On what I learned from writing a romance

I wrote my first romance novel on a dare. I’d been a nonfiction book author and magazine writer for a number of years, and I was working on a mystery of the hard-boiled private eye type. A colleague suggested that the reason the relationship between my protagonist and her love interest wasn’t working was that, ahem, I didn’t know the first thing about romance.

I set out to prove her wrong. Regrettably, this required first admitting that she was right. Well, not entirely right, but right so far as she could see. That is, I have always firmly squelched my romantic tendencies in favor of being competent and practical. I’m well-versed in kicking men in the balls (I should mention that a bunch of my nonfiction books are martial arts how-tos). I have mastered a never-fail method of gluing my skin back together when the calluses start peeling off. I am tough! For me to show my softer side is contrary to what I’ve spent most of my life trying to do.

But what the hell. It was a dare, and I’m not one to back down. It’s not like I haven’t written plenty of things that I didn’t know anything about when I first started writing about them. How your business structure affects your tax liability. How to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. That kind of thing.

But how to show two people falling in love? Without falling on the floor laughing my ass off? That was the thing: to do it right, I had to take it seriously. I had to skip the easy joke and go for the deeper emotion.

Let me say right off that this sucked. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling emotion or expressing it; I write about my daughter all the time in a way that can be described as either poignant or sentimental, depending on how you feel about my writing (“mawkish,” a dear friend suggests). It’s just that I have a hard time doing the same when talking about love relationships that culminate under the covers.

Let’s face it: in dealing with sex, romance, and love, I have the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old boy. Which, you know, would be fine. If I were twelve years old. And a boy.

So I started writing this romance with the guidance of a friend who is a published romance author. “What does attraction feel like?” Karen would demand.

“Uh,” I would say, and then she would say, “Go stand somewhere until you see someone attractive. Now tell me how it feels.” Then, because I get easily confused on these matters: “Not what it looks like. How it feels.”

So I would go to the coffee shop and wait for an attractive man to come in, which sometimes took a while, and in the meantime I’d get propositioned by a couple of street persons, but I digress. Eventually, I would see some college age hottie come in and then I would think, “I’m old enough to be his mother,” or worse, “I’m friends with his mother,” and Karen would delicately suggest that this was not the type of reaction she was trying to get me to write about.

Then one day as I was having a conversation with another coffee shop habitué, I realized how much I enjoyed spending time with him, how I looked forward to seeing him come in. How when he said my name, I always felt like the day was going to be a little better than before.

Ohmigod. That was attraction. You can be attracted to people after you’ve known them for a while! Eureka! So I told Karen about it and she said, “Okay, put it in the book. The whole purpose of this exercise is to write a book, isn’t it?”

Oh, right. So I put it in the book. “Now,” Karen said, “There has to be conflict. And not some stupid contrived thing where if the hero and heroine had an actual conversation it would be cleared up in twelve seconds. But an error of thinking.”

It had never occurred to me that the conflicts that arise between men and women could be described as “errors of thinking” but the more I dug into it, the more true it became, in life and in literature. When I based my relationship with my ex-husband on the relationship my parents had, that was an error in thinking. When my hero assumed the heroine was going to be like his first wife, that was his error in thinking.

But my biggest error in thinking? That the only way I could be considered competent and practical was if I squelched the part of me that likes to wear pink, and listen to Ravel, and hang prints of Klimt on my walls. And write romances.

By the time I’d finished writing chapter four, I’d gone out and bought gold sandals (gold! and I wear them in the day time!). I painted my toenails red, vampire red, and bought a toe ring with bright blue bead! And I wear it all the time! I can because I’m a girl! I made my very own stuffed Build-a-Bear last Christmas with my daughter, who thought I was nuts but I note that she was making a bear, too. Mine is named Diamond, after the stuffed panda I had when I was five. And she lives on my bed! On top of the pink and orange comforter! And the four pillows! That have lace on them!

And that book I wrote on a dare? Published by Avalon in 2008, under the pen name Jenny Jacobs, called Love by Design. Since then I’ve published any number of romances.

If I write enough of these books, I’m hoping to be as smart as an eighteen-year-old by the time I retire.


Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available!
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

And don’t forget classes for writers—and more on writing at BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com

1 comment

  1. Jennifer, I wrote my first romance novel on a dare, too. For years I was embarrassed to tell my English teacher colleagues about it. When I finally did, yes some rolled their eyes, but I think they all read it. And loved it.

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