t know how to tell you to do that because it’s in your characters.

That’s not much help. So over to you guys: What makes a romance novel special, memorable? What scenes stick in your mind, when you go back to read a book, what do you go to? What would you tell her? Hell, I’m having problems of my own, what would you tell me?

What makes a romance novel great?

108 thoughts on “The Fun of It All

  1. Send her to PopD. It’s very helpful to see those places in movies where it totally happens. In fact, I ended up picking out those moments in Sherlock (BBC) where Holmes and Watson become a team and have their shared humor and stuff from listening to PopD.

    What makes a romance great for me? That I believe them as people, that I connect to them somehow — not likable, I know better, but that I like going on their journey with them. Good secondary characters — friends, family, etc, who aren’t just cardboard cutouts. Characters who have real problems — in the relationship or out of it — so there’s some substance to the story. Not an “issue” book (it’s a romance, not an afterschool special!), but enough so there’s some meat to it.

    None of that is probably helpful. Lemme think on it….

    (so glad you’re back!)

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  2. Wow. You don’t ask much do you? Great. Hmm. I guess chemistry is a big thing for me. When the characters are together they have to zing. This might seem unrelated, but bear with me, when I was doing Antony and Cleopatra for a Shakespeare class my professor was talking about how the play is structured so Cleopatra isn’t actually on stage that much, and it’s structured so the other characters, the Romans and their plots, Antony away from her, all of it, is a little dry, a little boring. Which means that when Cleopatra is on stage, the energy just crackles. Everything’s brighter, better. I want my romances like that. Where the scenes are better, brighter, and everything crackles when the two of them are together. Obviously, the rest of the book shouldn’t be dull, but the scenes between the lovers should be the best and brightest things in the book. I should be flipping ahead until they’re together again.

    I’m also a sucker for humor, I have to say. Like that author we were talking about awhile back. Her books frustrate me to no end but I keep reading because she cracks me up. I saved that one book with the civil war stuff just because I love to reread the scene with the spoons. Oh, the spoons!

    When I’m thinking about great scenes from your work in particular the funny stuff comes to me first. The dinner scene in Strange Bedpersons. The scene at the end of Welcome to Temptation where Amy starts counting off the con steps. (I snickered aloud during an Oceanography class first time I read that. My prof wasn’t happy. I was supposed to be learning about saline percentages or something). These outrageous, over the top funny scenes are why I started reading your work and why I keep reading it. It’s my weakness when it comes to men, too. Make me laugh and I’m your forever.

    Faking It is my favorite book of yours, though, and the scene I always think of with that is the scene where the sex finally works. It’s funny, but the exuberance and joy of that moment just knocks me flat every time. And that’s the moment where the connection between the two of them really solidifies. You see that they are meant to be together in a solid, emotional, enjoyable way that I think most romances can’t and don’t pull off.

    Bet Me is my second favorite of yours and I think that one is great because you did let yourself jump off the ledge into hopelessly romantic. That is one of my number one comfort rereads because it just warms me all over, better than a fleece blanket. The love and friendship and community in that book just rolls off the page to wrap me up in wonderful joy.

    So, greatness. That’s what I got. Hope it helped.

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  3. I think the answer for that is different for every reader cause we don’t all read the same romances. I love the “they seem all wrong for each other, but I know that they’re meant to be together. I also love the “love at first sight, but the whole things impossible because…” My favorite romance authors are you, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz, Jude Devereaux, Nora Roberts, and Lyn Kurland. You each bring your own special magic to a story and none of you do it the same way.
    My own adult novel, Second Chances, is about two women – one divorced; one widowed who find themselves in the past when a VR game turns real.. One finds an old love; one finds a new. Their antagonist is time. Any change they make in the past could affect their children’s futures. I’m looking for more readers and querying an agent. Any takers?
    Anyone like chocolate? July 7th was Chocolate Day. In belated homage to Chocolate, Pen & Ink shares some links to books with Chocolate in the titles and two great recipes. http://bit.ly/p4uUo5
    Even if you don’t want to read my novel, I know you’ll love the chocolate.
    Blessings! Susan

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    1. Oh but I DO want to read it! Click on my name and it will take you to my blog, contact info there. (Can you see me waving my arms in the air shouting “Pick ME?!”)

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      1. Tara, I would love to have you read it. My email is sueberger3(at )gmail.com
        email me an I’ll send you a copy. I need the opinions of people who don’t know me.

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    2. Sure, I’d love to read it. I’ve been reading Jenny’s blog for a while, but today is the first time I’ve posted, so we don’t really know each other. If that’s not a problem for you, send it my way please. I’m new to reading for someone, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you want me to look for.

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  4. Sometimes writers get so caught up in making the conflict real (“damn it, we want a conflict that’s impactful!”) that they forget another important point: readers want characters that they can care about. If I don’t like the characters *cough*Sizzle*cough*, then who cares who Rosebud was?

    Another point: I am seeing a trend these days. People are writing detailed descriptions, with pin-point accuracy, about… oh, to take an example from a “literary” short story, precisely how crisp an apple is when you bite into it. No-friggin’-where in the description is there ANY indication of how the heroine felt when she ate the damned apple.
    Look, when I read a story, I don’t want to read a clinical description — I want to know what the character thought about the apple! I am taking a journey through their eyes, please give me something to feel while I’m following them!!!
    (Sorry. That required extra punctuation.)

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  5. I’ve been trying to think of the examples I’d give to answer this. The big one is The Grand Sophy because I loved the heroine and because the hero fought so hard not to love her and then had to go after her at the end. And because they were so much fun together. And The Unknown Ajax because the heroine was so prejudiced against the hero and fell anyway. There’s something in that “Oh, hell, not YOU” story that gets me every time. The good parts of Two Weeks Notice or The Proposal. Father Goose. But then there’s the plot about the people who really like each other and then like each other more and then end up together, just watching that progression, like Desk Set or Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day or my much beloved YA, Green As Spring is such a pleasure. It’s not the plot, it’s the process. Which is still not a help.

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  6. Wanna know one of the reasons why so many people love you? Shit like this: “…those kissing salt shakers…” You have a way of summing up big complicated crap so that even simpletons can understand it. (That would be me, not saying there are a surplus of simpletons here at Argh Ink, just speaking for my own wee self elf here.)

    One of the things, in my own HEA life (LOL!) that Daniel told me, in our most tumultuous years, was that he just never thought of leaving, he kept trying to figure out how to stay and make it work. That’s the kind of thing I like to see in a romance story, the figuring out how two people work better together than they do when they are apart. Oh, and they should be funny. And sex, I like to have sex in my books as well.

    (No clue where yesterday’s comment went, no worries, it was just blah blah blah typewriter, onion skin paper, erasers that never worked, blah blah. Thank you for checking though.)

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  7. I like contemporary romance. I keep trying to read historical, or fantasy, and I give up. So I guess this means I like a conflict and characters I can relate to (dangling whatchadiggy), even though emotions can span time and worlds, etc. etc.

