Book Review; or What makes a good romance novel?

I am cheap.  Very, very cheap.  Part of this is because I grew up living on that margin that Mr. Micawber described so well in David Copperfield:

We never tipped into misery, but we knew we were living on that edge.

I worked my way through college and law school.  When I graduated, I got my first real money. I then embarked upon a four year spending binge. I didn’t buy anything big — no Mercedes, no diamonds, no luxury trips — but I bought and bought and bought: a new Honda, not a used one; Ann Taylor clothes, which looked like a dream on me; lunch and dinner out every day, and dancing out many weekends; and books, my gosh did I buy books — hundreds of them. The result was that, at the end of four years of a salary higher than my father had ever earned, I had $1,500 dollars to my name. That really frightened me, and made me feel quite stupid.

My life now is financially secure, although I never assume that it will be tomorrow. I live in a lovely upper-middle-class community, drive a solid car, and have an iPad and an iPhone, both of which are luxury items. I travel a lot, because my husband likes to travel. Those are my expenses.

On the other side of the ledger, I buy my clothes at Target (love their stuff); don’t eat lunch out anymore (especially since Don Quixote and his missus moved to retirement bliss in Florida); and I rarely buy books retail. I either get them from the library, the thrift store, or the Amazon Kindle freebie list. The last is, of course, the easiest way to get book, because you can lounge in your arm chair with your dog as you shop for freebies. The downside is that so many of the freebie books are dreadful — especially the freebie romances. Even if they’re well proofread (and few are), they’re dreadful.

Since I get a lot of these books (they’re free, after all) and read one or two chapters in each before abandoning most, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes these free romances so dreadful. I’ve figured out that it’s primarily the lack of plot. Free romances are all about guy meets girl, guy sleeps with girl, guy sleeps with girl again and again and again, guy and girl have stupid reason for parting, and then guy and girl come together. No matter the setting: Vegas, Hawaii, Paris, nowhere Texas, it’s always the same. There is no plot. Even if the sex scenes are discreet they read like porn, because porn has no plot either. The thing is that romance without context is just as boring and sterile as sex without context.

What makes a good romance novel is a genuine plot, whether it’s a thriller, a small town situation, a mystery, a social comedy, or whatever. It needs to have a beginning and a middle, both of which lead to a satisfying end; it needs to be cleverly done; the dialogue needs to transcend wooden preludes to sex; and it helps if the characters actually move in a real world inhabited by people other than themselves and their boring trajectory to bed. Within that framework, the male and female characters need to be likable, with a good sense of humor being a plus. Only then is the romance a satisfying one, because it’s real people, in a real world, having a real relationship.

I read two of those good romances this weekend, and here’s the thing that thrills my cheap soul about them:  I got them both as free review copies.  It was like an explosion of ice cream and fudge sauce.  I was pretty sure both would be good because both are by tried and true authors:  Julie Garwood and Susan Anderson.  There’s no doubt that their books are formulaic, but they do formula really, really well.  Just as I never tire of Haagen Daaz chocolate ice cream (who cares that I’ve had it before?), I never tired of a solid romance writer who doesn’t skimp on plot and character development.  So, with that introduction, a short review of each book:

Julie Garwood is an interesting writing.  Her writing style is at about 9th grade level, but her plots are complex and her character’s nuanced.  I always feel a bit funny reading her books, because her writing is simplistic, but I always get completely caught up in her stories and I really like the characters she creates.  They’re like real people.  One of the nicest things about them is that they don’t behave stupidly.  I hate books in which the characters jump to insanely stupid conclusions as a way to advance the plot.

Hotshot is a typical Garwood outing:  writing that’s almost too straightforward (although not Hemingway-esque), a very well-thought-out plot, and appealing characters.  The book begins with the lead characters — Finn and Peyton — meeting as young next door neighbors.  Fast forward to the future, and Finn’s a former Olympian and current FBI agent, while Peyton’s a chef who thought she’d gotten a dream job at a leading foodie magazine.  Instead, she ended up working for a guy who gets an A in sexual harassment with an A+ in revenge when she rejects him.  When she and her sisters are given the job of re-vamping their uncle’s resort hotel, psychopath boss causes problems, so Peyton — of course — calls Finn.

I don’t need to tell you that the story has a happy ending.  I knew that on page one.  I just enjoy reading along with Garwood as she takes me there.  I knew there’d be lots of well-fleshed characters and a variety of reasonably believably plot turns, and that’s precisely what I got.  This is where major publishing houses still have the edge on self-publishing — you can usually trust the product.

Susan Anderson is another reliable writer.  Her style is a bit more sophisticated than Garwood’s (probably 10th or 11th grade), but she certainly doesn’t make her readers work.  Unlike Garwood, her romances are dressed up as thrillers.  They’re just stories that see the main characters working their way to each other.

