Tag Archives: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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.


years ago a friend made a throwaway comment to me, that she thought having an orgasm was one of the loneliest moments in life.

The book I just read made me think about this some more, because a very tender moment at the end seemed to say the same thing from the other side. I’m not going to infer anything right now – here it is:

He moved inside her, and their passion built, but neither looked away. They kept their eyes locked, unwilling to give in to the primal instinct that craved privacy at this moment of deepest vulnerability.

He didn’t drop his head to the crook of her neck, but kept it above her, staring down. She didn’t turn her cheek into the pillow but gazed upward.

The boldness of allowing another person, even one so deeply loved, to have such an open conduit into the other’s soul intensified every moment.

From Dream a Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

i like you, i like you not

The most frequent comment I get from my writing teacher is, “Aren’t romance heroines supposed to be sympathetic?”

It’s a hard thing to nut out, because, on the one hand, yes. But I do so love a bitchy/cold/unpleasant heroine who gets her just deserts (oh poor her, she has to be undone by love). So how to write this, without losing reader sympathies altogether?

For me as a reader, I prefer her to be all the way bad, because I know, because of the genre, that she is going to change. This creates enough tension for me to want to read on and see how exactly that happens.

Two heroine’s I’ve read recently who’ve inspired this post:

Sabine from Kiss of a Demon King. She’s an evil sorceress and she follows through. So how does Kresley Cole keep the reader on her side and reading? Firstly, she’s entertaining. Because she’s not trying to come across as good, she cracks open the boring “good” hero, and we get some sparks. Secondly, we’re made aware that she’s an unreliable narrator, i.e. she thinks she’s heartless, but we know why, and we are given the tiniest glimpses that she doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Thirdly, there is one person on earth she loves before herself.

Rachel from Dream a Little Dream. She’s broke and has nothing in the world but her tiny 5-year-old son who keeps asking “Are we going to die now?” Things get really bad, and then they get a whole lot worse, and she somehow keeps going. All she is is her need to survive. Again here, there is one person on earth she loves more than her own life, that we see her do anything for. There’s also admiration for how she continues in the face of absolute desperation.

I can’t stand wussy writers who write a bad character, but you never really see them do anything heinous. These heroine’s are so brilliant because they are absolute in what they need to do to survive.


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.

what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).

what i’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part II


I love the way SEP is totally candid about the link between her characters’ childhoods and the adults they’ve become. As I see it, there are two parts to how she does this:

1) She tells the reader upfront what has happened to a character to make them the way they are – strengths and weaknesses.

I find especially in romance novels, a huge part of characterisation is finding out what childhood experiences/traumas have given the characters certain defenses that inhibit them from being open to true love. Most writers will either hint at these or use them as big reveals in the plot.

What I’ve realised is that SEP always (as far as I can remember…) tells the reader quite early on exactly what these experiences were and what impact they had. My instinct would be to say that this punctures the character tension, but actually it’s really effective.

It means that you know exactly what’s driving the characters, so that when they meet you know there are going to be fireworks. The trick is not to make them predictable, of course, which is what SEP manages with such finesse. Just because we know what’s making the characters tick, doesn’t mean we know how they’re going to act.

And maybe that’s why it works; she tells us exactly who they are to begin with – as well as what they will have to overcome to accept love – and then we watch their transformation unfold.

2) Her characters have a lovely habit of trying to obliterate a “shameful” past with their present circumstances. It always comes back to bite them on the bum.

The best example of this, I think, is Cal Bonner’s parents in Nobody’s Baby But Mine (I have, shamefully, forgotten their names, and I don’t have the book at hand!)

Cal’s well-to-do dad falls totally in love with his firecracker of a mum – who also happens to be trailer trash (or was it a redneck hick?) – and makes the “mistake” of getting her pregnant. Dad spends the next few decades growing steadily more bitter at Mum for having deprived him of his real future, and Mum loses all her joy for life in the attempt to become the perfect wife.

When Mum moves back in with her own mother she begins to reclaim who she is, and Dad, seeing her ablaze again, finally realises what an idiot he’s been.

So I think what I’m trying to say is:

2. Don’t be scared of pointing out what’s made a character the way they are (allowing them plenty of room for unpredictable change!) and

3. Characters with a “shameful” past will probably try and recreate the opposite in their lives, only to realise that they have to give up what’s true in themselves to give up their past.

go to Part I here

what i’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: part I

I think Marian Keyes is probably my favourite contemporary romance writer, but as far as romance romance writers go, Susan Elizabeth Phillips wins hands down.

I’ve been reading  a lot of her recently. And watching NBA matches on the telly. And eating American pancakes.


I just can’t help it! She makes me want to be a superhero woman with just the right amount of vulnerability just arrived in a small American town!

The standouts, I think, are the Chicago Stars books. Most recently I read Match Me If You Can. It made me laugh out loud. A lot. And it left me feeling a bit like a big, schmoltzy, bubbling, human-shaped balloon of goodness.

So. Back to topic.

The first thing I love about her writing is the way the oddball/eccentric/anti-social/nasty characters all end up being absorbed into the sense of family. It’s very like Miyazaki, but that’s probably a whole post in itself.

For example, in Natural Born Charmer the nasty, old, villainous woman who owns the town, Nita Garrison, becomes the heroine’s family “till death do us part” – and it’s the first real family Blue’s ever had. The two of them still insult each other every chance they get, and the closest they come to signs of intimacy is when Blue rests her head on Nita’s shoulder. But you don’t doubt their loyalty and love for each other for a second.

There’s something very powerful about this device. The hero/heroine has a kind of human empathy and brash, stubborn acceptance of others that is intoxicating for a reader. It allows the characters to be vulnerable and flawed without necessitating that they’re so cheesy they also make you want to vomit.

So, 1. Who does your hero/heroine attract? How does contact with these people transform everyone concerned? Does this transformation make you want to cheer or vomit?