Tag Archives: julie anne long

eyes open is better

I wrote a while ago about the Big Misunderstanding – that romance trope by which identities are mistaken, kisses are seen and misunderstood, words are overheard out of context, etc. Any circumstance, basically, which could be rectified with a conversation, and isn’t.

I’ve thought more about it since then, and decided unequivocally: Give me characters who talk, any day.

That’s kinda an obvious thing to say – the whole romance community groans when a Big Mis just makes the characters look stupid. But I also mean – give me characters who go into a difficult circumstance, eyes open, and come out the other end changed.

The idea that birthed my novel was this: imagine a man hidden in a gaggle of women – made to sleep in their beds and gossip with them and become intimately acquainted with their female world. Not an entirely traditional Big Mis, because my hero was doing it on purpose, but certainly a circumstance that could have been rectified with one (very embarrassing) conversation.

In my original draft the big reveal – “I was the woman who shared your bed!” – was the thing that broke my couple apart, before they had to make their way back to each other. The closer I came to this moment in my second draft the worse I felt about it. It felt so disingenuous somehow – not to mention, as a reader I could feel it coming from miles off, which is a particular kind of awful. It made my hero look like a dick, and my heroine had to forgive a lot, for their Happily Ever After to be convincing.

Around the time I was considering getting rid of the big reveal, I read Julie Anne Long’s amazing What I Did For a Duke. It starts out with a revenge plot, then about a third of the way in the hero and heroine have a really honest discussion that not only outs the revenge plot, but makes their relationship about a hundred times more interesting.

I went well into despair, and started rewriting the whole book without the cross-dressing. Then Valerie, fairy-godmother extraordinaire, suggested my heroine could be in on my hero’s secret the whole time.

It left me without that one central source of angst between them – and gave them a whole world of crazy to navigate together. In draft one, my heroine captures a duke’s heart by accident, because she doesn’t know his real identity and can therefore be honest and genuine with him. How much more interesting is it though, to have a woman who knows exactly what he is, and speaks directly anyway? Who sees clearly the kind of man she’s dealing with – the kind of man who would shatter himself just to get what he wants from her – and finds her way to understanding him anyway?

The answer you’re looking for is “much”.

The best, most concise illustration I’ve seen of this idea was in a Vampire Diaries episode recap on iO9. One of the only solid, dependable adult characters on the show had just begun manifesting a dark side. He has no control over it, and it wants to kill the vampires who have become like family to him.

Charlie Jane Anders pin-points exactly why this isn’t interesting:

Alaric didn’t get to decide to start taking matters into his own hands, which would have been an interesting character arc. Instead, he just got controlled/possessed by a magic ring that already turned Elena’s ancestor into a serial killer. Seeing Alaric actually make a choice would have been way more interesting.

If someone chooses the difficult path, eyes open, there’s a whole internal world of choice and consequence that is endlessly fascinating. If someone is walking a difficult path unaware that they’re doing so, all you get is the annoyance of waiting for them to fall, and the one heart-stopping moment when they do.

the book that cured all ills (ill-thoughts, at least)

Okay, I forgive Julie Anne Long everything. You’re in for another (much longer) rant, but at least this one’s almost all joy.

Yesterday I read the fifth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, What I Did For a Duke. I will use every adjective in my vocabulary (okay, I probably won’t, but superlatives will be thick on the ground, too) to try and express how much I loved this book.

It has been a long, long time since a historical romance got me like this.

Let’s get the premise out of the way first: The Duke of Moncrieffe has a bad reputation for serving revenge cold, even years after the fact. He has just found his fiancee in bed with Ian Eversea. He’s not happy. He’s also almost forty (this is often expressed in italics in the characters’ thoughts. I’m not entirely sure what the emphasis is getting at, but it feels cheeky, and I like it). He decides to seduce Ian’s youngest sister, then break her heart and leave her.

He just happens to catch her at a really bad time.

Genevieve’s best friend, Harry, has just told her that he plans to propose to her other best friend, Millicent. This breaks her heart rather severely, as she’d always assumed she would marry Harry. So when the Duke comes along, demanding her attention, she’s really not in the mood. She does everything she can to get rid of him, he does everything he can to get a response from her, and pretty soon they’re head-over-heels in fascination with each other.

The things I love about this book:

1. The Duke is an amazing hero. Ten out of ten.

He gradually unfolds as a character, so that we get to know him as Genevieve does. This is such a difficult, subtle piece of craft, and I applaud JAL for having the trust and patience to do it. He’s certainly magnetic right from the get-go, but he’s not an obvious choice. Characters are very often represented in this light, but only in-so-far as we’re told “He wasn’t an obvious choice” whilst seeing all the ways he obviously is. The slow reveal meant I could get to know him and fall in love with him piece by piece, too.