    I would tell your friend what my friends have told me: write YOUR story. Worry later about the comments from contests, and how agents and editors will classify it. Stop trying to make it fit a mold, and just write the characters, the pain, and the love. Is that too simple?

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    1. “Stop trying to make it fit a mold, write your story” – that’s not simple, it’s hard enough. I am so sick and tired of “mold” stories where everything has to follow a pattern (is that the reason why “mold” has different meanings??). I like believable characters. And my suggestion is: write what you know, what you feel familiar with. Most of the time you can tell when you read about millionaires in Moscow (or similar stuff) if the author has ever been there and done that.

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  8. I think this is a paraphrase of a quote, but I can’t find it anywhere and I don’t have a source: It says something like:

    Here’s the kind of romance novel I love:
    one that’s so enjoyable I have to put it down on the floor
    to keep from finishing it too quickly and being reduced to
    staring mournfully at its cover, wishing I could read it again for the first
    time.

    I can think of two authors that make me feel this way with every single book they write: Jenny Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I can see certain elements in the books when they’re explained now, even though I’ve never bothered to break them down. But yes, I need to have a good time reading – such a good time that I’ll feel an urge to go back and re-read if I’m trying to recapture that good feeling. The main characters have to be believably human, not inhumanly beautiful and wise or so noble I have to picture halos. It’s boring if they’re predictably right for each other. I have to really like them and to be able to see their hearts, their humor, and their missteps. I want them to be on the quirky side, because that’s interesting. I love it when the secondary characters are a family. They don’t have to be related, just family by choice. A back-up system, I guess. And there has to be a Moment. Sometimes I can’t put my finger on it, but I do have an example from Susan Elizabeth Phillips latest that I’m just finishing. I read this bit over and over because there was something about it, such a sweetness.

    “It was a kiss made in lonely dreams. A kiss that took its time. A kiss that
    felt so right she couldn’t remember all the reasons it was wrong.”

    Finally, the “ever afters” from JC and SEP are not just happy, but satisfying – like the best ice cream. I’m not explaining this too well, since I’m realizing it all pretty much comes down to the feelings the books bring. They make me laugh, and sigh and often remind me of people and places and particular kisses of my own. So, hey – why wouldn’t I want to experience those things over and over? They’re not illegal, they’re not fattening, and they raise my endorphins. These books are good times.

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  9. Yeesh. I keep starting new comments and they seem pointless.

    I feel like quoting the Congress on pornography — “I know it when I see it!” That’s good romance.

    😛

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  10. Right now there are many crazy things in my life and I’m doing this ” to go back and re-read if I’m trying to recapture that good feeling” to quote merrymac. I ask myself, why are the particular romance novels that I reread so effective that they become comforting with each reread?
    I reread different Crusie’s at different times. Right now I’m rereading Welcome to Temptation. Sophy and Phineas shouldn’t belong together, don’t want to belong together, but you know they do from the start. He brings her out of her pain bordering on numbness with mind-blowing sex and eventually affection, then love. She brings him out of his self-sacrificing world by making him unwilling to settle for less than what he truly wants.
    There’s a book by Rachel Gibson, Truly, Madly Yours that I reread when I want that good feeling. Both characters, Delaney and Nick are fallible, full-blown human beings that should never have ended up together and yet, you just know their relationship will result in them being the best people they can be.
    I don’t know what it is, either. But they leave me feeling hopeful about life.

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  11. Oh Yes! The Grand Sophy! I love Georgette Heyer I have loved her so long and so much and so loudly that friends called me with condolences when she died. The Grand Sophy wars with Arabella and These Old Shades as my favorites. Julie, I will be contacting you. Thanks

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  12. Sass. Wonderful, witty dialog. The heroine needs to have backbone and principles but in the end flexible enough to be open to love and hope and goodness. I agree with merrymac on JC and SEP. Agnes in her kitchen with craziness all around her is vivid. SEP’s Natural Born Charmer, the heroine in a beaver suit storming along the side of the highway with attitude is a classic and memorable scene. The dialog is sharp, sarcastic and funny. MAB confronting FunFun. Connie Brockway’s Skinny Dipping has marvelous dialog also.
    The hero needs to be caring and funny. He has to be able to put up a good verbal battle. Chemistry is essential. The ability to laugh at life and at oneself is vital.
    The characters need some vulnerability that makes the reader and the other characters in the story care about what happens to them. Give us something to root for. But the inevitable conflict that splits the lovers temporarily needs to flow smoothly from the story not just thrown in as an needed element.
    And most importantly, no info dump!!! I am currently reading a 1983 story from an RWA Lifetime achievement award winner. It is funny to see how much her writing style has improved over the years. There is so much exposition in this book that in her current novels would be told in dialog which is so much more enjoyable from a reader’s standpoint.
    But I am not a terribly picky reader. Once I crack open a book, I must finish it regardless of how bad it is. If I am having a really difficult time of it, it can become my “family room” book, that I usually only read a few pages of at a time. It will never be my bedside book if I cannot get a good laugh or cry out of it.

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  13. As I am not a writer, others are probably better at giving advice. I agree chemistry is essential. My two favorite Crusie books are Bet Me and Cinderella Deal because scenes with Min and Cal and Daisy and Linc suck me in. In both books Jenny did not shy away from the joy and terror of love – it feels so real. Love makes you vulernable and when that vulnerability can be captured in an authentic way, it is magic. I love Suzanne Brockmann’s Molly and Jones for this very reason.

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  14. Bet Me meets the requirements on so many levels – I think there’s a point where Shanna says “we know how wonderful she is” but that others will look at Min and not see it and Min knows that she’s fighting against that view. There’s a sense of discovery or re-discovery of something long buried.

    Character growth and development counts for a lot. I dislike books where neither character is changed by the end of it.

    High stakes matter – Quinn in Crazy for You – needs to change her bland life or else. She does and that changes things for EVERYone!

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  15. I think for me, it’s having the protagonists be real, imperfect people, not cookie cutters, and then *showing* the love between them. If she’s allergic to flowers, giving her a dozen roses isn’t romantic, but giving her a dozen fresh-baked cookies might be. Show the love between them, make me feel like “I wish someone *got* me like that, flaws and all” and I’m hooked.

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    1. That “getting the right gift” bit is really powerful, and you’re right, it goes back to the people really knowing and understanding each other.

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    2. A negative real life example of the gift thing. I had on occaision told the ex that I was bored with heart shaped things, that while I liked the way yellow gold looked on him, I didn’t like it on me, and that I don’t like diamonds. Christmas gift from him was a heartshaped, pave’ diamond necklace in yellow gold. I shold have taken it as a sign…
      Current partner told me he wanted to get me a netbook or tablet or something for a gift, then helped me research the options. He got me an ipad (my choice) engraved with “Love always, your Silver Retriever”. I love that thing, and needless to say, my partner of over 15 years.

