Join Jane for the September BSB Preview

First, the big news – I’m now on Facebook! I would really appreciate any likes and follows you can give my page. There’s a personal Jane page, but the official author page is where I’ll be updating with blurbs, events, sales, and other important stuff.

And the first event posted there is the September Bold Strokes Books preview. Please join me on Saturday, August 22, at 6pm, when I’ll be reading from The Holiday Detour. You’ll be the first to hear an excerpt from the book. And I’m on a panel with some absolute giants in LGBTQ fiction, including Radclyffe. We’re doing it over Zoom, and registration is free and easy.

There is also a panel at 5pm with some other stellar authors and upcoming releases that you might want to check out.

This will be my first public reading, and I’m nervous and excited and really, really hoping that all my theater training in college will pay off (though there was probably a reason I never got cast once in a show). Come with the intention of supporting me, and you just might leave with some good laughs at my expense. Who knows?

Register for the event here. See you on Zoom!

Update: The Queen Has a Cold

Readers, I’m delighted to announce that the royal romance, entitled The Queen Has a Cold, is officially under contract with Bold Strokes Books. BSB publishes LGBTQ fiction of all sexualities and genres, though they are probably most well known for their lesfic. Like The Holiday Detour, The Queen Has a Cold isn’t exactly lesfic. It’s fictional romance about a self-identified lesbian who falls in love with someone nonbinary, her world coming upside down as she rediscovers who she is and what attracts her. BSB’s track record as quality publishers of LGBTQ fiction make me feel assured that they can handle the marketing and sale of this book, which is so precious to me.

The title was inspired by a really aggressive cold I picked up in South Africa last year. It lasted more than a month and caused an inner ear infection that left me temporarily deaf in one ear and unable to maintain my balance. It made every other cold I’ve ever had seem wimpy by comparison, and my wife forced me to see a doctor to make sure I wasn’t dying.

This experience was turned into the inciting incident for The Queen Has a Cold. I was already in the process of writing a royal romance between an American lesbian graduate student and the heir to the throne of a made-up European country. The cold gave the story a sense of urgency. The heir is summoned home to fulfill royal duties when the queen gets a cold and can’t perform them. At the last minute, the heir asks the American to tag along, and their whirlwind romance begins.

I isolated a location for the made-up country, Montamant, to ensure consistency while writing.

This book has more serious themes than The Holiday Detour. The heir, Remy, is intersex and has led a life of secrecy about it. There are political machinations in the made-up country that Remy must try to stop. There’s a giant class and pedigree divide that the lovers must overcome. But I think you’ll find it to be just as sweet, and (no spoilers – this is romance, after all) I think you’ll be pumping your fist in the air in celebration when they overcome all the barriers that stand in the way of their relationship.

The Queen Has a Cold is scheduled for publication in summer 2021.

Update: The Holiday Detour

This week I got back edits on The Holiday Detour from my editor, along with some very flattering praise for the book. Getting her edits back means the book is trucking along the editorial schedule (pun intended). I’ll return the edits to her within the next few weeks, and after that, we move into copyediting and production.

I find getting feedback from a qualified editor to be a great joy. I say “qualified” to mean someone who understands that what they want you to say or how they want you to write is not what they should be editing for. Instead, a qualified editor is knowledgeable enough to help make the author’s own voice shine through. My editor at Bold Strokes Books picked up on a few nuances of my writing style that we are going to foreground in the revised manuscript.

I also find it pleasurable to return to a manuscript after time away. (In fact, I find this a necessary step in the revision process, as I’ve explained in a previous post.) There are so many minor language things I see to clean up and so many rediscoveries to delight in.

The Holiday Detour is a book very near to my heart. There is so much of me and my spouse in it. So many Easter eggs of my life. It’s a work of fiction, to be sure, but the small details are like a hit parade of everything Jane. And the story between Dana, the main character, and Charlie, the nonbinary person who challenges Dana’s understanding of her sexuality, is heartwarming and funny. I can’t wait to get these edits returned and for the book to be fully in production, closer to the day when you get to read it.

The Holiday Detour comes out in September. Stay tuned.

Royal Romance Update!