In Anderson’s latest outing, Some Like It Hot, the main characters are Max, a former Marine and current deputy sheriff, and Hayden, a rolling stone who’s looking at a charity in which he’s involved to see whether her foundation should give it money.  They both make and have friends, they have good back stories, and their attraction to each other and the way that attraction plays out are reasonable.

Anderson is good at believable dialogue, and I especially enjoy the fact that her characters are actually fairly witty.  Too often, bad romance writers will preface or follow a horrible, stupid, or bland remark by saying “He was charmed by her wit.”  If the other has to tell you a character is witty, the character isn’t witty; the author is just desperate.  Anderson doesn’t make that mistake.  Her characters crack actual jokes.

Both writers have steamy sex scenes, which I find less interesting than the developing relationships.  I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read these books — although they read worse in high school English classes, except that the books in English classes are sordid and degrading, whereas these romances actually celebrate real emotional connections.  Finding “pure” books, along the lines of my friend Judith Lown’s books, isn’t always easy, unless you’re willing to read mostly Christian books.  I don’t mind reading a good Christian romance, but it’s not the only thing I want to read. (If you do like Christian romances, I recommend Julie Klassen’s books, which are very well written and plotted.)

Bottom line:  If you’re looking for light summer romance that’s got plot and charm, you’ll probably enjoy Julie Garwood’s Hotshot and Susan Anderson’s Some Like It Hot.

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  • David Foster

    Every think about *writing* one?….They can apparently be very profitable, especially if you self-publish and skip the traditional publishing route.

  • Bookworm

    I’ve often thought about writing one, but since I have no imagination and no narrative ability, I’ve never gotten beyond thinking about it.

  • Michael Adams

    Sorry, I can’t help laughing.  When anyone, and especially any woman, says something about lacking imaginations, I remember my wife, during her pregnancies, especially the ones that made  it all nine months.  She semi-reclined on the couch and said things like,”So this is what it’s like to be stupid.  I’d always thought I wouldn’t like it, but really, it’s not so bad.  I just have no imagination.”  Book, I do not believe you are pregnant, or stupid, or, in truth, lacking in imagination.  You may be quite shy in expressing what you imagine, but I am ninety per cent certain that it is there. Whether you have the desire to work through it all and produce a novel, something a bit like pregnancy, too, now that I think of it, is a separate issue. Your friends know that you have enough on your plate, and, while we would welcome any addition (or edition) you might produce, we are quite content with what you are already doing.

  • Earl

    What Michael Adams said!!  BW…just don’t make any lifetime decisions on this – I suspect that, unless you decide to go back to work fulltime, when your kids are “out of the house and off the payroll”, you’ll find that you have enough time, should you decide that you WANT to write a romance novel.
    In the meantime, if you aren’t prejudiced against older books, I’m reading a trilogy aloud to my wife that I think you might really enjoy.  She’s been telling me about these books for 25+ years, but it’s not the type of thing I read for myself.  Finally, she asked me to read them aloud while she knits….she’s read them several times, but not for some years.  They are WONDERFUL!!
    The author is Elizabeth Goudge (, the same one plagiarized by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen back in the ’90s.  The three books we’re reading are set in the late ’30s through the ’50s and follow a family and their ancient house on the south coast of England near Portsmouth.  First is The Bird in the Tree, second Pilgrim’s Inn (Herb of Grace in the UK), and last The Heart of the Family.  The first two are available at for $5.00 or less, including shipping, and the third can be had for less than $10.00.  You CAN get them for Kindle, but not cheaply. Your local library may have them or be able to get them for you.  I suspect that you’d like them.
    We’ve almost finished Pilgrim’s Inn, and I’m smitten…good writing, great story, traditional values presented in a non-preachy way.  And every now and then a fabulous sentence that I want to read again and again.

  • David Foster

    Ha, all of us here know that you have *plenty* of creativity and narrative ability.
    I recently read something that with a few changes could serve as a pretty good basis for a romance novel (and of course the follow-on movie.) Lucy Isabel Bird, a real-life person, was an Englishwoman (clergyman’s daughter) who visited the US in the 1850s and wrote a pretty good book about the exotic American ways, later returned in the 1870s and spent some time in the Rockies. There she met a man called Mountain Mike, who had a pretty good reputation among the locals as a desperado….Lucy also found him well-spoken and even a bit cultured. There was pretty obviously a strong emotional and sexual attraction (she wrote to her sister that Mike was a man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry, and also reported a remarkably Freudian dream), but apparently nothing ever came of it.
    So obviously, the novel needs to change things around a little…the relationship does need to be consumated…not sure whether the fictional Mike should be shot (as happened to his real-life prototype) or whether the author should let him go on living.
    Anyhow, I do recommend Lucy’s books. Both “The Englishwoman in America” and “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” are available free on Kindle. Some of Lucy’s comments about Mike were elided from the book, but can be found in “Letters to Henrietta.”

