Start the heart throbs

Back from vacation in sunny Tucson. Thanks for keeping the blog going last week!

Before the post starts, here’s a great, over the top review of my upcoming book, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It:

In August, M.K.B. wrote, ….I’m having some difficulty showing romance in my story. I mean, I can easily show that they like each other, but it’s kind of difficult to decide when it happens and all that. How do I decide when it’s right to show it?

If your story is primarily a romance, you probably want the reader to get that pretty quickly. The two lovebirds don’t have to start cooing as soon as they meet, but the idea should be introduced, not necessarily by the main characters. For example, Jack can be with his friend Kath when she says, “I see you as Romance Guy in a movie.” Jack, astonished, blurts out, “But I have cowlicks!” Kath responds, “Cowlicks are nothing compared to intensity. You are a laser. When you choose someone to focus on, there will be combustion. Trust me.”

Then the story can return to whatever the subplots may be: Jack’s difficulty mastering geography or his general lack of self-confidence (which could affect the romance later on), Kath’s running argument with her older sister, anything. Maybe we glimpse our heroine Wanda alone in the school cafeteria, hunched over a volume of Shakespearean sonnets.

The point is, the reader should know early on what genre he’s wandered into. The book jacket will tell, but we can’t rely on that. If the romantic element is delayed for forty pages the reader is likely to feel confused, maybe even cheated by the hype on the cover.

Then, how quickly the romance develops will depend on your story. Everything can move along at a fast pace if big problems are on the way. The reader will see 200 more pages ahead and steel himself for trouble. Will an old love interest show up? Will Jack’s family be relocated from Cincinnati to Belgium? Will Jack, because of his low self-esteem, doubt Wanda’s affection? Or the romance can be beset with trouble from the start. It can be one-sided, for example, as in Pride and Prejudice. The two can be separated by distance, as in the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, or by misconception, as in the movie While You Were Sleeping, or by a curse, as in You-Know-What. There are myriad devices you can use.

If your story isn’t primarily a romance, you can take your time. Lots of readers like a little love enrichment to another kind of tale. Jack’s problem may be his hyper self-criticism rather than his love life. The climax will center around that. Wanda, who can be introduced on page 112, helps him see himself more positively, and she may provide relief for the reader who is suffering because of his self-negativity. But the primary problem is his to solve.

Or Jack is Prince Jack setting out to reconquer a rogue province overrun by the mole people, and coincidentally his regent’s daughter is being held hostage by the mole folks. There may be merely the slightest hint of romantic possibilities between the dashing Jack and the pulchritudinous Wanda. Nothing has to flower ever.

In a related question, Alex wrote on January 5, 2012, So I have a question about cliches. I know some of them are inevitable, but I want to stay away from them as much as possible.

In my book, I guess you could say the romantic plot starts off as cliche (he’s the new boy in town). But it ends in a way that I don’t think is cliche at all – it’s complicated, but it ends sadly. My question is this – how should I make it so that the beginning, even if it is cliched, keeps readers hooked and not groaning at yet another cliched book? Or is there a way to introduce a male character as someone the MC has never known before in a non-cliched way?

Later, Alex added, ….The thing is, it doesn’t start off as a romance, not really. The romance starts around 27k in. And the romance is just a subplot. I’m just worried that people will think it’s like all the other Insta-love YA romances there are today, when it’s not.
I mention the reader a lot on the blog. I’ve even brought him up a few times in this post, but I think we tend to worry about him too much sometimes, and we don’t give him enough credit. If he’s reading Alex’s book and he’s 27k in (not sure how far in this is, but I’m guessing it’s beyond the first chapter), he should know by now that the story isn’t cliched.

People travel. Boys and girls arrive in towns, are treated well or badly, fall in love or not, stay for years or leave quickly. There’s drama in a new personality acting on the old cast of characters, either from the POV of a long-time resident or of the newcomer. If we avoid writing about this for fear of introducing a cliche, we’re cutting ourselves off from an important subject.

