Romance Recap

I recently came across an email I wrote to my family several years ago (before I had a blog). Since I've been writing about men, women, and romance lately, I decided to post it:

I am reading a book called How to Write Romances on the principle that romances sell, so they must be doing something right (as in something that makes money).

Unfortunately, I haven't learned anything so far except not to switch viewpoints in the middle of a sentence, and I already knew that. The book is aimed at almost entirely unexperienced writers and is the sort of book that recommends new writers to keep a file of newspaper clippings for ideas. There's nothing wrong with this suggestion, but I can't really wrap my head around someone wanting to do something (write, paint, sing) which they have never tried before on the off-chance that it will be EASY! and FUN! [Hello, American Idol.]

However, despite the lack of useful tips, I am still reading the book because it is, entirely unintentionally, completely hilarious. I ran across this quote:
He didn't have a leg to stand on when it came to taking Petey away from Ashley. Not unless he could prove she was an unfit mother. After seeing her with Petey today, he knew that was out of the question. She was a perfect mother, and he was an out-of-state politician who hadn't known the boy existed until a day ago. That's why he had to get her to Texas.
"Study the preceding paragraph," the author writes, "to understand the wealth of information fed so discreetly to the reader."

I had to read the above sentence twice to make sure it actually said what I thought it said. And that's when I realized I was going to have a lot of fun reading this book.

This is my favorite bit of advice so far: Concerning figurative language
[y]ou should not use Artic comparisons if your novel takes place in the tropics.
Such as . . . Tarzan lurched along the jungle floor, beating his handsome, muscular chest and yoodling like an Artic seal calling for its mate!

[Unfortunately, I have found the above advice does need to be given to my composition students. At the time I wrote this email, I thought not mixing metaphors a rather obvious tip, but apparently, mixing metaphors is a national pasttime for beginning writers.]

Back to the book:
For most romance lines, a coal-mining town . . . is too difficult to imagine as a romantic setting. A small-town setting with a fashionable resort, an Olympic-trial ski run, or other point of interest could easily be considered exotic.
And whilst you are describing the exotic ski run, do NOT write, "Daphne, taking a break from her hard life as a secretary to a billionaire lawyer who might secretly love her but couldn't show it due to some silly misunderstanding that will be cleared up in Chapter 12, watched the snow fall on the ski lift like coal dust from a town very far away and completely unrelated to her." Because ski lifts and coal dust DO NOT mix.

Let's take a look at character development:
There is an advantage to keeping a character chart. When you first begin writing, it is very easy to remember names and descriptions. However, as you progress from chapter to chapter and book to book, you will soon discover how easy it is to forget names as well as color of hair or eyes. By charting or listing the physical as well as psychological makeup of your characters, you will save time and effort.
I can just see Shakespeare: "Darn it all--is it Lear with the daughters in the rainstorms or is that MacBeth? Which is the Dane? Fudge! I keep confusing Juliet's boyfriend with Ophelia's!"

And what color are Romeo's eyes anyway?
Even the most villainous people should have at least one good point to make them believable (my emphasis).
Because we all know villainous people who steal, murder, and mug little old ladies but have a soft spot for cutesy-wootsy bunny rabbits.
If you want to show strong feelings but prefer not to spell out the swear words, easy solutions exist: 'He swore competently.'
He swore COMPETENTLY? Is that like getting a prize at a spelling bee? "Jimmy, please stand up and swear competently. Are you ready, Jimmy. Begin with the s's."

How about some plot advice?
Mark, a newspaper columnist, finds himself attracted to Coryn. But after a few dates, he abruptly stops seeing her without explanation. Coryn's father is about to run for political office. Interwoven subplots involve Coryn's mother, who is in the initial stage of Alzheimer's Disease, and the death of Coryn's dog, all neatly tied together to make an inspiring and informative read.
I could write a novel like that: "The subplots of Pamela in Portland combine the ongoing search for Mr. Right (Now), the loss of the heroine's job, a sudden discovery of a cure for cancer, and the death of the heroine's cat by a passing car."

Since this how-to book IS about romances, we must discuss the PG-13 bits. The author makes a big deal about the difference between sensuality and sexuality. Sexuality is all very well and good, it seems, but it is sensuality that sells the book. Sensuality falls in to the category of "a phone call in the middle of the night to tell you how much he needs you" which proves that sensuality is all relative since I, personally, would consider battering Mr. Lover Man to death with a brick for waking me up in the middle of the night. (Actually, the conversation would go something like "Wha?" "Wha?" "I don't--" "Uh, sure." "You in trouble--need a lift somewhere or something?")

On to sex:
There are closet scenes, anthill scenes, love among the pine needles, and lovemaking under water.
An ANTHILL? Not really up there with Lady Chatterley's Lover [addendum: I have since read Lady Chatterley's Lover, and it is at about the same level. LCL is a remarkably stupid book.]

