Falling in Love

Although I usually keep my thoughts and remarks somewhat “genre-free”, today I’m making an exception. I’m a romance writer, and today, I’m going to write about romance. Or, more precisely, about the romance genre in fiction.

Of course, there are many, many different “sub-genres” within the world of romance novels. Yet, at their heart, all romance novels are about love, about people who meet, discover an attraction to one another, and whose lives are changed by that wondrous phenomenon we call “falling in love”. falling-in-love

How does it happen? What does “falling in love” really mean? How do we know when love is real?

For most of us, I think, love is simply something that happens somewhere along the way as we go through life. We meet someone. Something “clicks”. We smile a lot. We laugh a little more. We enjoy spending time with that someone special who’s brought joy and happiness into our heart.

Sometimes love lingers quietly in the background for years before exploding into passionate sparks. At other times, with just one look, or a single spoken word, flames of love might burst forth at once. More often, love is slow, but steady. We see. We like. We pursue.

But that’s the real world. What about the fictional world in which our heroes and heroines live? Romance novels don’t often cover lengthy time spans — although, of course, there are exceptions.  The men and women of our romance novels (and yes, I’m going to go the traditional route here and speak of men and women falling in love) meet on Page 1 or thereabouts, and within the space of 200 pages, or thereabouts, they’re married folks, perhaps parents, and already living their happily-ever-after ending.

How does it happen?

Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense, to be honest. As writers, we all understand the importance of conflict and complications, so we have to throw obstacles in the way of our handsome hero and lovely heroine.

Unfortunately, too many authors misunderstand conflict, I think. They give readers characters who are totally opposite, characters who have absolutely nothing in common, characters who do nothing but bicker, argue, and go out of their way to make each other miserable.

Then, mid-way through the book, these authors suddenly bring hero and heroine together, throw in a few sultry looks, and yep…next thing you know, they’re romping in the sheets and declaring their undying love.

I’ve read books where hero and heroine meet one morning, and by late afternoon he’s so madly in love with her, he’ll do anything — even risk his own life — to save her from danger. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure he’s a heck of a nice guy, and maybe he would jump in and swim with sharks for her, but I still question the depth of his love after knowing the heroine for no more than a few hours.

Or consider the story of one loving couple from a historical romance I read years ago. They met once. Yes, once. They were children. They both felt something special. After that one meeting, they were separated. Over the years, their paths crossed a few times. Once, she was attending a lecture. She suddenly got chills of excitement running up and down her spine, but then it was gone. What had happened was that he had passed by the lecture hall on his way to an appointment. Yeah. He had those shivers and quivers, too. This happened several times. No meeting between the two of them. Just near-misses, and lots of quivers, shivers, tingles, and heart palpitations. Finally, in the last few pages of the book, they were reunited! Must I say it? Yes, dear readers, they declared their love and lived happily ever after. At least, that’s what the author expected readers to believe.

This reader said “Huh?”

Point #1: Falling in love usually requires spending a little time together.

My next concern involves those conflicts I mentioned before. Good romantic conflict doesn’t lead to argument. Heroes and heroines don’t have to hate each other. Quite the opposite. Good conflict occurs when hero and heroine are drawn to one another; they want to fall in love, they want romance to happen — but there are reasons why they can’t allow it. And those reasons had better be good ones!

I recall a story built around a seemingly good premise: Hero was quickly falling in love with the heroine, but she was married. Or so he thought. It was, of course, a misunderstanding. That man she talked about all the time was really her brother, not her husband.

Excuse me, folks, but didn’t these two characters ever talk to each other? Don’t you think, logically, a few conversations might have resolved the whole “I-can’t-love-her-because-she-has-a-husband” problem?

Point #2: If your couples are truly falling in love, they should be on speaking terms.

Yes, they may have secrets, but simple misunderstandings are’t enough to create believable conflicts. Real conflicts come from issues of mistrust, from past experiences that have affected the characters, and from external problems that prevent the couple from having the relationship they want.

Another problem I’ve encountered with couples falling in love is what I call “the believability factor”. This is a situation that creeps into stories in different ways — like in the story of the dashing sea captain who picked up a doxy on the pier. Of course, she really wasn’t, but he didn’t bother to inquire about particulars. He took her immediately to his bed. They had sex. They had more sex. They had even more sex. He was insatiable. He simply couldn’t get enough of her. (By the way, since she was his captive, she didn’t figure she should resist all this physical affection.)

And then…he discovered the truth. She wasn’t a working girl at all. She was a decent woman who was running away from a bad situation. He realized, too, he loved her, but to make up for his bad behavior, he wouldn’t have sex with her again until she forgave him and agreed to marry him. Or some such nonsense. The exact details have escaped my mind, but after several chapters of sex, sex, sex, the author then expected me — the reader — to believe that this hot-blooded sea captain would steadfastly resist the heroine (and any other woman) for nearly a year no matter how much she yearned for his touch. Sorry. Disconnect there. His sudden change from lusty lover to passionless gentleman wasn’t believable.

It’s the same with all those die-hard, confirmed bachelor rakes who’ve sworn never to marry, and who then, with no apparent motivation decide they must propose to the lovely heroine. Maybe it’s the only way she’ll give in to him…but wouldn’t such a devil-may-care playboy be more apt to simply move on to the next, more-willing woman?

Point #3: Maybe we can’t always find reasons for why we fall in love, but we do need reasonable explanations for changes in our behavior.