An old post is about cliches. You can reread it at But that post is about cliched language not cliched ideas. What’s important about ideas is how they’re expressed: what the writing is like, how the idea is developed. One might make a case that romance itself is cliched, but zillions of books, poems, movies, operas, plays have been written on the subject and people keep finding something fresh to say.

I don’t mean there isn’t work that’s unoriginal. We’ve all started books or movies and known what’s coming next. The problem in these imitations may be a failure of invention or timidity, but I doubt it’s simply the new guy in town.

Of course, you can change the newness. Sean can be new because he’s returning after an absence. Maybe he suffered a long illness or an alien abduction or two years at a school for acrobats. He’s old but he’s new. Or he can be old but changed. He’s had an epiphany. He’s out of pig wrestling and into Edwardian novels. Or he had a quick, overnight alien abduction. Or his mother died. So he’s different. Or Amy is changed; she perceives Sean in a new way because she’s given up pig wrestling or been abducted by aliens or her mother died.

Here are four prompts:

∙    Challenge yourself. Think of unusual ways to separate your lovers. Write a list of ten possibilities. Pick one or more and write a story.

∙    Here’s what I think may be an unusual pairing: She’s a dryad who’s been in her tree since ancient times. He’s modern, a techie, forest phobic. Write their romance. Try it from one POV and then switch.

∙    Write a scene between Jack and Wanda if the story is about his lack of self-confidence. Allow the romance to develop but don’t let it solve his problem.

∙    Amy returns to school after a weekend in a spaceship with aliens from Alpha Centauri who impress her with their civilized ways. She finds herself viewing her own classmates as savages, except for Sean, whom she now sees in a new light. Write a lunch scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I have a problem. I have WAY to many ideas for books, and I start them, and then I just can't finish them. I must have five just begun books on my computer and I am in the process of starting another. Do you have any tips for helping me finishing my book(s)?

  2. Shelby- Collect your ideas in a Idea notebook. You can also collect inspiration there too :). I a bunch of started stories too and I keep them all in a folder on my computer. Honestly, I don't think not finishing is a bad thing. It's really quite nice when you are stuck and want something new to work on but have no ideas- just whip out one of your unfinished stories and add to it! if you really want to finish one, you have to love it (if it's novel length or a little shorter at least). You have to WANT to. Also, pinpoint the problem- WHY don't you finish them? Is it because you have a better idea? Write it down and push it aside for now (or brainstorm it awhile but get back to your current one). Is it because your current story is boring you? Add a new and crazy twist or introduce a character. Pinpoint your problem and brainstorm solutions.
    Hope this helps!

  3. Shelby–Good suggestions from welliewalks! I've written two posts on this topic, which you can read by clicking on the label "finishing stories" on the right. Afterwards, please post any follow-up questions you may have.

  4. Gail – I love your first prompt! I've done that one before (yes, I really like inventing writing exercises when I'm stuck!) and was so much fun! I ended up with everything from guy moving away from girl to guy finding out that he's the king of a colony of leprichauns and his romance with a human girl who turns out to be a ware wolf is impossible. Don't you love getting creative?

    Shelby – you should really try Welliewalks' folder idea. I used to do the same thing you do, but the folder really helped. I always write a one to two page summary of the new idea, and then any scenes that I've thought up, but I refuse to let myself officially start the next book until I've finished the current one. It also helps if you have an extremely supportive but also insistent brother that's begging you to finish your first one before you move on to the next so he can find out what happens. A friend might also work:)

  5. This is totally unrelated to the post, but I was wondering whether it would be okay to have the main character of my book live in my hometown. I'm more familiar with the geography, and all the technical details I would need to write about. It's not a small town, but it's not a town most people would instantly recognize, like New York City, Seattle, or Chicago. I was wondering whether it would be okay to use my hometown. Also, if you're writing a book, is it okay to use real-life businesses?