If you’ve followed this blog or my tweets, you know I’ve been working on a royal romance for about a year. It came to its feverish full draft state during NaNoWriMo, and after that I sat on it for a while, so I could approach revisions with fresh eyes.

I’ve been writing up a storm lately, so I figured it was time to give an update on the book.

This isn’t major news, but I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve finished revisions and sent my publisher a proposal on it. With any luck, in a few weeks, it’ll be under contract, and I’ll have an even better announcement.

New book preview: one scene, two ways

This week instead of analyzing some aspect of romance as I usually do, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at my current royal romance work-in-progress. The narrative is “broken” (as they say in the screenwriting biz), meaning all the beats have been plotted, and now I’m just putting the story into prose. But sometimes, even when a narrative is fully outlined in advance, the characters can take me in unexpected directions.

As I was writing a scene in which our two eventual lovers are on a private jet heading to the royal one’s micro-country, the characters started getting a lot more passionate than I had anticipated. (Honestly, for a second, I began writing erotica instead of the sweet romance I have dedicated myself to!) They flew out of Boston, where they were both regular old graduate students. In our fictional country, Remy, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them/their pronouns, is heir to the throne and bound by traditions like marrying to protect the royal line. The other, Sam, is an unknown American commoner. Time on the airplane is precious; one the plane lands, they know their lives will change. But they haven’t yet admitted their feelings for each other. They’re still figuring out what their antagonistic meeting says about their friendship or any possible romance.

Now here’s the question of the scene: as they begin to grow more passionate, should it be Sam who admits she’s in love or Remy? Currently, Remy’s made the first move, putting them in the position of vulnerability and giving Sam the power to reject or accept their advances. But if Sam tells Remy her feelings, she leaves herself exposed because, really, their feelings are immaterial to the reality that Remy is expected to marry someone else. (Don’t worry, gentle reader. This is a romance novel, and it’ll get sorted out, and they will end up together. We know that. But they don’t!)

Let’s look at the scene as I first wrote it:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as a source of unconditional support. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting had been a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

“I want you too.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy.

“You can have me,” they said, but their voice was tinged with sadness. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

Sam pulled back enough to get a good look at them and gave her own wistful smile back.

“But I can’t,” she admitted. “Because you have to marry Genevieve.”

She shook her head. Was it better to know that Remy shared her feelings? Had something changed between them now? Or was knowing worse because she couldn’t have them, and this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

Although Remy puts Sam in the position of power by pledging that she can be the one who decides when they will kiss, have sex, date, whatever “have me” means, Sam realizes their words may be emotionally true, but they aren’t going to be a physical reality. Sam might get to sleep with Remy on the flight if she wants to, but she’s never going to “have” Remy. Someone else will. Although she’s hurt at the end of the scene, she at least has the power to not sleep with Remy, to not allow herself to be hurt, because she knows Remy’s going to marry someone else in the long run.

Now let’s look at the second version of this scene:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as unconditional support for their gender. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting was a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

She wanted to their kiss to carry them away. To tumble to the couch together before the plane landed and everything changed. She wanted to see and touch their body. To show them it was beautiful, however it was made. She wanted to let them watch her come undone in the most private way. And she wanted to be responsible for making them come undone, to see, finally, behind their shields.

“You can have me.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

“But I can’t,” Remy admitted. “Because I have to marry Genevieve.”

Sam jerked away from them. Since they’d met, she’d kept her cool and protected herself from their nonchalance. Had something changed between them now that she’d admitted she desired Remy too? Or was it worse because now she’d made herself vulnerable and felt the sting of rejection? Was she this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

As in the previous scene, Remy tries to give Sam power by admitting their desire for her and letting Sam decide if she wants to admit hers back. In this version, she does. She pledges herself to Remy, and it’s Remy who shatters her hope with the reality that they can’t really be together. This version has more emotional sting, but it also has the uncomfortable reiteration of their power dynamic: Remy/royal/wealthy/powerful vs. Sam/commoner/poor/vulnerable.

Which version will make it into the final manuscript, and how will they get out of the mess of Remy’s forced marriage to Genevieve? You’ll have to wait and see!