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  16. I am working on a story and struggling with the exact thing your writer friend is! I had a conclusion mapped out but realized something was missing. I need something more that is uniquely specific to these two characters and what they both want/need that is not there right now! It’s an incredibly maddening feeling as I have a tough time just writing without knowing where I’m going, but I have to try it at this point I think, because plotting/brainstorming/thinking it out hasn’t done it yet! Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for this post. It’s nice to know the pros out there struggle with this stuff too! 🙂

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  17. the best example I know of a fictional relationship where the relationship is absolutely specific to only these two people in all of creation is the marriage on the UK show “Married, Single, Other”. I take it as my example in writing and in life 🙂

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  18. “What would you tell her?”

    This may come across as ornery, and I don’t mean it that way, but my gut instinct here is that it does not matter what we would tell her. It matters only what rocks her world, what she feels passionate about, as a writer, as a reader of romances herself. What makes an amazing, memorable romance for *her* is very likely different than it is for me or you or anyone else here, and it should be. Assuming a competent level of skills as a writer, what matters at this point is, what does she care about? What is it about this story, and only this story, that wakes her up at night? that makes her stop in the middle of something important because an epiphany has grabbed hold of her and she has to follow it through, no matter if dinner burns or phone calls go unanswered or Wall Street will crash (again) if she doesn’t get back to her day-to-day.

    It’s sorely tempting to try to define what makes a romance work, and as an analytical exercise, or for a literature major/non-writer, I can see its merits. Hell, I love to do this myself, so there’s no harm in it. Except, honestly, I think we could define it ’til the cows danced the salsa, and not hand her anything more than bland, generic definitions that wouldn’t get to the root of what makes her passionate about her own work. Because that thing, that kernel, has to be her passion; if she has it, it’ll land on the page and we will care. Sass, no sass, chemistry, antagonism, soft sweet blooming of love, harsh jagged opposition, hate, friendship… all of these are seasonings. Great chefs make these things their own, their own blend, what works *for them*.

    So the real question is, what works for her?

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    1. I have to agree with Toni. I’m trying to think of the best love story I’ve read and can’t narrow it down to one. Or two. As a reader, the only relationships that don’t work for me are the ones where all of the building takes place in the characters heads. There is one author who does this all the time, and it drives me crazy, but I did learn a lot from what I think is a mistake. If the characters are going to fall in love, let them fall in love. Build the intimacy so they can fall in love (and us readers, too!). Don’t let their thoughts spell it out so that when the characters are together on the page, they can fall into bed. Or wherever they choose to do the deed. That’s lazy and makes me want to throw the book across the room. And it’s just icky.
      I figure it’s kind of like talking to your friends–we all have differents stories about how we met and fell in love. No one story is better than the other; the details only matter to the people involved, but all of those stories give us a warm fuzzy.

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    2. Yeah, I said that to her, but it didn’t help. I think there’s value in seeing what works for the reader. Because the reader comes first. I’m writing first person right now, and the temptation to just tell the reader everything I want her to know is overwhelming because my character is talking directly to her, so I keep having to go back and cut stuff because I know what the reader wants is story. And in this case, the reader wants a romance, so it’s good to talk about what makes a romance work, how the romance works, because as writers we get so tangled up in craft and in our own minds that we forget that any novel has two parts, the part we write and the part the reader writes, so it’s a collaboration. Sometimes I just need to check back in and say, “Yo, what is it that you want again?” Not in the sense of “Write about dogs!” but where the juice is for readers.

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      1. Toni put it really well — something that rocks her world. When I read what’s going to be a really good romance, I get that dizzy whirling feeling, like the beginning of an orgasm. The food fetish scenes in Bet Me (never knew I had food fetishes! I never did before that book!). The whirling falling in love in with a cad in Venetia. Miles and Ekaterin in the attic, sitting thatclosetogether and unable to touch or love because of honor and other complications.

        If it rocks her world, there’s a good chance it’s going to rock someone else’s world as well. Let go, and just write in that zone . . . some of it may have to be trashed, most of it may have to be trashed, but then just write more and keep writing until all the bits are filled in.

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      2. I completely relate to that first-person dilemma; the current book is in first and I’m still not sure what parts of it were too much telling and not enough showing. I could tear it apart right now and start over, futzing with just that aspect for another year. Empathize with that.

        I get what you’re saying about the reader. It’s a smart thing to do and I sort of do it instinctively, I think, when I go on binge reads — I know I’m looking for something, and usually, I can’t define what it is ’til I see it. (Same with binge movie watching–I’m looking for some aspect of story that I know I’m missing.) It’s weird, because I’ll gravitate to certain books and will read non-stop for days and then, bang, epiphany. Feeding the muse, I suppose, and probably doing subconsciously what you’re talking about here. For me, though, my muse is just perverse enough to rebel against anything too clearly defined. (It is an annoying little sucker.) I’ll read and read and read and then sort out what about the books is juicing my passion — what is it about them that makes me love them? what is it about them that’s lacking, if I don’t love them? And what’s weird is that comparison ends up defining for me what I’m feeling passionate about, what is attracting me to Story, what — for lack of a better definition — I think I have something to say about. [Because there are too many readers and too many things that readers want, it derails me. I have to look at what *I* want as a reader.]

        [Okay, I’m going to shut up now and quit being annoying. Er. For the day.]

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        1. You’re not annoying.
          I do first drafts that are way too long, way too many words to say what I need, too many scenes that aren’t going anywhere. Then I go through and cut anything that isn’t necessary to the now of the story. Any backstory that’s not part of what’s happening now, and long monologues, it all goes. Because my reader shouldn’t have to wade through my self-indulgence to get to the story. I think that’s what happens a lot in romance: there’s just so much we want to explain, to tell about the past, to stop the story and explain motivation and damage, and the reader just wants to know what happens next. So I’m self-indulgent in the first draft, and then I get mean and cut it to the bone.

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          1. my reader shouldn’t have to wade through my self-indulgence to get to the story

            Thank you. I have read several romances lately where the author seems to want to show off all the research they have done.

            In romance I like H&Hs who should not ever be together grow into a HEA. With snappy dialog, serious issues handled with fun while not denying the serious. Doing the unconventional. Hearts and flowers may be skillets and dog biscuits.

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  19. “Oh hell not YOU!” exactly!

    and will add “You’ll make my world messy (or messier)”

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  20. This was a challenge and an epiphany all in one. When I read your blog post and then tried to think about what I would say to the writer, my first thought was, “Oh shit. How the hell am I supposed to explain this when I’m not sure I understand it myself?”

    That’s pretty damn lame for someone who is also a romance writer.

    Then I realized that I didn’t want to point to the things like snappy, sassy dialogue, intriguing plots, characters I can identify with, real emotion, etc. etc. The truth is that there are great romance novels that aren’t filled with witty conversation. You don’t frequently find a medieval highlander in the middle of your contemporary (Unless it’s a time-travel paranormal.) Yet, the medieval and the contemporary might both be great.