  • Michael Adams

    Earl, we read the Elizabeth Goudge novels aloud to each other, in our pre-parental days. We definitely wanted to go and live at the Herb of Grace Inn. What was the title of the one abut the spinster, who goes to live in her late aunt’s house? It’s late.  Perhaps I’ll remember it tomorrow.

  • Earl

    Michael:  That doesn’t sound familiar from either of the first two.  Maybe in The Heart of the Family.
                 Just finished Pilgrim’s Inn (Herb of Grace)….wonderful story!!

  • Beth

    Elizabeth Goudge in my library, too.  How about Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset?  Love that book.

  • Sgt. Mom

    Heck – go for writing a book of your own, when things calm down a bit. Start with one, and befor you know it – there’s another and another and another …
    If I can plug my own stuff, I have a strong romantic element in a couple of of my historical fiction novels – enough to advertise them as historical romance. Reviewers have been kind enough to say that they involved realistic and caring adults in believable situations. The Gathering, wherein the daughter of German immigrants is torn between two appealing suitors in 19th century Texas, and in Deep in the Heart, a hardworking widow with four children, a boarding house and a disinclination to ever trust again has a romance with one of her boarding gentleman – who has been in love with her forever, and she doesn’t realize it until … well, I don’t want to give the plot away.
    But there’s lots more – David Foster can tell you about them – he’s reviewed Daughter of Texas for Chicagoboyz. And if you ever decide to publish the indy way, I can tell you how to go about it, step by step.

  • jj

    You have no imagination and no narrative ability?  Why is that a problem?  That practically guarantees you an easy annual quarter-million writing for TV.
    You’re interested in writing something in a genre (think of it as a format) that’s highly stylized: it’s formulaic.  That being the case the main task is (this applies to practically everything) to figure out the formula.  You’ve already done that by the simple expedient of spending time with the genre.  (If you often know what’s going to happen next, congratulations: you’ve figured it out.)  In your case the next issue is time.  So approach it episodically.  Spend a week or so, in fifteen minute bursts when you get the time, outlining your story.  (Old fashioned, yes; write an outline.  Give yourself a map.  Start general, work to the specific.)  Once you have a pretty specific outline, then – still in fifteen minute bursts as time is available – write it.  The outline, which you’ve made as specific as possible, will prevent ideas from wandering away during the busy time between bursts of writing when you’re  not thinking about it.  (And don’t fret if the outline changes a bit as you go and new thoughts occur, that’s normal.)
    The outline will hold you on, or near, the rails.  It’s your map, for the actual writing to follow.  There is no rule that says either it or the book must come in sustained sessions.  Do it how it’s comfortable, maybe three sessions a day, fifteen minutes each.  Maybe ten sessions a day, three minutes each.  Make your map, follow it.  Easy.

  • Bookworm

    You do make it sound easy, jj.  And I am a compulsive outliner.  I keep trying to convince my kids that there school essays will be better, not to mention easier to write, if they outline or mindmap first, but they simply refuse.  One of these days, I’ll give it a try.

    I’m heading off for vacation soon, and there will be downtime, so maybe that will be the starting point for my Great American Junk Novel.

  • Ymarsakar

    Many authors have made a name for themselves selling directly to Amazon/Kindle.
    I find a lot of material there that normal publishing houses will not market. Mostly because they either forgot there was a market for it or can’t think to create one.

  • March Hare

    As an aside, what’s with the names of these characters???  Finn and Peyton?  Max and Hayden?  How am I supposed to know which one is the girl?  Whatever happened to John and Marsha, fer cryin’ out loud?  :)

  • Bookworm

    There are a lot of kids in my neck of the woods who have gender non-specific names like that.  Now that they’re teens, it’s obvious what they are.  When they were little, though….

    It does remind me, though, that I went to school with a gorgeous guy, on whom I had a big crush, whose name was “Storm.” 

  • Ron19

    Try writing three or four books or novellas simultaneously, like Isaac Asimov did.  He was a prolific writer, writing novels while he was a graduate student, and eventually was a one-man book-of-the-month club, along with putting out a magazine of fiction.
    The way he did it, he would write on a book until he got stuck, and then roll it out of the typewriter and roll in a different book until he got stuck on that one, etc.  He would also write only one draft of a book, and then write the finished version in one pass.
    Momentum can overcome a supposed lack of ideas.