Identity, Sexuality, and Authenticity

Why gender and sexual identity still needs to be more than background to a character

This week Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye revealed he is living with HIV in a candid profile that included sharing stories of his struggles with addiction and experience as a sexual abuse survivor. The interview with the New York Times was part of the promotion for his new memoir, Over the Top, which also came out this week.

Responses within the LGBTQ community to Van Ness’ revelation that he is positive were also positive. Most of the people in my circle expressed how impressed we were with his courage and how helpful it would be for other people with HIV to have such a public figure sharing his experiences. (That this was our initial reaction, rather than sadness and terror, speaks volumes about how far HIV treatments have come since those dread-filled days of the 1980s, but I want to note that many people who contract the virus still suffer and die, and support for AIDS research, treatment, and prevention is still really important.)

On Twitter this week, a writer asked how other writers create and give voice to characters whose identities they do not share. This writer was a man, and he was especially interested in how male authors write women because he felt he had no idea how our brains work. Someone else responded with the brilliantly simplistic, “Women are people.” He elaborated that writers often create characters who are not like themselves (e.g. a romance novelist is not a firefighter; a novelist who is 27 is not 35 like their character). The response got many likes and retweets, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot to include here. (I tried searching my Twitter feed and can’t find it now to show you.)

These two events are, on the surface, unconnected, but that they happened in the same week has got me thinking a lot about identity and authenticity. In the publishing world, there is currently great pressure for #ownvoices authors – that is, authors from historically marginalized groups writing characters from those same groups. This is valued as giving voice to those who have historically been rendered voiceless or, worse, been voiced only by those outside those lived experiences. To make my own politics clear, I absolutely support this move. I want everyone to encounter stories about people of color, queer people, immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities. And I want those stories to be told by people from those communities who understand their complexities.

This gets me back to the guy on Twitter who sharply noted that women are people. We are, that is true, and can a cis straight man skillfully write from the point of view of a woman because he, like her, is a person? Maybe. Sometimes. Sure. It depends. Being a woman is often more than just being “people,” since so many of our experiences, attitudes, appearances and behaviors, and fears are shaped from the second of our birth by societies that still treat women as less than men. After the #MeToo movement began, I wrote out my thoughts as I moved through a typical day. One of my gay male feminist friends was stunned to see how much of my day is shaped by rape culture, even though I have – thankfully – never been raped. My daily experiences aren’t any different than most women’s in the United States, though perhaps more consciously interrogated.

Reading over requests from literary agents, editors, and even mentors to contests like Pitch Wars, I’ve noticed a pattern in which LGBTQ characters and stories are sought – with the caveat in romance that sexuality should be secondary to the story. Now, I contain in my head a font of knowledge about the history of lesbian romance publishing and the origins of m/m romance. I understand that some of this has to do with decades in which coming out narratives comprised the bulk of gay and lesbian romance. I get that the fanfic origins of m/m romance led to some serious questions over how a character understands their sexual identity, to some flat characters who can’t talk or think about anything other than whether or not they’re gay, and that spawned some intense psychoanalytic research on what it means to write and consume those stories. I’m also not naive to the reality that publishers need to ensure books sell, and a lot of their “wishlists” are driven by the market.

But here in 2019, is sexual identity merely a background characteristic of queer people? Do we live in a world where people fall in love, regardless of gender, and are fine with however things shake out? Do we live in a world where onlookers do not judge couples by their gender presentation, and the law equally protects all? Until the answers to all those questions are yes, there is still value in allowing queer characters to be wholly queer. Sandy Lowe, senior editor for Bold Strokes Books, wrote a blog post about why she doesn’t think we should write for a post-gay world back in 2016, and I think she’s still right in 2019.

Just as my daily experiences are shaped by being a woman, they are also shaped by being queer. Although I am a lesbian-identified cis person, I am married to someone whose pronouns vary and who describes their own identity alternatively as nonbinary, queer, and trans. Our daily lives, and the daily life of LGBTIQA people more generally, are shaped by whether or not we live in a community with people who look and act like us or who stare at us aghast, by looking for gender-neutral restrooms, by the language people use to describe love and romance and significant others, by the acceptance or rejection we experience from our families, by how well our health care providers understand our bodies and sex lives, by whether our health insurance even covers the kind of medical procedures and prescriptions we need, by suicide statistics, by homophobic churches, by not seeing ourselves on television, and on and on. Some of these issues are more pertinent to trans, nonbinary, and intersex people, sure, and I don’t mean to conflate us all. Some are also not unique to the queer community. I merely mean to point out that when folks in the literary world say, “I’d really like it if being LGBT wasn’t central to the character,” what I hear is a fundamental misunderstanding of how being LGBTIQA already is central to real people and often leaves its mark on every fiber of a person’s body, mind, and soul.