    So what is it for me? The clouds parted in my brain and I heard this answer, “It’s the feeling of being swept away.” Since that, at first, sounded decidedly un-liberated, I pondered it some more. Going off the cuff from that pondering, the truly great romances sweep me out of my world and into theirs. I’m in the kitchen with Agnes and Shane or on the bridge with J.T. and Lucy. I was there when Dan threw the football at the guy who was going to shoot Phoebe. (SEP reference) I’ve danced in Gallagher’s Pub when the siblings played music and sang. (Nora reference.) I cried when Chloe thought Daegus was lost to her forever. (Moning)

    The next element of being swept away is that the hero and heroine literally/figuratively/metaphorically/emotionally/whateverally sweep each other off their respective feet. They are changed because of each other and there is no going back to the way they were before. It isn’t just the Regency miss who is changed by the seduction of the rake. She transforms him as well, even when he is a notorious Rohan. The badass Navy SEAL who is made even stronger by his woman’s love.

    Even in books that aren’t romances, there are romantic elements. I’m a big Spenser mystery fan. Spenser and Susan Silverman’s romance spanned decades. In many of the books, they discussed, or debated his autonomy. To great extent, their love, broke into his autonomy.

    The characters in a romance often fight their feelings. I think there is a fear that opening up and loving someone else means a loss of some degree of self and that creates an internal battle. Transformation is not loss. When they realize that, they, and the readers, get their happy ending.

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    1. This is a lot of it. I think the power of romance to a great extent is giving the reader that feeling so that she’s as swept away by the romance as the characters are.

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    2. Someone please remind me to proofread myself the next time I freewrite from my brain. The comma splices and uneven sentences in my comment are killing me! Sorry, everyone.

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      1. When it’s someone else, I totally overlook it and not a thing/typo/mistake bothers me… when it’s MINE, my freaking head explodes, and I can’t stop looking at it. 😕

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  21. I’m more of a reader than a writer, but it seems to me that in the romances I love best believing the chemistry and romance goes back to Jenny’s stand-by of “show, don’t tell”.

    Whether they start out all wrong or all right for each other, it’s how they relate to each other in terms of the actions they take that lead me to really feel & believe the depth of the relationship. Whether they start these actions for once reason, but are ultimately led to them for another, it’s the thought & action behind the words that help me understand the relationship, and makes me believe in how much they need each other – or don’t.

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  22. Screenwriter, Laurie Hutzler, says every love story is a buddy story, partnership story, and is about the exchange of gifts: emotional, spiritual, or personality, and they come from the character’s strongest traits. They each have something of value to give the other so if the focus of the love story is set around how the characters dismiss each others gifts, then exchange them, and then are changed by them, it will work.

    I think many writers do this intuitively, because really it’s life, and we think about our own relationships and compatibility with others…what we each bring to the table. If the romantic couple is too similar they slip easily into boredom for the reader, the spark is lost, but give both of them a few character differences, a few rough edges….

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    1. Robena, something you’ve said here has velcro’d onto my brain as Important. So thanks for that. I hope to figure out what it is.

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    2. I think the exchange of gifts is really important – what a beautiful way to put it. I think all of my favorite romances have this – Bet Me, Absolutely Positively by JAK, A Summer to Remember by Mary Balough, Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas etc etc.

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  23. Romances that work best for me feature multi-dimensional, imperfect people, with strong secondary characters and lots of humor. Also a strong plot and an author who shows doesn’t tell. I will forgive a lot in a book if the characters are strong, the humor is good, and the secondaries are fully-fleshed out.

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  24. Dialogue. To me a romance is all about the characters. It doesn’t matter what plot you stick them in, I need to know that these two people are going to be together after the adventure is over and life becomes routine. In order to accomplish that they need to get to know each other; and the reader needs to go along on the entire journey. And the way to accomplish that is through dialogue.

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  25. I love stories that have the two leading characters busy with their own lives and have their future all mapped out. My favorite example of this is Agnes and the Hitman-she’s living in the house she always wanted, engaged to the perfect guy , writing a food column and planning a wedding. He’s a successful killer with no past to tie him down. They get thrown together, know they are all wrong for each other and still can’t stop falling in love. Everything just rolls down under the force of that love and the both feel they can and will do anything to keep each other. I have heard the saying “love is blind” but that does not apply in this story. Agnes knows he is a killer and he admits that she is round and pattable with a terrible temper but these things do not matter-in fact these traits only add to their love.

    I would also add that a good romance story is one that I want to read again. Over the years, I have read many romance novels but there are a chosen few that I have purchased for my bookshelves because I felt the need to read them again. Needless to say, some of these are Jennifer Crusie books!

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    1. I think one of the things that I love about Jennie’s books are that a crucial part of the course of true love is that they see each other clearly and love each other anyway. One of my favourite romantic scenes ever is in “Faking It” when Davy looks at the paintings and says ‘It’s you.’, and Tilda’s last barriers get broken down. It’s all about finding the person who knows you best, and loves you madly in spite of and because of all your strengths and flaws.

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  26. I love the Unknown Ajax and how Georgette Heyer moves Hugo from goat to hero. You never really notice until the end where he saves the day and Anthea realizes that she has someone who loves her and she can depend on.

    In Bet Me, I love the dialogue. I can’t quote verbatim but just in how Min says her real mother would let her eat butter, Cal scoping out Min’s bras, all the Charm Boy comments and Tony’s chaos theory of attractors. But what gets it for me is when Min freaks out realizing that she loves Cal because “he knows me”. Exactly. He looks at her and sees the real Min. Not the actuary or the daughter or the friend but the warm, funny, smart woman who was Min. She isn’t a weight to him or a number or an arm charm.

    Remember in middle school when you liked someone and got that great butterflies in the stomach feeling? That is what a great romance does for me. The anticipation and the total rush of feeling. The connection at the end of Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy asks again and Eliza says yes. The kitchen scene at the end of Moonstruck. The entire dance with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in the Long, Hot Summer. The duel of wits in Taming of the Shrew.

    With my beloved DH, it is the attention to detail he shows to who I am that lets me know I am “the one and only.” And the snappy dialogue. 🙂 He is a punster.

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    1. Oh Ginny, you hit it for me… That feeling that there is no illusion as to who (in my case) the woman IS. He sees her. Loves her for who she is and (to paraphrase Bridget Jones’ Diary – the movie) not a little skinnier, or bigger breasts or a smaller nose. Or in my case the ability to stay focused, clean the house and cook. That’s what I get from romance – that feeling that a guy can love a woman and not expect her to be different. “Okay, so you don’t cook? We’ll figure out a way to get a housekeeper.”

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    2. I like that, the butterflies in the stomach for the reader.
      And, oh dear God yes, The Long Hot Summer. That last scene where she goes up to his bedroom and says, “You can get on that bus . . .” I think that may have started my puberty.