He’s also truly smart. The “hypothesis” of the book seems to be Experience Makes For Interesting People (you have to break eggs to make an omelet), and the Duke proves it every step of the way. He’s not just smart in the wordy way of Regency heroes – his conversation is challenging, and tough, and he doesn’t let up. He’s mature and experienced enough to push for answers even when Genevieve’s hugely reluctant, or embarrassed, or defensive. He allows those feelings to be present and demands something of her anyway. Which is how transformation really does happen, in my experience.

2. Genevieve is a gorgeous heroine – very much in the same vein as Beatrix Hathaway. A truly likeable heroine, which is a hard thing to pull off.

This is, in a sense, an ugly duckling story. Genevieve is “the quiet, sensible one” of the reckless Eversea family, but that’s not what she thinks she is, and that’s not what the Duke sees. But JAL – thank God! – never gave her a look-where-being-good-got-me,-I’m-going-to-do-something-crazy moment. No matter how well those moments are constructed, something always rings false about them to me. Genevieve never breaks character because she doesn’t perceive herself as others see her, so she continues to act according to her own nature – the difference being that she now has an audience and antagonist who also sees her truly. This is, again, fantastic writing.

3. The characters’ physicality is built over time as well, as an expression of how they come to see each other. One of my favourite moments in the whole book is when the Duke thinks: He’d never known a more clawing hunger for a woman’s body, and it shocked him, and he was clever enough to know it had only a little to do with her body.

Yes! Finally! I think so few romance writers think this connection through deeply enough – that all the heaving bosoms and luscious curves and pillow-like lips are an expression of attraction to a person, not a body.

4. I can’t say too much on this point without spoilers, and as I encourage all of you to read this book, I don’t want to indulge in those. All I’ll say is: JAL deals with the Big Misunderstanding that gets the plot rolling (i.e. the Duke is out to seduce Genevieve for his own, bad reasons) in such a brilliant way. She makes the BM work a lot harder than it would if she had dealt with it in a traditional “I’m keeping a secret that could destroy you” way.

What didn’t work for me:

1. By two-thirds of the way through, the plot rested too heavily on Harry’s thin shoulders. We’re reminded over and over how much Genevieve loves him – even when it’s become jarringly evident she doesn’t. That works. We can see the trajectory of her self-discovery through it. But there wasn’t enough of why she loved him in the first place – he was too thin and insubstantial – for this to hold up its end of Genevieve’s motivations for as long as it had to. She’s a smart chicken. She would have figured it out before then.

2. JAL really needs to get a new editor. Whenever I read her stuff my enjoyment is continually interrupted by bad grammatical errors and bad word repetitions (by this I mean: the repetition isn’t there to create a lyrical effect, it’s just lazy writing. A relief that was hugely relieving, for example). She also has a tendency to overwrite, which mostly pays off and occasionally doesn’t. A good editor should be on the lookout for all these things.

This Julie Anne Long book makes my top five. Go read it.

End rant.

selling a convoluted plot

I didn’t intend to blog today, but the book I’m reading is irritating the hell out of me for a couple of reasons, so here I am to vent my spleen.

(Lucky you!)

The book is I Kissed an Earl, the fourth in Julie Anne Long‘s Pennyroyal Green series. I loved the first and really enjoyed the second. Her writing has inspired me a lot, and I see her talent as something to aspire to. She uses language in a vivid, overabundant, surprising way. One of my favourite passages from Like No Other Lover:

…from that moment on he saw every woman anew, sought evidence in their eyes of the tick of their minds, danced with them as if holding little grenades.


He smiled very slightly all the way through that silk and muslin jungle as though his smile was a passport, a lantern, an apology for the fact that his elegant English manners were only now returning to him along with his English complexion, by degrees.

I cannot say why, but the charm of her writing is somehow missing from this book, leaving only the overabundance. One problem is that she’s given her alpha female – whose intellect and propensity to act out have been built over a few books – an uber-alpha male. She built the question, “What man would Violet Redmond ever fall for?” and I don’t think her hero answers it. They’re simply trying to out-alpha each other all the time, which leaves so little room for tenderness, or vulnerability, or even a sense of liking.

But the much worse offense, I’ve just realised, is that her central plot-device has no legs. Violet has stowed herself on board Captain Flint’s ship, because she believes the pirate Flint is hunting is actually her AWOL brother.

Of itself, it doesn’t have to be problematic, though I’m not a huge fan of “we’re going on an adventure” plotlines.

But the way she’s written it, I’m not in any way cheering for Violet – I’m just cringing at the nuisance she’s making of herself. This is a huge peeve of mine in romance novels, when whatever actions the heroine takes result in chaos and undermine the hero’s well-planned strategies. I like to see a heroine go for something and have the power and autonomy and, good God, intelligence to make it work.

