Let’s Talk About Tropes #7: Second-Chance Romance

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There’s a special place in my heart for a good second-chance romance story, but when this trope goes bad, it goes super-bad.

Why?

To answer that, let’s break down the basic elements:

#1 – Establishing the previous relationship and conflict

For the current story to qualify as a second chance, there needed to be a first one. Were the characters already dating/engaged/married? Was this a childhood sweetheart situation, all innocence and cuteness, but then they went off to different colleges? If the separating conflict is too serious (cheating, abuse, etc.) it may be hard to show the characters recovering from it believably. If the separating conflict is too weak or mundane, our beloved second-chance aspect of the new romance may feel shortchanged.

#2 – Reconnecting the characters

By far the most common one I’ve seen is for one character to move back to their hometown–second-chance romances are often paired with a Small Town Setting™ to up their charm factor. But that’s not the only option by any means. If the characters work in the same field or related ones, one of them could take a new job that puts them in the other’s sphere. They could run into each other randomly in a Big City Setting™; they could both attend the same important event, like the wedding of a mutual friend; they could stumble over each other on social media somehow. The Internet is a magical thing, after all.

But with all these viable options and more, why do so many seem forced? Well, because, to some degree, they are. If the point of the story is the romance (which it is, of course, to us romance authors) sometimes we’re more focused on getting the relationship going again than how the characters reconnect, which means we’ll slap any old reason on the face of it to put our two leads into each other’s faces. Take a little extra time to think through reasonable situations. Ask your friends where and how they’ve run into people they used to know, and what (if anything) came of it, whether the relationship is romantic or not. I mean, I ran into someone I had a crush on in junior high while we were both in line at the post office to send Christmas presents to our families. Absolutely nothing came of it–no number exchange, no attempt to contact each other again, I haven’t seen or heard from him since–but for a pair of fictional characters, that meeting could have had different consequences.

#3 – Layering old and new conflicts

Every romance has to have conflicts; the best question to ask is always “Why aren’t they together now?”

But second-chance romances have an extra layer to handle: resolving the old conflict somehow while maintaining new ones. Your leads aren’t the same people they used to be, no matter how familiar they may seem to each other–they’ve changed. What is it about how they’ve changed that means the unresolved conflict from their previous relationship can be overcome?

Sometimes I’m disappointed by the couples rekindling their flame too quickly, because they toss the old conflict out the window with barely a pause to breathe. Make sure the issue is given the weight and consideration it deserves (which will depend, of course, on how serious it was to begin with) before letting your couple fall into bed together.


So, my lovely readers, do you like second-chance romances? What is it about them you enjoy, and what pitfalls are you tired them falling into?

NaNoWriMo ’16 Prep #1: Staying Sane

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Writers have this tendency to romanticize mental illness. We talk about how crazy we are, how crazy our characters drive us, how crazy our schedule or our writing time is.

Even when it’s clearly in jest, protecting our mental health during the month-long pressure cooker of NaNoWriMo is no laughing matter.

As a long-time participant, I’ve observed my share of breakdowns and burnouts. (I blogged extensively about my NaNo journey last year, the first year under this pseudonym, but my first NaNo was in 2003, and I’ve participated about half the years since.)

Since I don’t want anyone to find themselves in the Pit of Despair, here are my tips for keeping NaNo in perspective.

  1. You’re only competing with yourself. Having writing buddies, whether in real life or through social media, is awesome, and keeping an eye on their word count totals can certainly be a healthy motivator–in moderation. I’ve always had a buddy or two who writes insanely fast and finishes waaaaay early, often because they don’t have the same real-life responsibilities I do and can binge-write instead of working or sleeping. That’s great for them, but don’t let competition push you harder than you want it to.
  2. Sleep is not for the weak. Should you stay up that extra half-hour if you’re on a roll and the words are flowing out of you? Sure. Sometimes. Should you stay up five hours because it’s late in the month and you’ve fallen behind? No.
  3. Don’t neglect your body. If you already have an exercise routine, do NOT give it up for more writing time. Stick to it. If you don’t? Consider using the self-discipline of NaNo November to start a simple one. You’re going to be spending a lot of time sitting and writing, so break up your writing time with “inspirational” walks when you get stuck, or do yoga before your writing session, or give yourself breaks in between sprints to do push-ups or jumping jacks. Find something that works for you and be as dedicated to it as you are to the writing.
  4. Take care of your hands. Whether you’re typing or writing longhand, your hands are going to be doing extra work during NaNo. Try these stretches to combat fatigue and prevent strain from overuse.
  5. Keep in touch with your friends and family. It’s easy to drop socializing first when you’re pressed for time. Set aside small chunks of time to call and chat, and don’t talk about writing. (Even if you’re talking to a writing friend, try to think and talk about something else for a while. Give yourself a break.) If you have more time, go out for coffee, go shopping, go to the zoo. Keep your writer-brain engaged by paying attention to overheard conversations or details about the setting, but beyond that, have fun. Fun is important!
  6. Finally, allow yourself to have “bad” days. We’re coming up on cold and flu season here in the Northern Hemisphere, so accept that you might get sick sometime during NaNo. On days when you feel good and have extra time, write those extra words to give yourself a cushion for days when you simply can’t write because of illness. (Or your schedule outside of writing, too, of course. Regular life doesn’t stop for NaNo, sadly.) If you can drag yourself in front of your computer for half an hour to pound out some words even while you’re ill, that’s great–any progress is better than none. But if you need to stay in bed with tea and toast and bad daytime TV, that’s okay. Take care of yourself first, write second.