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      1. They got married after this movie. And stayed together for 50 years. I don’t usually fall for movies stars but he was so ***hot*** in this movie, she says as she fans herself. Lordy, me, who could resist him?

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  27. In AATHM, for me it was when Shane took her to do list. And then he got her an air conditioner. How can you not love a man who would do that? He got her, he got what was important to her, and he helped her accomplish that. And I cried when the bridge showed up. Okay, Shane didn’t talk much, which contradicts my earlier comment about dialogue; but there was so much showing there, over and over again. It was a dialogue of sorts, just one where the actions spoke for him.

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    1. That’s it for me – the being known and loved anyway. I love the moment Min rescues Cal from his parents, thinking she’s just ruined everything but needing to stand up for him, even though he’d never ask anybody to do that for him – and it’s exactly what he needed.

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    2. I had the real-life equivalent recently. Roses and chocolates are nice, but true love is your darling husband bending over backwards to rearrange an inconvenient meeting that got dumped on him, just so you don’t miss out on Wednesday Library Trip.

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    3. I was thinking of Agnes when I wrote my comment about believing the romance because of characters actions. Shane thinking of the air conditioner was the one that got me. I was like, awh – he’s always wanting to make her life better/easier/more comfortable!

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  28. Thank you for this incredibly awesome post. Thanks to the gnomes that run the cosmos, I just finished listening to Bet Me on audiobook (for the fifth time), both because it’s brilliant and because I was analyzing why the story worked so well. And then, just for a little extra boost, you write a blog post explaining it! I am surprised there aren’t big flashing neon lights that say, “Diana, PAY ATTENTION.”

    What I find so interesting about your work is how you weave literary devices into them, repeated words and ideas that would make Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson) tip his hat to you, because even he would be impressed with how those symbols evolve in meaning as the story plays out. Every time Min or Cal thought, “This one,” I felt myself sigh and think, “Yeah, that’s right.” Toss in the dueling Elvises and the philosophical argument of what it means to be happy and beautiful, and I by the time I reached the end, I plopped down on the coach and thought, “Wow, it’s all there. That was AMAZING.”

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  29. First off just so you know – taping hopelessly romantic to the computer worked! That is definitely how I would describe the couple in “Bet Me”. I LOVED this book. What makes a story fun for me is the quirks in each character and the fact that they love each other in spite of those quirks. It makes me laugh when they tease each other about those quirks. Have to go!
    Keep writing!

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  30. I just started the audio version of “Charley All Night” and just finished “Wild Ride” on audio. (I listen in the car, 40 minute drive one way to work.) Since I’ve discovered Jenny’s books, I can’t get enough…but I must admit I love the team of JC and Bob Meyer. I haven’t met a character I dislike yet and I laugh all the way to work and home again.

    I really hate it when a writer has too much narrative…by the time the ask the question and go into narrative and the answer comes up, I’ve already forgotten the question and have to go back to see what was said. Is it my short attention span? I don’t know. I never had that problem with Kathleen Woodiwiss, Linda Lael Miller or Jenny’s books.

    The characters in Jenny’s books are people I would know. Heck I saw too much of me in MAB in Wild Ride and loved it anyway!

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  31. Totally off topic, but just saw this web site – tragic and spooky that IMMEDIATELY made me think o Wild Ride, for obvious reasons. In the abandoned Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans. You may have already seen it during research and/or on yours and Bobs tour, in which case here it is again. But it was new, and shocking, and inspiring to me. Check out photo #27 especially.

    http://www.lovethesepics.com/2011/05/creepy-crusty-crumbling-illegal-tour-of-abandoned-six-flags-new-orleans-75-pics/

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  32. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I think what makes a book special is different for each person. For all the people who love Bet Me (including me), I’ll bet they each love it for a different reason. I have read so many books that other people have raved about and I just want to hurl it across the room. (Fortunately, I have refrained – hurling is hard on electronics).

    For me it’s characters. The books I go back to again and again are the ones where I love the characters. They are people I wish were real and a part of my life. (I admit I have a serious weakness for the tough but vulnerable hero).

    So I have to agree with those who say write what YOU love. Write what makes YOUR heart go pitter pat. If you love it, someone else will love it, too.

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  33. You might want to hit me for it, but on re-reading your post I asked myself: why does she want to do it if it’s such a struggle? Here we are, trying to find THE piece of advice, while we all know that there are things which aren’t made for everybody. At least I know that as soon as it’s a struggle for me, I’ll stop. I need writing to be something I keep enjoying, otherwise I might as well give it up. (Well, that’s me, night-time writer with a day job in which I have plenty of struggles to face.)

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    1. Don’t all wanna-be writers want a magic wand? I know *I* do!! And, sometimes I’ve been given one. The most important magic wand I got was: “write every day. Just do it, and keep doing it.” Of course, I don’t use the magic wand as much as I should (last time was last November, and now I need the magic editing wand, which probably goes like, “edit every day. Just do it, and keep doing it.”). (-: I really really want it; but it’s a struggle making myself do it. OTOH, I have no problem finding chocolate and eating it. Easier rush, I guess.

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  34. I love romances (and all stories) that are emotionally true – that engage me because they tell an emotional truth. So, my advice is tell the truth (not about that thing that happened at summer camp, but the emotional truth of how it felt, what it meant).

    The best example I can come up with is from Buffy – not really a romance and definitely no hea. But the relationship between Buffy and Angel those first seasons is the most emotionally true portrayal of teen love that I’ve ever seen. Just one tiny example – when Buffy slept with Angel for the first time and he lost his soul and TURNED EVIL, I totally recognized that. I can think of several friends (male and female) who thought they were going to bed with someone wonderful and woke up next to someone kind of evil (no vampires though).

    I think that emotional recognition is key – that’s what make me flip to the dog-earred pages in my favorite books. I love the scenes of Cal and Min defending each other to their families at dinner – because I recognize that, I want that – to be with someone who understands me better than my own parents.

    I love the scene in Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas where Beatrix pulls Christopher out of a party when she realizes that the noise (a popping champagne cork?) has upset him and she eventually revels that she steals small things when she’s stressed (and that just as she’s gotten better over time, he will too). It’s a sweet scene, with both sexual tension and tenderness, and you don’t need to be a combat vet, or have ptsd, or kleptomania to recognize the emotional truth underlying their conversation. She saw that he was hurting when no one else did, she made herself vulnerable to help him, and he accepted her help.

    I love the scene in Absolutely Positively by JAK where Molly coerces Harry’s quarrelsome extended family into giving him a bachelor party because I recognize that too. Somebody with a less troublesome extended family than mine might love that scene for another reason (or not at all) but it resonates with me both because of my specific family history and because of the more universal desire to belong, and to be understood.

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  35. For me, it is all about the characters. (Although I love a good exotic local or quirky profession–the amusement park in Wild Ride, for example.) The characters have to been interesting on their own–I love the quirky but realistic– and even more interesting when they interact. Someone once said something like, “Everyone wants to do you or be you,” or something like that. I have to want to “be” the protagonist and “do” the hero, or there’s no appeal for me.