  6. Gail- I can't wait for March 13th! Your poem book sounds hysterical. Is there a way to pre-order it?
    One more thing. Is publishing basically just trying to find a publisher that thinks your book is interesting?
    Are you at the mercy of publishers opinions?

  7. Mary–It's certainly okay, but if I were writing it, I'd change the name of the town and the streets while keeping the geography and "technical details." Richard Russo (writer for adults) and others do this. Good luck with the book!

    Melissa–David is putting up a buy button on the website for FORGIVE ME, I MEANT TO DO IT. You can order there or anywhere, but you won't get the book until it's released. Thanks for asking!

    Aside from self-publishing, yes, essentially you're hoping to interest an editor and through her, a publisher. But publishing is complicated, and there are many books on the subject.

  8. Mary- Go for using your home town! BUT as Mrs. Levine already said, I'd change some names, obviously people are included.I don't know about the businesses part- I'd like to know too :). I'd also want to know if I could use real song/band/singer names?

  9. Gail- I have another question not related to the other one. Do you think that it's ok to use familiar descriptions like "white as snow" or "light as a feather" (I can't really think of any good examples right now)? Or is it better to use suprising new ones like white as… I don't know….teeth?

  10. welliewalks–It's fine to use real musicians' names, as in "Merill loved to listen to Taj Mahal." (I do!) But "Taj Mahal was a liar" might get you in trouble. So I would stay away from making real people into characters.

    Melissa–It's usually best to be original and use the cliches sparingly.

  11. At 27k (27,000) words in, I'd hope she'd be past her first chapter! 😉

    Melissa, I love "white as teeth." What a creative expression! Though I do know some people with rather yellowed teeth… Ha ha!

    (On a separate note, the captcha I had to type in to publish this comment was "kingstab." Usually it's just nonsense. I think this blog is learning from your prompts, Gail.) 🙂

  12. April–Funny! "Kingstab" is a great new word. And I didn't know the term "captcha." Thanks!

    From the website:
    Dear Mrs. Levine,
    They always say that stories need to be resolved in the end. Is it alright to have an unsatisfactory ending if you are going to write a sequel? Or if it's in a series?
    I also have the problem that I'm trying to make too many of my characters important, and my main characters aren't feeling so MAIN anymore. Any advice?
    Thank you in advance for replying!!!

  13. CallMeAddie–I don't think you need a full resolution if there are going to be more books, but the story shouldn't just peter out either. You need something like a cliff hanger or an interim solution so that the reader feels like this was the right place for the story to break.

    I'm copying your second question to my list for a fuller discussion later, but other people may have comments for you right now.

  14. Melissa – I like it when people get creative and use their own comparisons!…although you might want to use that particular expression; I and everyone on my dad's side of the family has English teeth. They're not very white. Maybe white as swans? Oh, wait, some swans are black. Um, never mind:)

    CallMeAddie – In all the series that I've read before, there's one main problem that isn't resolved until the final book, but each book up to the last has its own temporary problem which is resolved within that particular book. In The Phantom Stallion, by Terri Farley, the ongoing problem is that Sam's feral horse is constantly in danger in the wild but she can't bring him home. Each different book in the series deals with a separate new problem that's resolved in the end, but that main problem isn't until the very last book.

  15. @Mary: That sounds cool! You might want to be careful with using real people's names unless you get their permission.

    I have another question, Mrs. Levine. Sorry! Is it ok to use your writing book for a class? I'd like to be a writer and writing teacher and am practicing on making up courses. Each student would have to buy a copy of the book a-piece. Thanks!

