What makes a good romance?

I've never considered myself a romance reader, but lately I've been thinking a lot about what makes a romance work. This is because there is a romance in Huntress, and initially, it totally did not work. Over the course of several drafts I had to fix it. I started out by reading a some YA romances (they shall remain unnamed). The problem was, they didn't grab me at all. Many of them are about a girl who instantly falls for a sexy/moody/hot boy, and right away that leads to a couple of problems for me.

First, I found that the girl often fell for the boy on first sight — just because he was cute — and his attractiveness was described in quite a lot of detail. A lot of people like to read exactly what a character looks like, but I don't. When a character is supposed to be attractive, I don't want to know too much about how they look, because chances are, that look isn't going to work for me. Everybody has their own personal tastes. But in a lot of these novels, the boy is described so exactly that little room is left for the imagination, and I think that a lot of romance is actually about the imagination: anticipation, hope, longing.

Second, the boy's personality never seemed to live up to their physical attractiveness. I found that the boy was often so in love with the girl that most of his personality seemed to be enmeshed in the girl — in keeping her safe, in making her happy, etc. As a reader, I want the characters to have separate and distinct personalities, and I want them to do things. I also am not a big fan of boys being overprotective of their girlfriends, or of girls yearning to be sheltered by their boyfriends. Frankly, that's a turnoff for me. I feel like romance — real and fictional — should be about thinking bigger, taking risks and doing more.

So. Where did that leave me? I started to think about and read adult novels with romance in them. I thought maybe I was just having an aversion to teenage romance because of its rose-colored glasses, fuzzy focus nature. ((Obviously not all YA romances are like this. Many of them are awesome!))

While I've never read much romance of the bodice-ripper variety, I realized that many of the adult novels I enjoy do have romance in them, but they tend to be more in the romantic suspense category. Mary Stewart, for example, with her fantastic Nine Coaches Waiting, or any of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels' dozens of gothic romances. Romantic suspense gives the characters something to do while falling in love with each other. This is something I really need, as a reader (I'm just predisposed to enjoy mysteries, I guess).

I also reread Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which is not strictly a romance, but it sure is brimming with love (and lustiness). Rereading that novel showed me that a successful romance is all about the build-up — a kiss is meaningless unless the reader is primed to want it. It's all that foreplay, frankly, that drives it home.

This may be why a lot of love-at-first-sight tales don't work for me. I need to have an emotional investment in the characters in order to identify with their desires.

Waters also is relentless in her intense description of the physicality of romance. Her characters always seem to be shaking when they get close enough to touch their love interest; their feelings become manifest in their hands, in their faces, in their voices. This is something that I have had a hard time doing in my own work, because I'm so afraid of being too melodramatic. Reading Waters actually made me feel a lot more free about layering on the emotion, because you know what? First love is totally melodramatic. It's excruciating and overwhelming and amazing, and Waters is brilliant at describing it.

I was eighteen, and knew nothing. I thought, at that moment, that I would die of love for her. — Tipping the Velvet

Reading Persuasion by Jane Austen was also eye-opening. I was surprised by the amount of sexual tension Austen could build with her quite reserved prose. There was one scene in which Anne Elliot is being attacked by her nephews, and Captain Wentworth comes and plucks one of them off her back while not saying a single word to her. This scene followed after chapter upon chapter of build-up in which Anne was constantly thinking about Wentworth and his proximity to her. So when he was so close — and, yes, when he saved her — I actually thought, "Oh my god! He almost touched her!" (swoon)

One of the YA books I read that really did work for me was Laini Taylor's Lips Touch. I read the first page in a bookstore and practically fell over. Her prose was so precisely designed; so elegantly suffused with emotion.

The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls. — Lips Touch

It's been so interesting to read these books and think about how to evoke those feelings in my own writing. I think that I was always taught, in English class and in writing workshops, to avoid overwriting. I've always had a kind of paralyzing fear about it — a fear that I would somehow slip over the edge and become a hack. So I tend to be reserved in my fiction, afraid to overstep the bounds of good taste. ((Which, obviously varies for everybody. Nobody has a lock on what "good taste" is; it just seems that way.))