    And you have to want the characters to be together–groan when they do something stupid that tears them apart, and cheer when they end up together. I’ve read romances where I just didn’t give a crap if the couple eneded up together. What’s the point of that?

    A romance should be fun, and poignant, and a little spicy, although I don’t need to have detailed sex in all of mine. At least not all the time. (The amount in your books is just perfect, in part because by the time you get to it, the lead-in scenes have the reader almost as eager for it to happen as the participants are…)

    Maybe your friend needs to have someone else read her ms and tell her which parts aren’t working? I wish her good luck with it!

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  36. I really enjoy the yearning – particularly a guy who really wants a woman but can’t have her, and does all kinds of selfless acts to make sure she’s happy. For the novel to be satisfying, I have to believe that there’s a reason why they’ve fallen for each other… something about their personalities that clicks. Chemistry alone isn’t enough. The antagonist has to be real enough (even if just internal) to justify a full-length novel. I can say all these things as a reader… actually getting it right as a writer is a different story!

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  37. I’ve been thinking about this question all day, because truthfully I need this answer as much as anyone.

    I’ve become so cynical in my own life that I reach for books to pull me out of the cynicism. It’s hard to write romance when I’m feeling like men are shits. I know they aren’t all – I’ve got some fabulous friends who are wonderful men (and married to my female fabulous friends who are also wonderful.)

    I mentioned above that acceptance for who you are is really important to me. I think it’s why I like Ranger from the Plum series so much (JE). He’s the man of mystery, he’s got skilz, he’s got secrets, but he also cares for Steph. He loves her and tries to give her what she needs based on who she is. [I know, I know – she’s become an entertainment line item in his budget – I don’t like that either. But I’m choosing to believe that, yes, they place wagers on when she’s going to wreck a car – but they do it with the utmost respect.]

    See now I’ve gotten myself off topic again. It’s the feeling that it doesn’t matter how much of a dipshit or how damaged I am, I’m deserving of love and there is someone out there who will love me for exactly who am I right now. Sometimes the plot has the h/h resisting, sometimes they love each other madly but there is something else in the way but it’s that feeling. The knowledge that he will love her. He will not try to make life harder for her, or try and change her, or try and shame her into changing. They will just love each other and value each other and do things to make the other person’s life easier.

    But how do you write that? How do you get all those emotions down on paper in such a way that the reader gets it? I wish I knew. Personally, on my next revision of this damn paranormal I’m going to edit for emotion. If I can’t tell what the emotion in a scene is I’ll either fix it or cut it. But that’s after I finish writing in this secondary, but necessary plot line.

    Then I’m going back to kind of funny/mystery/romance where I belong!

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    1. I think you really do have to give up all hope of ever being cool if you write romance, just because being cool kills that out-of-control feeling the romance needs. The ironic detachment that fuels so much bad fiction is just death to romance.

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  38. I love romance, and I have a long list of things I love about it. Mainly, reading it makes me feel good. I think my favorite romances are the ones where the hero and heroine really know each other – or maybe “get” each other is a better word for it. Sometimes those are second-chance-at-love books, but not always. I like it when the hero and heroine can laugh together and where they don’t compromise their beliefs. Of course there needs to be conflict, but not so much that I want to go dig myself a hole and jump in it. I like unexpected touches, and a little magic always makes me smile. I like the heroes to be hot but I like heroines who are quirky and a little (or a lot) messed up. I could go on and on…

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  39. For me to buy into the romance, I need to feel that they are made more by each other, not made less together. True in life, too. It’s sometimes in unexpected ways – Sophie is more herself when she realises she’s going to have to manipulate and use every dirty trick in the book to fight for (and with) Phin. Phin is more himself once Sophie has destroyed his comfy little world and cleared away the things pinning him down. There are lots of other examples, too many to name.

    And the other thing, which has already been mentioned, is that the hero and heroine need to see each other clearly and love each other in spite of and because of exactly who they are.

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  40. I’ve been thinking about this all day, and here’s what I came up with. When Jane Eyre hears Rochester call her from afar, she suddenly understands in total, awful clarity the truth: that he’s imperfect and so is she, that it will hurt to love him, and yet it will hurt more not to love him, that it doesn’t matter how you add it up, mulitiply it or divide it in two–love is not logical. It’s a beautiful and sometimes ugly gift, and so damn rare that if lands in your lap, you better have the wit to hold onto it with both hands and fight for it with everything you have. Thus, the scenes I remember most vividly in books and film are usually after that first botched declaration of love. It’s usually when all hope is gone. When the resistant character admits she/he is helpless against what the love they hold for the other. It’s usually the last stand, where one character says “I’m this, you’re that, and it doesn’t matter to me. I love you.” It’s Darcy helpless in the rain. It’s Monseigneur’s quiet stillness as he waits for Leonie to agree with him. He’s too old. He’s too wicked. He loves her so but she is worth better. The declarer abandons their facade of dignity, their proud shields. They go naked into the battle and in their own way, they fight savagely for their love, so that their lover can witness how wonderful, how unique and how utterly irreplaceable they are to them. It’s the “you complete me” moment.

    Newman walked back into that house because he understood that. What he and Woodward had was bigger than what either one had on their own.

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  41. I thought back over my favorite romances, and came up with Birthright (Roberts), Faking It (you), Bitten (Armstrong, and OK not exactly a romance, but there’s a great one in there), and the In Death series. The biggest commonality seems to be these people knowing everything about each other, and loving each other because of that. A couple of these are reunion romances, and I especially love the moment when the protagonists (women in both cases) realize that whatever problems their relationships have, it’s so much better to stay than to leave. A couple of the heroines are also deeply and legitimately damaged, and their love interests get that and handle it beautifully. The ones I keep going back to all have that no-matter-what element, whether the relationship survived divorce, 10 years of anger over one turning the other into a werewolf, or resistance from people dealing with horrendously abusive pasts. I never doubt that these people love each other so much they will stay with each other through anything, and forgive each other the unforgivable. These are the things that work for me.

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  42. I read lots of romance novels. I pick them because I hope they will be funny and believable (which normally means honest), warm, exciting, and make me feel better after I close the book. But the ones I reread (including yours), I read because it’s also about a character coming more fully into themselves. The romance plot is the fun part, the instigator, the reward. But a character accepting who they are at their core and changing their life because of it? It not only makes me root harder for the ending, it makes me believe the book.

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  43. One of my favourite romantic scenes ever is in “Much Ado About Nothing”, when in the middle of all the wild protestations of love, Beatrice says ‘Kill Claudio’. And Benedick puts all the words and jokes and bickering aside in an instant to give her exactly what she needs, even if it means killing his best friend and breaking with his prince. The craft in it is the shift from flowery language to bare monosyllables. The romance in it is that underneath all the words, he is there for her the moment she is in need.

