Writing Romance - A Review

Writing Romance
By Vanessa Grant

I have a particular standard when evaluating books that purport to focus on one aspect of writing. If the book only superficially touches on the subject, spending most of the time teaching the writer the basics of writing, it’s a big, fat FAIL for me.

Based on that criteria, most books I've read that focus on a particular genre fail. Primarily I think, because there's not enough specific to most genres to fill an entire book, so they fall back to passing on general writing "wisdom." I've seen it so often that I've come to expect failure. Imagine my surprise when I came away loving this.

One of the first things Grant does is list the element of a successful romance:
1. A story question
2. An empowering story
3. A sympathetic heroine
4. A hero she can love
5. An emotionally intense core conflict
7. a plot
8. Appropriate sensuality
9. Archetypes
10 Crisis and satisfying resolution
11 An emotionally satisfying ending

Much of that applies to good stories of any genre, but there's a romance spin even to the bare list. When Grant expands on the list, it's even more obvious. For example, here's some of what she says regarding a few of these points:

  • The hero and heroine are deeply altered by their love. They emerge from their struggles more emotionally whole than they began (the empowering story.)
  • The heroine need not be beautiful, but it must be believable that the hero finds her attractive . . . your heroine needs strong personality and at least one believable and nontrivial weakness. (a sympathetic heroine)
  • By the time the hero and heroine arrive at the last page, they must achieve personal growth. In a romance novel, the ending must be emotionally satisfying, affirming the values of love and positive relationships. (an emotionally satisfying ending.)

Some, if not all of these things, can be applied to all stories, but Grant's emphasis on the specific expectations of the romance genre provide an important yardstick for romance stories.

So while some of her topics sound generic on the surface and much of what she writes would be of value to anyone writing character-driven fiction, the lessons she teaches are so romance-genre-centric that I can't categorize this as general writing advice. In this, she succeeds where so many other how-to-write-a-romance books fail. How does she do it? By keeping her focus on the couple and their dynamics. It’s not just about who the hero and heroine are individually, but how they fit together as a couple. 

For instance, when she writes about the different ways men and women communicate and think, she builds on John Gray’s statement in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus that different genders “keep score” differently. (Men think taking their women to Paris for a long romantic weekend earns them 30 love points; women, on the other hand, award one point for each romantic gesture.) This is useful to know when considering how to create conflict in a romance, but it could be used in any story where interpersonal relationships are involved.

If you think it’s not important to understand these gender differences outside of the romance genre, consider this. I read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent when it first came out. The legal thriller revolves around a lawyer accused of murdering the woman he was having an extramarital affair with. Little attention was given to the protagonist's wife (Sue me. I’m a romance writer. I’m constitutionally incapable of calling a cheating scumbag a hero.) I can guarantee that, in real life, even if the wife stands by her husband publicly, privately, she would give him hell. (Even Clinton admits that he was relegated to sleeping on the couch after finally acknowledging his affair with Monica.) The wife’s missing response in Turow’s novel raised red flags with me, but this was his first novel, so I didn’t know if this failing signaled:
A) Turow's lack of understanding about women, or
B) he didn’t know or care to write her response, or
C) a sleight of hand Turow was hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.
If I’d had more experience with Turow,  I would have known what to make of the wife’s lack of response because he does understand women (at least on this point) and he knew if he made more than a passing reference to the wife's public support, he would draw attention to his silence on what was happening between them in private and that would give away the game. It's a trick that worked in his debut novel, but not one I think he could get away with twice.
There are lots of other good stuff in Writing Romance. For instance, when the author talks about sex scenes, she says:

If your characters’ lovemaking complicates their relationship or reveals hero and heroine to each other in new ways that increase their emotional intimacy, it’s important to your story.  If you’re uncertain whether a love scene belongs in your story, try removing it. Make a fresh copy of your book on your computer and delete the scene from the copy. If you can delete the scene without seriously affecting the plot, it doesn’t belong in your novel. A love scene that belongs should have a measurable affect on the subsequent actions of both hero and heroine.

Even if you write erotica, applying that criteria is only going to make your book better.

One other thing I found delightfully refreshing is that, in the pantser vs. plotter divide, Ms. Grant leans heavily toward pantsing.  It seems like nearly everyone these days extols the virtues of plotting and talks ad nauseaum about methods of plotting like the infamous index cards. Ms Grant started out as a plotter but discovered that, for her, pantsing worked better. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t do any preliminary work on her stories, but instead of focusing on events, she focuses on character building. She shows repeatedly how a deeply satisfying story can be grown from pairing the right characters with the right internal and external conflicts. When the heroine’s personality and issues compliment the hero's, when proper attention is paid to the crucible, the story unfolds on its own.

My second book, Knight of Hearts, was that way. I felt as though I was channeling the story instead of writing it because Rachel's and Mac's individual goals created a situation that lead step-by-step to a resolution that brought them together. Easiest thing I've ever written.

Even though her focus is on character, Grant does talk about plots. Or at least ways to find plots. Everything from writing your own worst nightmare to playing what-if to brief discussions of favorite troupes of the genre.

The long and short of it is that I highly recommend this not just to romance writers but to any one who writes character-driven stories. It's a bargain, even at new book prices.

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