Tag Archives: writing romance

kill your darlings

some writerly person (Hemingway?) said that about the process of cutting brilliant pieces of writing, for the sake of the whole.

Tonight, I started to see what it means. Me and Catherine drank tea and brainstormed ideas from what Valerie Parv/fairy godmother had to say about my novel. We were only brainstorming the first couple of chapters, but what came out, finally, was a much better, smoother plotline.

That cuts about a third of my book out. Let’s see, we got rid of an affair the hero has with the neighbour’s daughter that blows up in his face on his wedding night; a strained marriage after said wedding night; and a miscarriage by the heroine’s sister, to the hero.

Ah, the plot gymnastics of first novels.

Valerie said to me “If it’s a choice between what the characters are doing and who the characters are, always pick the latter.” This makes a lot of sense to me, and I know these two characters love just hanging out and talking about things like what exactly to call women’s bits and still be delicate.

It’s a pretty confronting process, especially as I loved writing so many of the scenes I’ll be axing, but now that the initial shock has begun to wear off I feel good about it. It’s like lancing a wound, or coming clean about a secret.

As Valerie put it, it’s like writing your thesis without proper documentation of your argument. It doesn’t matter how polished the writing is, you can’t hide that kind of blackhole.

Readers aren’t idiots, in other words.

A Walk to Remember

It’s based on a Nicholas Sparks book, it has Mandy Moore in it, and it would never be seen somewhere like Cannes.

But every single time I watch it, it surprises and moves me – and it ticks every single romance box. I think it’s a truly incredible example of storytelling, and I’ve just realised that I really need to get the book and study it until it falls apart.

Some of the best moments:

* Landon (the ultr-cool kid) asks Jaime (ultra-uncool reverend’s daughter) to run lines for the play with him. She agrees on one condition. She looks straight at him, through her awful fringe, dressed in her one sweater and shapeless dress and she says “You have to promise not to fall in love with me.”

One of the reasons this moment packs such a punch is another one of the great things about this movie:

* Jaime is a truly surprising character. She looks completely predictable, but every attempt Landon makes to pigeonhole her is thwarted. At one point, after trying and failing to make her aware of just how uncool she is, he says “You don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?” and she just looks at him, entirely unfazed, entirely sure in herself and says “No.”

You see a whole new world open up to him that he never would have thought possible – where your every action isn’t determined by what other people will think. Ditto when he insults her at school in front of his friends, and she just looks directly at him, blinks then nods. His actions haven’t impacted her at all, except for her to think “Ok, you weren’t who I thought.”

I think a surprising character is probably the number one thing that makes a book good.

* It’s absolutely convincing to begin with that there’s no way they’re going to get together. None of this “ugly duckling played by a model” business. They are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but somehow their falling in love, and the transformation it causes are completely convincing.

I’ll get back to you when I’ve figure out why.


I’ve been struggling for months with the structure of my novel, and the main problem is back story. It’s the kind of romance where the hero and heroine were once very much in love then something happened, and now their marriage has been hell for a year or so. Then the story happens.

The only problem is, as soon as I tried to weave the earlier part of their story into the current one I just started writing the whole thing chronologically, from when they meet. Am just running with it at the mo, and figure that I’ll hit about 200,000 words then re-structure the whole thing – and that most of what I’m writing now will someday be a website extra.

Then yesterday I read the first chapter of Jennifer Crusie’s upcoming release, and was gobsmacked by how effortlessly she creates a whole history between her two characters that was over and done with ten years ago. All they’re really doing in this scene is having a pretty banal conversation, but she has managed to evoke a world of unfinished business and electric chemistry.

So, some thoughts on how she managed it:

1. She’s Jennifer Crusie.

2. Most of her character descriptions relate back to the previous relationship the two had, e.g. Andie jerked her head up and a lock of her hair fell out of her chignon. She stuffed it back into the clip on the back of her head as North’s neat, efficient secretary smiled at her, surrounded by the propriety of his Victorian architecture. If that secretary had a chignon, nothing would escape from it. North was probably crazy about her.

Crusie’s being very efficient here; we get to see the character, but we’re also getting a lot of information about what their relationship used to be like. It also tells us that Andie is still ever-so-slightly obsessed with North.