  16. I know most teeth aren't actually very white. I was just trying to think of an example of a creative version. Maybe I could say teeth that had undergone whitening strips =Þ

  17. Romance can be difficult for me to write variations of. My romance is generally all the same, with two people starting out as friends who tend to smack each other a lot and then they fall madly in love through a series of unfortunate events. I currently have an idea for a really good story, but the plot is going to need to be moved forward by unlikely romance.
    The relationship between hero and heroine starts out when they need to pretend to be engaged to save the hero from being embarrassed in front of his whole hometown. How could I painlessly move them into actual romance? Would a meddlesome minor character be a good idea?
    I really want it to be realistic, and not tacky. I guess it's difficult when you're young and inexperienced when it comes to romantic situations. It looks and sounds so good in my head, but I'm having trouble figuring out the execution.
    Thanks very much!

  18. Seems like a lot would depend on the characters, and how they got into this situation. If they have to spend a lot of time together plotting the shared secret of their "engagement," they might fall in love anyway.

  19. Thanks for answering my question. 🙂 Someone suggested that he left and made her forget him.

    And yes, it starts around chapter twelve, not chapter one. 😛

  20. Gail, I was wondering what your opinion was on e-books. I noticed that on Amazon "A Tale of Two Castles" is available as an e-book, but none of your other titles are.

    Personally, I prefer real books. But I'm tempted by the convenience of e-readers. You just can't beat carrying 20+ books in the space and weight of one. On the other hand, many of the authors that I like to read (you included) don't have very many books available in an e-book format. And I do love the smell and feel of paper. I'm torn…

  21. April–I haven't read an e-book, but I have nothing against them as a reader, and eventually I probably will. As an author, the terms aren't nearly as good as for a print book. Having said that, I may allow my other books to be published as e-books pretty soon.

  22. Do you ever write down what people say because it would be so fantastic in a book? Last night a girl was absolutely inconsiderate, rude, and insulting to me – and I don't mind at all because I'm already excited to use it in my villain's dialogue! It would be coming from a completely different person in my book, who doesn't look anything like the girl, so that would be okay, right? I've done that with nice or clever lines of dialogue before, too, but I never put them with people who look like the real-life speakers. That's okay, right? I sure hope so, because I've gotten some beautifully believable conversations for books that way! Thoughts, anyone?

    Oh, one more quick question; I love libraries – I think they're a fantastic invention and I'd probably die without them (okay, that might be exaggerating a bit). But aren't they bad for authors? It seems like they would take away all the book buyers. Are they? Would it be better for authors and publishers if there were no libraries? I just wondered.

  23. I want my two MCs to fall in love, but am not sure how to go about doing that, seeing as I have never fallen in love myself. How do I make it seem realistic?

  24. writeforfun–Yes, use the dialogue. This unpleasant person gave you a gift!

    Libraries buy books in the first place. Yes, we writers want sales, but most of all we want readers. And I wouldn't be a writer if not for my local public library near where I grew up. I was back there a few months ago and they have some of my books! What a thrill that was. Having said all that, and I would hate for libraries to disappear, in some parts of the world, authors receive a small royalty whenever their books are checked out.

  25. Ooh…this sounds exciting…

    I'm worried I won't have strong enough characters to carry this plot. It's kind of one of those 'book is a movie in my head' things.

  26. Thanks for the post, Gail! It came in perfect timing for me – I've been toying with the idea of a romance novella trilogy, just for fun :). I hope you had a good vacation. 🙂

    @Writeforfun – I think that's fine. I've done it, too – it's so much fun when you get good ideas like that! Also, it makes irritating people so much easier to bear. :P. Haha, and I love libraries, too! Ours is just a small branch of our county library. My family uses it so much, they have a special shelf for all our holds. 🙂

    A question – is it okay to write a whole novel or novella in an abstract fashion? Or would that annoy readers.

  27. Gail – thanks for explaining! That was something I always wondered. So did my sister, so I'll have to tell her, too.

    Jenna Royal – what kind of abstract fashion? It sounds like it might be interesting!

  28. Gail- The only thing the person who reviewed "Forgive Me I Meant to do it" was skeptical about was the illustrations. Do you like them? I thought the Pinocchio excerpt of the book looked awesome! Did you help with any of the ideas?

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