Until the world is full of Jonathan Van Nesses and all our social issues resolved, I’m content to continue writing characters with a range of sexualities and gender identities, whose experiences range from easy acceptance of themselves to struggling with society and self-love. I’m content to continue writing about the personal and social issues my loved ones and I have experienced, but to make sure that in my books, as so often doesn’t happen in real life, we always get a happy ending that reaffirms the beauty in who we are.

The Meet Cute

How Romance Characters Meet and What It Says about Them

When I first heard the term “meet cute,” it was 2009. I was reading an academic article about the short-lived sci fi series Farscape. The writer described two characters crashing into each other, with one landing on top of the other in what could be a sexual position, as a “meet cute.” I thought maybe she needed a grammar lesson.

Flash forward to my entry into romance writing and scholarship. The “meet cute” – which is actually the real term! – describes any situation in which the two main characters of a romance first meet. If it’s a screwball comedy or light-hearted romance, that meeting should be cute. It should set the tone for the rest of the their interactions, their building attraction, and their hesitation.

This sketch from Saturday Night Live parodies how the meet cute often presumes characters’ immediate belief they are meant to be together but neglects some of the realities of life.

In honor of my Twitter followers who wanted this week’s blog post to be about the meet cute, here are some of my favorite tropes with my favorite examples.

The Awkward Encounter

In my forthcoming novel, the two characters meet when one, Dana, is stranded along the interstate in a snowstorm. Cursing her way down the off-ramp to find help, Dana slips. The other character, Charlie, pulls up beside her and calls her out on falling on her butt. Dana is embarrassed and attracted, and the seat of her pants is wet from landing in the snow, and she doesn’t really know how to handle this new person who has stumbled into her life. This meet cute sets the tone for the rest of their relationship as we see them in the novel: Dana making gaffs, feeling self-conscious, and Charlie delighting in talking openly about the embarrassing things Dana wishes would go unspoken. Charlie ribs Dana affectionately, and the more flustered and frustrated Dana becomes, the more attracted she grows to Charlie’s swagger.

The awkward first encounter is a favorite within screwball comedies and lighthearted romances. Movies for the Hallmark Channel, for instance, delight in having our adorable heroine slip and fall, spill coffee, or otherwise embarrass herself to show that, even though she’s got her own house, a stellar career, and an amazingly obedient dog, she is not so perfect as to be someone we can’t love.

The Antagonistic Run-In

My current work in progress has a more antagonistic meet cute. A wealthy European royal is trying to live without the benefits of their wealth by starting school in the U.S. As they are trying to move into a graduate apartment, a beautiful woman takes the last cart and loads it with her boxes. The two fight over who has the right to use the cart, ultimately resulting in some items of value getting broken. The characters don’t see this meeting as cute at all. In fact, they really don’t like each other, but we find it cute because it’s a romance novel, so we know the fun will be watching them evolve from this antagonistic beginning to falling deeply in love.

The antagonistic run-in works well when the theme of the romance is enemies-to-lovers or opposites attract. By showing the two characters meeting with hostility, a writer can build anticipation for their barriers to slowly begin to fall as they come increasingly more attracted to each other.