3. They’re still in love. This might seem kind of obvious, but even though the characters aren’t admitting their love to themselves, the way they observe each other is defined by their feelings. So we, as readers, see them in that heightened love kind of way, and it creates a real longing between them.

e.g. he looked up at her over his glasses, and the years fell away, and she was right back where she’d begun, staring into those blue-gray eyes, her heart pounding.

The other thing this does really well is ask the reader to imagine the scene where they began – what did Andie feel back then, staring into his eyes with her heart pounding, without any of the anger and bitterness of intervening years? Being asked to imagine it ourselves allows a lot of room to build their previous relationship without much input at all from Crusie.

4. Antagonism is the inverse of love. I can’t say why this is true, but when two characters who long to be together are kind of mean to each other it makes for a good read. I guess if they weren’t, you just wouldn’t think they cared. It kind of gives an inverse idea of what they used to feel.

5. Andie and North don’t see each other clearly – they’re listening for what they “know” to be true of each other. These points of view are very telling, as far as figuring out what happened between them.


The place is isolated, but the children seemed fine with their aunt, so we agreed it was best that they’d stay there with her in order to disrupt their lives as little as possible.”

And to disrupt yours as little as possible, Andie thought.

North waited, as if he expected her to say it out loud. When she didn’t, he went on.

Also, after we’ve heard Andie think about how North was a workaholic and didn’t even seem to remember she existed, we go into North’s head and reading between the lines we get that he didn’t think he was exciting/interesting/good enough to hold onto Andie, and that he was just making her miserable. Again, we get this by the way he sees her, how he “knows” she is.

6. They have some telling dialogue with each other, and also North with his brother, but it doesn’t feel contrived. I think the reason is that Crusie has begun the book at the point where they see each other for the first time in ten years, which creates a context for conversations about their marriage.

She also doesn’t go into a whole lot of exposition and just gives details that feel relevant to the characters. (She doesn’t have the brother say, for example: “Who’s Andie again?” giving North a lead in, or: “Oh, Andie, your ex-wife who blah blah blah.” In fact, the very familiar way the characters talk about her, without needing to fill in any gaps, gives a very strong impression of who she was in their family back then.

Which leads on to

7. Crusie gives very specific details. Our writing teacher is always asking for much more specific details (“When you remember high school you don’t just remember this general amorphous thing called ‘high school’, you remember specific details.”) and this is a great example of why.

When Andie remembers leaving, she remembers ten years ago when she’d bumped her suitcase on the door frame on her way out of town— and when North and his brother are talking about her, the brother remembers a very specific time that he met her, which gives us a world of information about her character and how stupidly besotted North was.

So I think the main lesson here is: Only write what the characters are still fixated on themselves. If the past is still very much alive for them in the present – in the what they think, the way they talk, the way they understand/misunderstand each other – then that will convey their whole history in a way that is still alive for the reader.

a BIG piece of good news

Last Saturday I came home just before midnight after a very long day investigating how I live through my communication. I found special k just where I most expected him to be: lying splat asleep on the couch, with a weird French film on the tele.

I touched his face just for the pleasure of watching his eyes open and go from sleep to sleepy adoration.

“I have to tell you something,” he said.

“It’s about the award, isn’t it?” I had remembered about 2 hours earlier, and my heart had started thumping away in my chest; the Valerie Parv Award had been announced that evening.

Special k looked at me with those still-asleep eyes and didn’t say anything. That silence gave my mind a lot of space for thoughts like Shit, I didn’t even place, did I?

Then every feature in his face focused on me, his eyes sharp with intent. “You won!”

Now I really wouldn’t be coy admitting that a small voice in my head went “of course I won” at this point. But it didn’t. I was absolutely and completely floored by the news. Then I laughed a lot. And then I realised:

This changes everything. I now have a mentor for a year. And not just any mentor – Valerie Parv has been successfully, and more importantly professionally writing romance for 20 years. She’s also a great spokesperson for romance within Australia, and an experienced teacher of the craft.

Over the weekend I made a commitment: I will be the breadwinner in my family by my 30th birthday. Being mentored by Val (fairy godmother) is the first, brilliant step in that direction.


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.