This may be partly because in my personal life, I've always been intensely emotional, and I've had to learn how to deal with those emotions in a healthy way. One of those ways is writing: I have reams of journals, poems, letters, etc., completely covered in purple prose.

So, what makes a good romance? For me, it's the courage to spill all those blood-and-guts moments out onto the page in a way that the reader recognizes as real. It's not about how hot some boy is. It's about taking the yearning and desire bubbling inside, and turning it out, laying it out in the open, so that a reader can drink it all up, and understand with their gut why that character loves another.

Recommended Reads: "Persuasion" by Jane Austen

I enjoyed Persuasion very much. I was surprised to find it quite suspenseful! Which meant I was focused more on turning the pages than absorbing the subtleties of Austen's storytelling. A month and a half or so later, I can't remember the names of most of the people in the book (though I tend to forget this kind of stuff regularly — this is why I'm often able to re-read books!). But this is what I do remember: I found the first two chapters quite difficult. It wasn't until the third chapter that Persuasion really grabbed me, and the rapid page-turning began. I think this is because the first chapter is mostly concerned with telling the backstory of Anne Elliot's family, focusing largely on her father, Sir Walter Elliott, who is extremely annoying! The second chapter focuses on the Elliot family's financial woes, which are clearly important as they set up the whole of the book, but felt very tedious to me. Finally, in chapter 3, the navy men arrived — and I knew the story was about to speed up.

You might think that a couple of chapters of backstory wouldn't necessarily be a problem. I am a writer of young adult fiction, though, and lately I've been thinking very hard about how to start a book, because I've had trouble with it in my own writing. I've agonized over how to deliver the right amount of backstory in the first few pages without turning it into a sludgy infodump. So to encounter all this backstory beginning with page 1 was very thought-provoking. Is it something that can only be done in adult literary fiction (or even "classics")? Is it verboten in YA and that's why I was surprised by it? Can it ever be done well? (I have no answers.)

It's also a very different sort of beginning than the one in Pride and Prejudice, which begins immediately with the arrival of the potential love interest. I have read that Austen wrote Persuasion more quickly than her other books because she was ill, and it was, after all, published shortly after her death. I wonder if that had anything to do with the slower beginning. (As in, she wasn't able to polish it as much.)

I have to admit the fact that I found the first two chapters very slow was also a bit horrifying to me. I started to wonder if I've become a lazy reader, demanding action from the first sentence, rather than being more patient. What's so bad about giving a novel a couple of chapters to warm up? Are we just so ADD these days with so much media demanding our attention that we can no longer sit still and absorb something a little more slowly paced?

Another thing I discovered while reading Persuasion: Some of Austen's sentences were extremely long, and this filled me with an unexpected glee. One sentence in particular, in which Austen describes Lyme (a town in England), just went on and on and on with a wonderful series of commas and semicolons. I had to reread it several times to get it all. I loved it. Here's that complete sentence from Chapter 11, punctuated with a single, definitive colon toward the end:

The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.

A really well-done long sentence unwinds like a river; it has a rhythm that surges and pauses, coming to rest, hopefully, at a very interesting place. Yet I think that a lot of contemporary fiction (especially YA and commercial fiction) is full of short, punchy sentences. Maybe it's out of fashion to enjoy an embroidered turn of phrase. But I thoroughly enjoyed Austen's long sentences, even as I laughed because I couldn't fit the entire thing into my head at once.

Finally, the thing that readers love most about Persuasion, probably, is the love story between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. It sets up a situation that many of us have likely fantasized about: re-encountering your first love, many years later, and finding a way back together again. Anne and Wentworth's history gave all of their encounters in Persuasion a deeper meaning. It's a completely different feel from a romance involving two people falling in love for the first time. It's more bittersweet. Actions have a different intensity; behaviors can always seem to mean more than one thing (and probably do).

I've now written two YA novels involving romance. Neither of them were reunion stories, but I really would like to write one of those someday.

Have you read Persuasion? Do you remember what you thought of it after your first reading? (Or second, or third?)