The Case of Mistaken Identity

My royal romance is an example of this, since the American presumes our hero is just a rich jerk (and later finds out they are a rich jerk who is also royalty). In a mistaken identity meet cute, Character A thinks Character B is someone else – because of some adorably simple misunderstanding or some plot scheme. Because of this meeting, Character B will have to continue the charade throughout the story, thus making their meet cute set the tone for the entire plot formula. The mistaken identity meet cute works really well for royal romances and other situations in which one character is vastly wealthy than the other or when the characters are competitors in business or family rivals. In Shakespeare in Love (1998), Shakespeare first meets “Thomas Kent” (who is really a woman named Viola) at an audition and is intrigued, but because of social circumstances that prohibit a woman of status acting on stage, Viola must continue playing Thomas, which also creates obstacles for Shakespeare in terms of sexuality. In My Man Godfrey (1933), Irene participates in a scavenger hunt that includes finding a homeless man, Godfrey. But Godfrey is actually a wealthy man posing as homeless to avoid his own family. In both movies, the mistaken identity serves as an obstacle to the romance; once it’s cleared up, the characters are free to love openly.

I would be negligent not to note that Shakespeare in Love, which propelled Gwyneth Paltrow to stardom, was produced by Harvey Weinstein for Miramax, and so the movie’s lighthearted tone must be considered in the wake of the horrors we now know women at Miramax experienced.

I would also be silly not to mention that I – and plenty of you, perhaps – would have been fine with Thomas Kent always being Thomas Kent, and Shakespeare just dating him.

The Reunion

A meet cute doesn’t always have to be the first time two characters meet. A popular trope is a reunion meet cute, in which characters who haven’t seen each other in years are reunited. This works best if they parted on bad terms, so the reunion is emotionally poignant (part joy and nostalgia, part painful remembrance). The reunion meet cute is often used for stories about high school sweethearts who are now adults. It also works well with narratives of homecoming, for obvious reasons. Without googling, I can think of two Hallmark movies with Autumn Reeser, one of my favorite Hallmark heroines, that use this trope. In Season for Love (2018), she plays a chef who returns home after losing her job and runs into her ex, who has also returned home, and they end up competing in a barbecue contest together. In All Summer Long (2019), she convinces her aunt and uncle to hire her as the captain of their dining yacht, and as she’s walking to the dock for her first day of work, she bumps into her ex, who has just been hired as the yacht’s chef.

Of course, the most adorable reunion meet cute occurs in the remake of The Parent Trap (1998). Knowing that she will run into her ex-husband because their daughters have traded places and set them up, Elizabeth stresses about what will happen.

Natasha Richardson as Elizabeth. Beautiful, talented, always a delight to watch and gone too soon.

When she finally heads down to the pool to meet Nick, he is so surprised to see her that he crashes into people and falls into the water. You can predict the splash – if it’s a comedy, if it’s a meet cute, and if there’s a pool, someone is going to fall in – but just look at his face when he first spots her. From his wondrous grin and the sparkle in his eyes, it’s clear that this first meeting will lead to them getting back together because he’s clearly never fallen out of love with her.

More about Meet Cutes

Because how the couple meets is so important to the rest of the story, there is a ton of scholarship, popular writing, and guidance for screenwriters and novelists on the topic of the meet cute. Check out some of these links:

  1. I haven’t read it, but you might like Helena Hunting’s romance novel entitled Meet Cute. It sounds adorable!
  2. Here’s a recent list of romance novels with meet cutes from Bustle.
  3. Finally, here is the adorable screenwriter character Arthur (Eli Wallach) explaining the old Hollywood meet cute to Kate Winslet in The Holiday (2006). I think I like his character more than the central couples.

I’ve learned a lot since that first time I thought “meet cute” sounded wrong. It’s now my favorite part of any romance, and the tropes above are my favorite kind of meet cutes. Readers, what are your favorite examples of meet cutes and why?

The three most important words

This week I want to talk about the three most important words in romance. While part of me is tempted to say they are “I brought guacamole” or “Let’s have champagne,” I’m talking about the declaration of love that is expected at the end of every romance novel and movie. How can a writer create a good build-up that makes it plausible and satisfying when a character says, “I love you”?

In my most recently completed novel (which I will plug ad nauseum once the publisher says I can officially do so), the events take place in the span of one day. Following the “one crazy night” trope of movies like It Happened One Night or even Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, my story has two characters meeting and encountering some crazy adventures across the Midwest, falling in love, and the next morning admitting they love each other.

It Happened One Night is a 1934 rom com directed by Frank Capra and starring Claudette Colbert (left) and Clark Gable (right). In this iconic image from the movie, Colbert flashes some skin when she needs to hitchhike.