Of course, there’s the other side of this quick-change coin, as well. The shy, inexperienced heroine who intends to save herself for marriage needs good motivation for suddenly turning into a wanton, sex-craving paramour. Maybe she’s doing it because it’s the only way she can save her life. I’d buy that. If it’s mere curiosity that’s prompting her actions or if her only motivation is winning a silly bet with a friend…I’m not so sure that would be enough to get past my “believability factor”.

Everyone loves a good love story. As romance writers, let’s give our readers stories that have passion, conflict, honesty, and believability. Most of all, let’s give our heroes and heroines a chance to truly fall in love.

Comments, please?

You Can’t Please Everybody

As an active member of the Internet Writers’ Workshop and several other online writing groups, I’m often asked what advice I have for new authors who are just starting out. For a long time, my response was “Learn the language”.  I believe writers should know how to use words correctly, and that includes grammar, punctuation, and yes, even spelling.

But, that’s no longer the answer I give, because (1) I’ve harped about grammar and punctution for so long now, nobody pays any attention to me, and (2) as I get older, I hope I’m getting wiser, too, and I’ve learned a lot as a writer.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we can’t please everyone with our stories. Taste in romance reading is a personal thing, and thank goodness for that! Because of the varied interests of the romance-reading audience, there’s room for writers in a multitude of romantic sub-genres. Check out any “romance” bookshelf — online or in a brick-and-mortar store — and you’ll find paranormals, sci-fi, dystopian, and steam punk. You’ll see time travels, Regencies, Americana, and more, side by side with modern-day contemporary love stories. Romance tales often include mysteries to solve. They may be stories filled with danger and fast-paced action, and they may be set in exotic, exciting, faraway places.

Love is universal, and today’s love stories know no bounds. You’ll find men falling in love with men, women loving other women, and you’ll find adventurous romantic menages, if that’s what you enjoy reading. Whether you like your romance on the steamy, hot-as-fire side or the sweeter, “behind closed door” variety, romance authors today have just the story for you. Interracial romance? Military stories? Sports romance? Hollywood romance? You name it, and somebody is writing it.  But let’s not talk about “dinosaur romance”, OK?

What all this means for an author, of course, is that while some people are going to like your books, others aren’t. If you write erotic romance, there will be readers who complain that the book has too much sex. If you write sweet inspirationals, at least one reviewer will be disappointed that there isn’t enough sex.

Even if you’re not writing romance, you’ll encounter similar situations in other genres. Some readers want fast-paced action with blood and guts oozing from every page. Some readers want a leisurely stroll through a veritable garden of words with interesting little twists and turns in the path. Some readers are shocked by four-letter words while others don’t find dialogue realistic without them.

Nope, you definitely can’t please everybody. And every time I write that phrase or read it or say it, music comes into my head. Remember Rick Nelson singing “Garden Party“? It includes these lyrics:

But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

— Rick Nelson, Garden Party —

Maybe you already know the story behind the song, or maybe not.  Either way, here it is.

I went to a garden party…

In October, 1971, Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band performed in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival at Madison Square Garden.  Although the reasons for what happened are unclear, Nelson left the stage after being booed and jeered by  the crowd. He refused to return for the rest of the performance. Some reports claim that the boos were actually directed toward a police officer at the back, but whatever happened, Nelson took it personally. He believed the audience disliked him because after playing a few of his “oldie” hits, he’d turned to performing a newer “country-infused” rock music.

Back to writing…

One day while browsing through “best-seller” lists at various publishers, I had a brainstorm. It hit me all at once, like a brilliant flash of lightning. If I wanted to top the charts, it was simply a matter of writing what the public wanted, which, according to my research would result in an erotic romance about two male vampires living on another planet. At least part of the time. Most likely one would actually be a “shape-shifter” who occasionally turned into a werewolf, and probably he would do a bit of time-travel from one dimension to another. There would be evil aliens throwing orgies, and of course, I’d have to include a lot of BSDM… did I get that right? I’m not exactly sure what the letters mean, and no, I don’t really want to know. I have a vague idea, and that’s enough for me. That’s more than enough.

OK, you guessed it. I’m not into bondage. Neither do I care for blood-thirsty vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, aliens, or time travel. So would I really want to write a “best-seller” that included these things?

Nope. Not a chance. And needless to say, if I tried, it would not be a best-seller, because my heart wouldn’t be in it.

That’s the thing about writing, you see, and that’s the point in all of this. If your heart’s not in it, it doesn’t matter what you write. You can’t achieve success in any endeavor by trying to be someone you’re not or by trying to do something you dislike, but for some reason, a lot of authors keep trying it.

We have this crazy idea that everybody who picks up one of our books should love it.  Our writing is good! We know that. Our story is intriguing! Yep, sure is. We have interesting characters! Indeed.

But somebody will dislike it. Somebody will be bored by it. Somebody will find it confusing. Somebody will find it dull. Somebody will probably even stop reading half-way through because … because, why?

Because it simply doesn’t suit their taste.

What we need to be writing are the stories that we want to read, not the stories we think everybody else wants.  I think Toni Morrison said it best:

If there’s a book you really want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

What do YOU want to read? That’s what you should be writing, because there are other readers like you, readers who are waiting to read that special story that only YOU can tell.

Write what you enjoy, what you love, what you’re passionate about. You can’t please everybody, but you have to please yourself.