Violet’s desire to find her brother would work as a goal and motivation – I could get on board for a woman who decides she’s going to do something about his absence – but aside from being told “she loved more deeply than other people” we’re not shown any part of their relationship. We have no investment in her brother, or any sense of what she would risk for him.

With no emotional basis, her decision becomes a farce – and it breaks my suspended disbelief.

The hero’s reaction to her breaks his character, which is just as bad. When he finds her aboard his ship, he allows himself to get pulled into playing games with her for her right to his bed, to her place on his ship, to her portion of food. Even though he feels no particular preference for her. And even though he’s dragged himself from bastardy to an Earldom by his own hard work and bloody-mindedness.

A man like that wouldn’t think twice about locking her in a room and dumping her at the nearest port. And I’m given nothing in the narrative to suggest otherwise.

My plot involves a cross-dressing Duke, so you can imagine how I take this lesson in convoluted plot to heart.

End rant.

third-wave romance

according to the people who like to talk, coffee culture is up to its third wave. So in a completely unrelated aside, I decided that I have a theory about romance writing, and where it’s up to.

(I’m obliged to say that “third-wave” is considered a highly pretentious, silly term by actual coffee people. But it works for my theory, so it stays.)

There is old-school, bodice-rippers-of-the-70s romance. This is what lingers, and gives people the impression they have of the genre. This is what we snuck into the library and read as teenagers, with its “quivering mound of venus”s and “purple-headed warrior”s.

As skilful and beloved as Stephanie Laurens is, I think she’s an example of first-wave romance. Her heroes are alphas, her heroines are plucky, and whilst the heroine never finds herself suddenly turned on in the middle of being raped, she does quite often “leave the mortal plane” for hours on end after sex, before coming back to herself.

To me, that says old-school.

The second wave are the intelligent, funny, sexy and wise writers like Eloisa James, Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas – even Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Their books are complex and peopled with flawed, human characters. Sex isn’t always perfect. The writing is that epitome of genre writing: entirely transparent, like a window that draws you into a scene, without making you aware at any time that there’s glass between you and what you’re watching.

Then there’s third-wave.

I admit to only having read a tiny corner of what’s out there, but for what I’ve read, there are three writers bringing in the new generation of romance: Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Julie Anne Long.

Third-wave romance has characters that don’t only have three dimensions and believable motivations, and aren’t just sympathetic and flawed. They feel human. To the point where sometimes you feel like you’re intruding on a private moment between them and their beloved.

These writers are also pushing the kind of language that romance novels are written in. They’re using unique, fresh images and startling turns of phrase. Their characters are so well-drawn that we are only ever seeing the tip of the iceberg, in the best writerly fashion. Language is becoming a facet of the novel, in and of itself.

I wouldn’t say third-wave is best. In a way, second-wave makes for a more enjoyable read, because of its transparency – it doesn’t unsettle you, or leave you wondering.

I aspire to be the best writer I can be, but I maybe secretly aspire to the third wave as well.


A while back I wrote a post about the way Susan Elizabeth Phillips is right up front with her characters’ motivations. You meet a character and you learn very quickly what’s happened in their past to make them the way they are.

I was very interested to realise this, because I’d always assumed anything about your character should be below-the-surface, slow-reveal kind of stuff. But SEP makes it work. Big time. I think also in the romance genre you find this method a lot.

So I had decided to take the lesson on board and have my character motivations well-explained. Until my writing teacher pointed out that if my character is unaware of why he’s chosen his particular bride until it’s too late, the tension and drama are much better served.

Luckily I came across Julie Anne Long. Whilst I raved about her book The Perils of Pleasure I left out the most perfect detail from it.

*spoiler alert* ish

Normally when a romance heroine has been married before there are two options: 1. it was an amazing marriage and she struggles with her guilt over finding love again (plus the new love normally gives her slightly better orgasms than the old one did) or 2. it was awful and her new love is a revelation – though possibly she can’t trust it at first.

JAL’s heroine has been married before, as we find out in snippets. But she never, in the entire book, does a big reveal about that marriage. We get this detail, though: the heroine still carries around her dead husband’s pistol, which has mermaids on the handle. The hero thinks “She’s just the kind of woman who would marry a man with mermaids on his pistol.”

And isn’t there just a whole world in there, that you would pop by trying to describe it more closely?

I think both methods are effective, but I feel like there’s the next level of craft to be learnt by JAL’s very clever reveal. As my writing teacher’s always trying to drum into us: Reading is only enjoyable when the reader is productive.

The Perils of Pleasure review

I still don’t know what I really think about this book.

The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.

But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.

I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.

She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as

cart grease

her heart

Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in

the C minor concerto.

Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.

One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.

Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.

Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.

I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.

I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.

Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.

I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.

The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.

I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.