And I'm sure the sex education folks will be relieved that "some publishers now accept clinical descriptions" EXCEPT, the author adds, "too much realism--on any score--destroys the fantasy we are providing and that includes the discussion of safe sex."

[Along these lines, Katie Roiphe wrote a fascinating book called The Night After where she discusses the fantasy v. the reality of sex-in-the-moment and why the latter, despite public education, is considered more romantic. I also recently picked up a book called Predictably Irrational. Provable fact: All the sex education classes in the world aren't going to make teenagers behave sensibly in the throws of passion. When the hormones get going, "cold" promises go flying out the window. Education and supervision are the only two options and, turns out the Victorians were right, education doesn't always work.]

Back to character development, repeated several times by the author is the instruction that (1) the heroine cannot be promiscuous; and (2) the hero cannot be a wimp.

I don't find the first particularly puzzling--it's part of the finding-your-one-and-only idea--but the second is a non-starter. He can't be a wimp means the hero is not only supposed to be physically pro-active, he is supposed to be ambitious/rich. So this workaholic, ambitious, unrelentingly superdynamic multi-millionaire is also supposed to take time out to be sensitive, caring, loving, and gentle, blah blah blah.

I work for workaholics and believe me, it is an attractive quality, but it NOT romantic. Walking around with a cellphone sticking out of one's ear is NOT romantic. Demanding, "I want my fax NOW" is frankly irritating. And obnoxious bosses getting stuck overnight in an airport because of the weather is just funny. But then I'm a secretary and earn about 1/16th of my bosses' salaries, so I have the right to find those things funny.

[As many of you know, I now teach; one reason I changed careers is because I got fed up with getting snapped at by workaholics. It really isn't that datable a personality type.]

Anyway, there's something intensely schizophrenic about the romance hero who has to be all things to the heroine.

Okay, that's enough of the PG-13 stuff. Back to plot, specifically violence!
It always creates a strong plot point to surprise the reader and kill off a character or two who seemed to be a vital part of the book. But I was reminded by a speaker at a writer's conference to never kill off too many characters in a novel because it all but eliminates the possibilities of a sequel.
Agatha Christie wrote some very funny passages in which her alter-ego, Mrs. Oliver, complains that whenever the publisher demands another 3000 words, she just kills off another character.

But then Agatha Christie, who I greatly admire, was writing mysteries, not supposedly character-driven romances. There's something downright annoying about writers (book and script) who kill off characters not for the puzzle but to "shake things up."

On the other hand, I like this advice (about the Middle Ages):
It is difficult to sell a book set during any time when civilization was at an extremely low ebb.
[A romance writer] asks herself if she would believe [a plot device] is she were reading it for the first time. If the answer is no, she takes it out.
Not to be rude or anything, but I suddenly had an image of a romance writer's transcript with nothing left except the sentence "Lucinda walked into the room."
Don't write about trees.
This is actually great advice! The author is saying that writers should always be specific. If you write about trees, call them "maples" or "birches."

Then, presumably, you can stick your heroine amongst the birches or maples and have her ruminate, discreetly, about her life. Using the principles noted above, the result would be something like this:

Rochelle walked through the tall fescus (Festuca elatior) grass under the looming oak (Quercus) trees, thinking of Bradley's devotion to his job, yet how he always managed to take her to champagne lunches while putting through mergers and giving money to charity. He even took time to text message her: b luv u--lines as sincere and moving as Shakespeare's poetry, the bits from The Merchant of Venice where everyone is talking about money. Perhaps she should confess to him that she had been systematically siphoning off money from his accounts for six months, but it was probably better to wait until he confessed his undying affection. There are limits to how much a women should put out.



marshymallow said...

I just had to say that this post made me grin delightedly. So, this post made me grin delightedly (except for the comment about Medieval times being a low ebb of civilization, but other than that it sounds like an incredibly amusing book). Thank you.

Kate Woodbury said...

Thanks! I'm a big fan of Medievalism myself, but I have to admit that romance novels set in Medieval times always seem to miss the boat. Not that medieval romance can't be done--as the marvelous Ellis Peters proved. But the dialog and expectations and historical misinformation usually make me grit my teeth, especially when the characters speak "forsoothly"--they didn't sound historical to each other!

To be fair, I think historical fiction is incredibly hard to write which is why I write fantasy--it's easier just to make up one's own world (where people can speak however they like)!

marshymallow said...

That's true - historical and specifically Medieval fiction is difficult to write well, but that doesn't mean it was a "low ebb." :o> I haven't yet read Ellis Peters, but Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is excellent.

Jeff said...

"throws of passion"?

Hmm, that does sound like a different type of romance novel.

Still, it's an interesting review of writing and recommendations. Thanks for the read.

Kate Woodbury said...

It's romance for those Viking teenagers!

Funny how you can read something a million times and not catch an error. And I'm an English teacher! Still, I haven't yet reached the magnificent heights of my student who, writing about fear of animals, referred to a "fear of loins."

Hmm, a little Freud anyone?