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    1. Yes! That’s the scene where they drop all their defenses and speak directly to each other. On another level, way back when during Remington Steele days, there was usually a short scene in each episode where Laura and Steele would drop the whole (enjoyable) banter and battle, and speak directly to each other. That’s what made it one of my favorite shows, and while I’ll probably never go to back to re-watch them. Besides, it would make me feel old.

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    2. I love that, too. There’s a great variation of that in the modern Shakespeare Retold version, Damian Lewis finally realizing what he needs to do.

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  44. Now I have to go find a great image of kissing salt shakers to put over my computer.
    Re: chemistry in romance – I think Michael Hague’s explanation of identity and essence explains why some couples have real, believable chemistry and others don’t. Identity vs essence shows why sparks fly and we root for couples in a variety of stories, from Shrek to LA. Confidential.

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  45. I think you hit on it with the sense of the irresistible like the salt shakers. I’m currently rereading my beloved YA…the Jess Darling series by Megan Mccafferty and through the progression of the books and so much that out to be unforgivable (no misunderstandings here, both characters act like jerks some of the time) there was never a moment when I thought that they could possibly NOT be together ultimately. Sometimes it was a question of maturity or timing…it is YA after all…but there was an inevitability of recognition there, a link or (god forbid I use that overused word I hate) “connection” that they couldn’t get around.

    I’m not talking destiny or soul mates (crap that pisses me off usually), but a feeling of kinship and attraction that is too good to lose.

    I also like funny and tough heroines (Agnes is a fave forever).

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  46. This question has been stuck in my head. I’ve read all of the replies and at each one, I think, yeah, that’s it, only to move on to the next reply and think, well, that’s it, too.

    I had trouble sleeping last night, so I self-medicated with trash t.v. I was scrolling
    through the channels when I came across Bridezilla’s. Has anyone watched this show? I cannot believe grown women act this way, or that the people around them let them get away with that crap! It was like watching a train wreck. I wanted to go down the hall, wake up my boys, and plop them in front of the tube and tell them to pay attention, to stay away from women like these ones. But then the show cut to an actual ceremony with the preacher telling this particular man that he could kiss his bride, and I teared up a little. The look on that man’s face–I don’t even know if I can do his expression justice–his face split into this huge smile that went all the way to his eyes and he just looked at his wife like she was the only woman on Earth, like they were the only people in the room, before cupping her head in his hands and kissing her. He didn’t say anything; he just looked at this woman, and I knew. Hell, I even said it out loud–He. Loves. Her.

    Does that make her bad behavior okay? No. But that look on his face says it all; he was willing to go through the garbage to get to that place with that woman.

    I’ve also been trying to think of any one specific book that defines it for me, but I can’t, and as a reader I think that is exactly how it should be. I don’t want to read one hundred versions of the same couple. But there are moments that stick in my head, like the one with the groom. I don’t know them, but I WANT them to live HEA, to keep looking at each other like they did on their wedding day.

    One of my fav book moment comes from Rachel Gibson–Lola and Max. I love this book. The characters try living in denial, then try to live with each other, in whatever manner the other is willing to give while neither actually gives up anything, until they finally reach the breaking point–it hurts too much. Lola is all about appearances and Max is all about action. They know this and understand this about each other, but they don’t want to see that Max is really about appearances, too–it’s how he is able to do his job. And Lola is about action because she spent too long being passive in her own life and she’s taking it back. She’s stronger than she appears and Max is softer than he acts, but they still can’t get it right…until Max comes back and tells her, “I almost died this week, and for the first time, I actually gave a shit.” I guess as a reader, I want that. I know why Max gives a shit. I know why that groom put up with that Bridezilla. Show us why they love each other, tell us why they think it won’t work, but just let the characters be who they are, and when they are standing there, the only two people in the world, we will give a shit.

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    1. In the latest Rachel Gibson, the heroine is reluctant to resume a sexual relationship with the hero. When she calls him and says she has no appointments for two hours and she isn’t wearing any underwear – I as the reader was almost as excited as he was.

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  47. Good romance, on the page or on the screen, is sigh producing. In “French Kiss”, they share one kiss, one amazing kiss, and I just sat there and thought “oh”. In “Bull Durham”, it’s when Annie/Susan Sarandon mutters “Oh, my” and I sighed along side her. In all the TV shows and all the movies and all the books, when you’re rooting for the couple to get together, it’s the moment right after you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seat wondering if they’ll finally kiss/dance/admit their love, because they DO and you relax back into your seat and sigh.

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  48. Didn’t have time to read all the comments, but coming on the heels of Michael Hauge’s wonderful lectures at Nationals, I found and read Peter Dunne’s EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE. It’s *wonderful*. Works for my pointy brain and really analyzes what he calls the co-protagonist/co-antagonist relationship, which most romance novels follow. It’s quite spiritual as well as intellectual. If your friend reads it and finds it helpful, I’d love to know!

    I attended your collaging workshop. Didn’t say “hi” because you were busy and I have pockets of outrageous shyness. (Also you won’t know me, so it would be all about me, which seemed unnecessary.) However, wanted to say I enjoyed it and you. You had a wonderful energy this year. I came away thinking that you were ready to finish your book now, and I’m delighted to read that’s the case.

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    1. Heyer is the writer I wanted to be. Hell, I still want to be her. Her characters are as alive to me today as when I first read them. Especially Sophy. Sophy, Susan Sto Helit, and the Wife of Bath: best female characters in literature.

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  49. The thing that really makes me enjoy a novel with a romance plot or subplot is having at least one important scene or section of the novel that shows just how much the protagonists enjoy one another’s company. Even if conflicts immediately or eventually pull the characters apart and force them to suffer, the thing that draws me back and seems to give the novel its foundation of feeling truthful is the experience of that happy, fulfilling time in their lives together.

    Which means I’m not satisfied with a book that talks about how beautiful the two of them are or how their libidos rise when they see/hear/think about/or smell one another. For me, that’s not enough for me to care about their ultimate togetherness.

    I also don’t find it enough when an author seems to hang the romance on a history that one or the other protagonist might have of loving or lusting after the other. That history might exist, but it doesn’t demonstrate for me the kind of pleasure the two can take in one another’s presence, or conversation, or sense of humor, or understanding, which leaves me really doubting their emotional connection.

    In Jenny’s books, for example, the scene where Min’s sister is bowled over by how fun it is to be with the Cal/Min friendship group is very telling. It kind of echoes the enjoyment the protagonists had while eating in Min’s apartment after a cooking lesson, and presages the fun they all have while catering the rehearsal dinner.

    Likewise, it’s great to read the sequences in Faking It where Davey and Tilda are scamming people out of Scarlet paintings. Each of them is struck with how skilled the other one is at the con game, and each is reassured by the other’s comfort with, and lack of judgment about, that bent part of them.

