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A Romance Writer’s Guide to Romance

Sometimes, when you write stories, life starts to seem like this weird symbolic thing, where everything has relevance. That guy you exchanged glances with at the cornershop when he was buying jaffa cakes, and you had a pint of milk, well, clearly, you were destined to see him again. The necklace you found after months of looking for it, signified an emotional change, and the feeling that you were going to get what you wanted. Raining on your birthday? Accidentally hit a guy in the face whilst twerking? Meaningful.

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The fictional world is one full of signs, so that when you look at the real world, you can tend to see where things are going.
And often, things that appear to be problems are really only different archetypes in storytelling. So here are the main things I’ve learnt about relationships from writing romances.

  • Passion matters. Attraction, desire, whatever- it’s important. In a lot of stories, we often find characters who don’t notice this attraction until halfway through the story. I personally think this is bullshit. If you’re attracted to someone, then you’re attracted to them. You can stamp down on it, but you can’t create it out of thin air. Chemistry only happens when you have the right ingredients.
  • Good partners listen. They explore what the other person is about. They have a basic curiosity about who and what this person is. Otherwise, what’s the point?
  • Always freaking ASK- if you think they’re being unfaithful, if you heard a rumour, if you don’t know how they feel. So many terrible story lines could have been avoided if the main character had grown a pair and just asked their partner what the hell was up.
  • The MOST BASIC of memes to avoid- You have an argument with your partner. You think it’s over. You’re heartbroken. You get drunk, fall into the waiting arms of whichever jezebel/boywhore you were originally arguing over. The next day they come around to make up, and you’ve fucked it all up. STOP DOING THIS, IT’S STUPID.
  • If you think you’re attracted to someone else, and you’re going to cheat, choose one of the following options: 1- stay away from said person until the attraction dies (chemistry fizzles when you run out of heat) or 2- break up with your partner. If you step back, you know where this is going way before you do anything.
  • If you overhear a conversation STAY TO THE END. Maybe they were being propositioned, maybe they were kissed but pushed the other person away, maybe they end up saying nice things about how much they love you. People and situations are complicated.
  • If you’ve had to stalk them or change for them, it’s not going to work.

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      Happily ever afters are built, not given. Work at it. Just because the book ends doesn’t mean the drama does!

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My Mum Might Read This…and Other Issues With Writing a Sex Scene

In theory, I have no problem writing sex scenes. The first story I wrote that got any recognition was about a girl having sex with a guy she just met, in a disabled toilet, at her aunt’s funeral. I am not squeamish. But that’s literary fiction. That’s when sex serves a purpose, to show the breaking down of walls, or the attempted escape from reality. Sometimes it’s symbolic of trying to feel alive. I can write sex scenes when they’re symbolic.

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But when I first started writing The Last Word, I had to consider what level I wanted to write at, in terms of sexuality. I’ve read a lot of really explicit stuff, and I’ve read things that fade to black. I tried for somewhere in between. The truth is, sex is weird. It’s a lot of strange mechanics and actions that are difficult to write about, because you have to imbue some sort of passion and emotion. If you’re just writing ‘then her hand goes here’, that gets to the point, but doesn’t make the reader care. Some of the best sex scenes I’ve read come from really old novels, where the build up is the most important thing. And I think that’s true of chick lit too- sex is the pay-off for many chapters’ worth of sexual tension. If you write a book where your love interests are at it before they’ve even interacted at all, well, I’m not really interested. 

 

I suppose that’s a female thing, that we want sex to mean something. That’s a generalisation, but in terms of readers of chick lit, I’d say it’s a safe assumption. Sex should be passionate and engaging and emotional. I couldn’t resist it in this book, that it should become symbolic again. All of my female characters seem to have trust issues, and sex is a form of trust. Letting someone in, being vulnerable, all that character development comes from sex scenes. Plus, I think we have a duty as writers to show what sex is really like. I remember as a teenager watching that Britney Spears movie, Crossroads, when they fade to a sunset after she kisses this topless guy, and thinking: this is clearly not what a first time is like. Doesn’t mean there can’t be love or passion, but awkward and uncomfortable are two big contenders there. And it can be funny, and strange and you can sound different to how you do normally.

 

One of my biggest peeves with Fifty Shades of Gray (of which I have bazillions) was that Christian Gray went from being all stiff upper lip, very ‘proper’ dialogue, to all ‘yeah baby’ in the bedroom. Your characters are still your characters in the sack. Don’t revert to stereotypes just because they’re boinking. Which is clearly not the biggest problem with that book, but was something that jumped out at me.

 

So, I did have trouble, writing the first few sex scenes, and as I got more confident in them,  I explored different situations. Some of them worked, and some of them had to go. One in particular involved such an awful play on words and a reference to oral sex that I actually shouted ‘oh gross’ when I read it through in edits, and scratched it through in red pen five times.

 

Who are your favourite writers who deal with sex scenes, what do you expect from them, and how do you find writing them?