The “one crazy night” trope is my favorite, but it’s admittedly hard to sell two people professing their love after such a short time together.

On the other extreme of the romance spectrum, the “slow burn” trope has a similar problem. Although “slow burn” means characters spend a lot of time getting to know each other and letting their feelings build up, it can still be difficult to have them declare their love convincingly. Why, after so many months, would they suddenly be willing to admit something they’ve known for so long but kept quiet? Or, if they didn’t know they were in love before their declaration, what suddenly made them fall in love after so much time with the other person? These are some of the challenges romance writers face in creating believable declaration scenes.

When Harry Met Sally is a 1989 rom com starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal and directed by Rob Reiner. By today’s standards, the movie has a lot of annoying assumptions about gender and sexuality, but it is an undeniable slow burn as Harry and Sally meet, separate, become friends, separate again, and eventually after many years declare their love for each other.

Whether the two characters have just met or have known each other for a long time, the moment at which they finally acknowledge their feelings for each other is the most satisfying and, I’d argue, the most important moment in romance. From the first page of a novel or scene of a movie, it’s what we have been expecting, and it’s our reward for sitting through two hundred pages or two hours of conflict and separation. So it has to be good, and it has to make us feel that two characters truly belong together.

In the case of my novel, I hope readers will understand that the crazy night of adventures has shown both characters that everything they thought about their lives, what they thought they wanted and valued, was wrong. What they actually need and want, what will actually make them happy is something they didn’t even know was possible. I tried to be mindful that a contemporary audience might find it unbelievable for people who just met to say, “I love you.” I would. And since I want to my characters to be people who aren’t fools for love, I have them instead give a softer declaration: “I think I’m falling for you.”

I love this. It sets up possibilities for the future. Do you remember when you first started dating someone new and everything they did and said was exciting because you didn’t yet know them well? Do you remember fantasizing about where your relationship might go? “I think I’m falling for you” gives that sense of possibility. It promises they will fall – because, after all, this is romance – but doesn’t make them seem immature or idiotic enough to think real love can exist for someone after a few hours.

The current novel I’m writing also covers a short time span – a week this time. And although I can’t reveal many details yet, I’m excited to tell you that there will be two major declarations at the end. Not only will a character profess love for another, but they will also realize they love themselves.

To series or not to series?

I recently tweeted a semi-complaint, semi-joke that while brainstorming my next novel with my wife at dinner one night, she essentially rewrote the entire plot and then explained to me how it should be a series, rather than a standalone novel. My wife is a very talented musician who understands the Instagram generation in ways I never will, but she has never called herself a writer. So I took this advice as helpful – it was! – and also kind of laughed at how zealous she had been.

But, two days later, I’m still thinking about her idea.

I write standalone novels, which makes me a little unusual in today’s publishing world. I see and hear characters and write out their story to its end, which in romance means a declaration of love and reasonable assurance they will remain happy together. Usually, the next two characters who need to find each other to find happiness pop into my head halfway through drafting of the previous story, and once revisions on that previous story are complete, I let the new characters tell me what’s up. I don’t usually think about how the old characters are doing, except to revisit their story every now and then and smile (since, after all, I wrote it, and at least I like it if no one else does).

Writers, do you ever re-read your own work and just bask in how great it is?

But writing a series doesn’t have to mean writing sequels. This is helpful for me to keep in mind for romance, where the happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) is the conclusion of the story. What comes after that? The only plausible way to create a sequel is to force the characters into some conflict that drives them apart. Like the marriage plot, in which two characters fall in love and end up engaged or married at the end, the remarriage plot sees characters already in love broken up, and the goal of the plot is to bring them back together. It can work when done well, but it can also involve silly, contrived conflict that threatens the original story for the characters in the first place.

Some remarriage plots are just plain torturous, but The Parent Trap is an example of this plot done delightfully.

(Sidenote: I have also read sequels in which writers didn’t understand conflict drives plot, and the story became 200 pages of happy people doing happy things. This might sound cute, but it’s actually a very boring waste of time. I’m looking at you, that novel with the wedding in Nantucket.)