    I’ve re-read most of Georgette Heyer’s novels, but my favorites are ones where there’s a happy interlude — like the lovely stays at inns where the protagonists can just be themselves and be happy. Sylvester and Phoebe et al. playing inventive card games in the inn during the blizzard; Sir Gareth & Lady Harriet sitting in the apple orchard at the inn after Amanda’s poor duped admirer had shot him; Leonie & the Duke and all the assorted family members at the French inn awaiting the arrival of the villain.

    In all of these situations, you can see how the two main figures fit together on a daily basis, and often how they fit into or contrast against each other’s extended families (families either by blood or by choice).

    To me, this gives me a deep sense of what the love is all about, and what kind of a foundation this relationship has for a future life together. It’s Darcy talking and laughing with the Gardiners, and not Darcy standing in Lady Catherine’s shrubbery or displaying the lovely house at Pemberley that gives me hope for the Bennett-Darcy union.

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    1. You’re right. There are a lot of scenes I love in The Grand Sophy, but the one that sticks in my mind is the one where Sophy goads Charles into firing the gun in the house, and when he realizes what he’s done, they both laugh. It’s a moment of absolute connection and it’s when you know that Charle’s engagement is toast and so is Charles.

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  50. Georgette Heyer seems to come up alot around here. I remember reading her in high school and enjoying the books but the details are fuzzy. (Been a real long time) I don’t have any of her books (my mother was real good at throwing anything away that did not interest her or fit her decor) so I guess I’m going to have to hit Half Price Books or the library. Hopefully the books will be as good as the memories.

    And I’ll line up with all the others who said they have to be able to believe in the characters and invest in them. Heaven save me from boring and stupid characters. (idiot checking out the noises in the basement, in the dark, alone, and unarmed. anyone?)

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    1. At RWA I went to a presentation about classic novels that inspire writers and there was a lot of discussion. Leah H from Sourcebooks said that all of Georgette Heyer’s books are still available – some of them from Sourcebooks.

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  51. The thing that always works for me is when I believe each of them sees the other with absolute clarity and loves what s/he sees, and the clarity is something no one else in their lives achieves.

    An example is one of my favorites, Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Daphne is a genius and all her life she’s had to hide or deny her obsessive passion for hieroglyphs. (The story takes place in Egypt in the early 19th century.) She does a very good job of pretending it’s her brother who’s the expert on papyri and inscriptions, but Rupert recognizes the truth almost immediately…and he thinks it’s wonderful. Everyone in the world thinks Rupert is a dolt — an impression he’s in no hurry to correct, since it works for him — but Daphne sees otherwise. Not immediately — at one point she tells him his job is to provide the brawn — but she does see it. And she sees his kindness, his loving heart, the way he brings people under his wing, something no one else notices.

    There is, for me, something about being seen, about the things that are true and good and generally hidden being visible, that just gets me every time.

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    1. Good example (and a lovely story). The trick is to make sure that it’s something that *can* be noticed, not something that the heroine deludes herself into thinking (he yelled at me and slapped me because he cares so much!). I completely agree that the person for them will see through the facade, but it has to be a facade, and there needs to be evidence or at least more than one reasonable interpretation of events.

      I have been showing vacation photos to friends and get a lot of “oh, yeah, that’s nice” responses, but one very good friend saw them, and for almost every picture pointed out why I took it in the first place. “This is why were friends”, I said.

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  52. Is her story not yet a romance or is her story not yet a story? Different problems with different solutions. Does a situation or set of scenes exist with no way to drive to/from/between them? Or is it all forward motion with no stopping points to change the path? Will I care what happens to the heroine? (Not the same as wanting to be or be friends with the heroine.) Are the hero and heroine better people together than they are apart?

    I tend to really enjoy characters who are odd or exceptional in some way who pick up strays and eventually, through teamwork, save the day in the story. And I prefer to end the story on an optimistic note. The characters don’t have to be “good people”, though it helps, but they need to be self-consistently moral in some way (I only kill people who deserve it…). The world building needs to be consistent. If you’re setting up a rule, know whether the rule is absolute or just very difficult to circumvent; then if you break the rule, be prepared to have a good reason, or don’t break it. Something needs to draw me forward into the next page – will they/won’t they? Will it get better? Will the heroine/hero find out what the reader already knows in time, or will it be too late? I like having some nuggets of delightful prose and pleasant character interactions. I like having antagonists that aren’t fully evil, that make you think twice about what’s going to happen.

    It’s much easier to pick out flaws than what makes a good story. But recent flaws I’d rather authors avoided: don’t keep secret from a reader what the point of view character knows; don’t refuse help from a duke thinking you’re better off navigating the law in Regency England as a woman on her own (?!?!?!); don’t _over_use uncommon words (no sarcastic glowers every other page). Eh, she should know all that, and as you’ve said, one can break every no-no in the world and still tell a fabulous story that I’ll read. She should have someone start reading and mark when they want to stop. Then figure out why they didn’t want to keep reading and fix that.

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  53. Let me start with what makes yours so great for me. I reread them frequently – it’s like taking a little vacation. Your characters are real. They’re flawed in real ways that I can see in myself and others, and that’s what makes me like them. They grow through the book in realistic ways. Tess is so afraid of being financially successful (heck, even being able to really support herself would be a stretch!) that she pushes away any possibility of it. I’ve done that and am currently struggling with it. By the end of the book, she’s come to terms with it, at least enough to let herself love Nick. It’s clear that she still has a lot to learn and accept – they both do – but I know that they’ve got a shot at making it work.

    Your use of humor helps make your books fun and, again, real. I love the scenes in Fakin’ It where Tilda and Davey are finding the paintings. I love the sex scenes with them, especially the early ones. I can so relate to Tilda there, getting all in her head and not even feeling what’s going on! The humor adds so much to the books. Romance that’s only hot and steamy gets old pretty fast for me. I know there’s no chance of that in real life.
    Of course, romance isn’t romance without sex. But in real life, sex is a relatively small part of life, so sex should be only a small part of the story. If it’s the bulk of the story, then the book is more like porn, not romance. For a weekend, even a week, it might be mostly sex, but even then you’ve got to use the bathroom, for heaven’s sake!

    A good romance should have all the features in writing that it has in life: conversation, awkwardness that gets easier, breaks in the connection as people reveal more of themselves and get scared, attraction, fighting/giving into that attraction, sex, humor, food, family and friends, all the work of blending two full lives. It’s more than just a series of scenes designed to get the main characters into bed (or on the piano or in the pool or wherever).

    Finally, a great romance is like all great writing – for it to be great, it requires a great support system for the writer, including a great editor. Of course, none of that does any good if the writer doesn’t listen. I don’t know how many books I’ve been disappointed in because they were poorly edited (and I include basic proofreading with editing). It’s clear when a writer and editor work together to make a book its best and have the necessary skills, and it’s clear when they don’t.

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  54. I just read this again…Here’s where I should say a nice “thank you”. But instead, I’ll say this: I think I love you, Jenny Goddam Crusie. You are one smart cookie.

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