 

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Top Ten Fictional Couples

What makes a great couple? I don’t mean in real life, because honestly, no-one cares how great your best friend is with her boyfriend. We don’t commit to other people’s coupledom in real life (unless there’s a wedding, because who doesn’t love a party?) the way that we do in books and movies and tv shows. We want them to get together, we want them to look up and see that other person and make it work. Then usually, when they’re together, there’s some sort of terrible break apart or they settle into boring domesticity and we forget how invested we were. No matter! As part of #weloveromance I’m here to list my top ten favourite fictional couples, in no particular order:

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1. Jess and Rory (Gilmore Girls). I shipped these guys hard. They made sense. She’s already got bored of her very nice and very boring boyfriend, he’s the angry new kid who dislikes everything about his new home but her. He’s also crazy smart and ends up writing a book, when she’s been afraid he’s got no ambition. Love me a male lead with a bit of bite to him.

2. Max and Neve (You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me- Sarra Manning). I love this book. And I love the characters. Neve is nervous and self-flagellating, Max is a mess pretending to hold it all together, and somewhere through having sex and arguing, they manage to teach each other something. It’s fun, and funny and still deals with those awful issues you carry with you, and don’t really trust other people to handle.

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3. Kat and Patrick (Ten Things I Hate About You) They’re both smart arses with attitude, they both learn to be vulnerable, he fights for her, twice, loses the bad image, and really, who wouldn’t want to be serenaded with ‘I Love You Baby’?

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4. Zoe and Wade (Hart of Dixie) Yes, I know it’s over. I have to get over it. I know that. But they were so good! She’d gotten over the good boy boring lawyer, she’d chosen sex over fairytale love, and then somewhere along the line, sex turned into love. Except he screwed it up, because she was being too supportive and he felt like he wasn’t good enough….but until then! I particularly liked this because it dealt with the whole ‘we have nothing in common’ situation, except what they had in common was that they liked spending time together. Life lesson!

5. Walter and Hildy (His Girl Friday) Once again, a testament that choosing the boring nice guy who doesn’t really know who you are isn’t a good idea. Yes, they’re exhausting, but the back and forth is excellent. Hildy is a strong female character who wants the affection and life that comes with marriage, as well as being a kick ass reporter. Plus, Cary Grant. ‘Nuff said.

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6. Laurie and Curly (Oklahoma) My absolute faves. I watch Oklahoma when I’m sick or in need of a really good story. The romance follows the typical arc with them hating each other, then liking each other but not saying anything, then another guy likes her, Curly has to do some protecting. Plus, there’s singing and dancing and being all snarky to each other. And the Hugh Jackman version pretty much makes my heart aflutter.

7. Tabby and Harry (The Last Word) Okay, so they’re my characters, but I love them. She’s emotionally scarred, he’s better at hiding it, she tries to keep it casual, he’s open to more. Why are men always the commitment phobes? Sometimes we’re all just trying to protect ourselves. Plus, snarky and sarcastic and originally disliking each other as mentioned in Oklahoma.

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8. Sam and Jack (Stargate SG1) The majority of my pitiful teenage years were spent writing fanfiction to correct the travesty that was never getting these characters together. Spending years offering gentle prompts that these characters had feelings for each other, followed by some pretty solid life decisions in season 7…and yet. Nothing. No closure. Now I’m just bitter.

9. Darcy and Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice) Yeah, okay, obvious. But these guys were the original opposites attract scenario, and the original ‘present the male character as bloody awful and then realise that he’s actually appealing’ which has been done in countless books and movies since. You trendsetter, Austen.

10.Aladdin and Jasmin (Aladdin) My favourite disney movie as a kid. Come on, romance is sitting on a magic carpet ride being sung to. Although the idea of that makes my skin crawl now, as a child, it was the perfect synergy- here’s two attractive people, they’re from different classes, they’re both independent and strong, he’s trying to impress her with stuff she doesn’t care about, she just wants someone to see who she is. They go on adventures and save everyone from the evil dude. Yeah, Love conquers. Woo

BONUS NUMBER

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Only because I forgot this one til now, and they’re my FAVOURITE. Especially in the continuation of snarky, refusing to give in to attraction, and making smart arse comments all the time, (and is kind of already included because of number 3):

Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) I’m really including this because I love the Catherine Tate and David Tenant version so much. They’re perfect- they’re argumentative, strong, yet sure of their feelings, yet vulnerable, and also just hilarious. I like my characters with some energy, especially if it’s misdirected!

I’ve noticed from reading this through, I really love opposites. Love when characters clash and compliment each other all at once. Romance doesn’t mean sitting around staring into each others’ eyes and making daisy chains, it’s those moments of clashing and laughing and flirting and realising you have a connection with this other human, no matter how surprising or extraordinary. But, that’s just me. Why don’t you search #weloveromance to find some of the other Carina authors doing the same list today? And add your favourites in the comment box!