Let’s say Jessie and Tom are the heroes of a classic romance. Now living their “happily ever after” in the sequel, something must happen to drive the story. Maybe the catalyst is that Jessie discovers she’s pregnant, and Tom doesn’t want the baby. Or maybe Jessie’s ex-girlfriend comes back to town, and now Jessie doesn’t know if she wants to stay with Tom. Either of these will work to separate Tom and Jessie so that they can declare their love again and be reunited by the book’s conclusion, but these plots also mean we learn Jessie and Tom aren’t the great people we were rooting for in book one. In the first example, Tom turns out to be a jerk who is willing to dump a partner and child. In the second, Jessie’s declaration of love for Tom was obviously contingent: she loves him so long as there’s not someone else she loves better. In neither case will the reader feel good when the two are reunited because it’s now clear they could easily be separated again in the future.

My wife’s suggestion at dinner, though, was to think about extending the book to the side couples who populate its scenes. What is the story of each of them? How did they each meet, become attracted, face barriers that kept them apart, and finally surmount those obstacles? What was their adventure before they became the background to another couple’s? These are interesting stories worth telling. Although I have not played in the same world more than once, she had a good idea. Since the book (books?) isn’t sold yet, I can’t give you the full details on the plot, but suffice it to say, it’s a cute story that would lend itself really well to this kind of series.

Sit tight, readers. This one may take me a while to write, but it might be worth it.

New book preview: Cover design woes

Very exciting news: I’ve just submitted my cover design request to my publisher for an upcoming novel. At this point, I can’t show it to you or tell you much about it, so this is just a jerky, vague alert that a book is coming and the cover will hopefully be awesome!

Recently, the romance community has been debating the value of illustrated covers, which have become quite popular lately. See, for instance, Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue (this summer’s much talked about book) or any of Jasmine Guillory’s books, the covers of which I love. The first cover design for Crazy Rich Asians prompted critiques that the book was trying to mask its genre (romance), and the cover post-film shows the movie stars, associating the novel more with its big screen success than the romance plot. There are myriad arguments for and against illustrated covers, and I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out who falls into the “pro” and “con” categories, but it’s a jumble. Here are some of the overlapping points made:

  1. Illustrated covers refresh romance away from the stereotypical Fabio and bodice ripper covers that people associate with romance.
  2. This might mask that the book being read is romance, which perpetuates the stigma of romance but also might welcome in new readers who were historically embarrassed to be seen carrying around romance novels.
  3. By reaching out to those new readers, publishers who produce illustrated covers may be devaluing the genre’s most loyal readers.
  4. But illustrated covers are also helpful for folks writing romance novels with characters who can’t easily be found among stock photo models. (There is a great thread explaining this on Twitter.)

Both my previous publisher and my current one solicited my input on cover design. In addition to asking about the tone of the book, the appearance of the central characters, important settings, small publishers also give you access to the stock photography sites they use, where they will probably pull an image to use on the cover. As the Twitter thread linked to above explains, stock photography is lacking in diversity and representation, especially when you are searching for images with more than one person romantically linked. So the options are to avoid people on the cover, PhotoShop them together awkwardly, or pay for a special photoshoot (which many small presses simply cannot do).

This is a real vintage photo from News Dog Media, but not likely to be found in a stock archive, sadly. You can see more vintage portraits of couples here.

But the illustrated vs. photo cover debate isn’t the only thing causing cover design woes. Another problem is that the number of stock photography archives are limited, especially those that are affordable to smaller presses. And genres like romance tend to use specific tropes with similar themes, characters, and storylines, which brings us to this….

How did this happen?

Road Tripping (2014) and Driving Her Crazy (2015) use the same stock photo, only slightly moved to the left for one of them. How does this happen? Is this allowed? Is this common? It happens because cover design happens very quickly, publishers subscribe to the same stock photo archives, and it’s impossible to research all existing book covers before creating a new one. Just as books might have the same titles, they may also have more or less the same covers. In fact, repeated cover imagery is so common that there is a list compiled on Goodreads.

With all these things to consider about designing a cover, what did I end up telling my publisher I wanted to see? I’ll leave that as a surprise for now, but I’ll tell you what I told them I didn’t want to see: headless bodies or bare feet. Because no.

Okay, I haven’t read this one yet, but I think we can agree that THIS is how you use stock photos!