If you’re participating this year, I’d love to have you as a writing buddy. My username on the official NaNoWriMo site is Elena Johansen, feel free to add me!

Writing Homework #6: Picture Prompts, Emotive Description, and Prewriting

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Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.

Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.

Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.

The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.

The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.

Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.

There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.

Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.

Boooooooring.

Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.

Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.

A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.

But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.

He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.

Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.

When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.

Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)

If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.

Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

5 More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Stress

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A person who never suffers any kind of stress would be rare, and a fictional character, next to impossible. What drives interest in a story? Conflict. And with conflict comes stress.

Reactions to stress can be as simple as a single beer after dinner to mellow out from a hard day at work, or as complex and life-altering as self-destructive behaviors like drug abuse.

Both of those, and everything in between, provide tons of meat for your characters’ personalities.

So, let’s find out what sends our characters in search of their happy places.  As always, “they” = the character in question, regardless of gender.

  1. What do they find stressful? External sources, like work, politics, illness, family, trouble with a significant personal relationship, social obligations? Internal sources, like perfectionism or poor time management or forgetfulness?
  2. How to they react in the moment to a stressor? Physical reactions (flight-or-flight response, upset stomach, nervous tics, for example); internal/emotional reactions (anger, anxiety, or grinning and bearing it); or some combination of both? Do they react differently to different sources of stress?
  3. How aware are they of their stressors, and do they actively seek to avoid them?
  4. What do they do to wind down after becoming stressed?
  5. Are there any preventative measures they take to compensate in situations they expect to be stressed?

I hope I’ve given you a new angle to come at your characters, because while they might be reacting to the conflicts of the story, you shouldn’t be stressing about how they’re going to react.


Want more character development prompts?

Writing Homework #2: The Worst First Line I Have Ever Read

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Since I contribute writing advice to the vast jumble of the internet, I also read a lot of it, and there is a lot that’s been said on first lines.  I’ve even written some of it.

When I read, I’m not hyper-critical of first lines. I’m usually not even that harsh on first paragraphs or pages.  If I’m not into it by the end of the prologue/first chapter, that’s usually where my cut-off is, so I guess you could call me generous that way.

But a few days ago, starting another free romance on my Kindle, I came across the worst first line I’ve ever read.

I’m not going to give the name of the book, because I’m not that mean.  A large part of my literary heart still feels like judging an entire book from a single line and giving up on it is unfair…so I’ll keep this anonymous.  But I picked up the book based on an interesting blurb and a 4.5 star rating across several hundred reviews, so I honestly thought, going in, that it was going to be a decent read.  I’ve certainly been surprised by less.

So here they are, the four words that made me drop my Kindle into my lap in shock:

“My parents are dead.”

Yeah.

Think about that for a second.

“My parents are dead.”

Where do I even start talking about how terrible an opening line this is, according to every bit of writing wisdom out there?

  1. It’s backstory. Don’t lead with backstory. Lead with action.
  2. This is my first impression of the narrator. Is the fact that her parents are dead really the most important thing about her, so that it needs to be conveyed to the reader immediately? Isn’t that something that can wait, so it can have context?
  3. Not that this couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the story turns out to be solid, but the absent/dead parents trope is overused.  In YA especially, to give the young protagonists more freedom than they would otherwise have, but it pops up in romance a lot as well, for the easy access to a tragic past. Boooooring.
  4. The only interesting thing about the sentence itself is the shock value, which is negligible at best, since we don’t know anything else about the narrator yet.  It isn’t descriptive enough to be a compelling hook, like “When I was ten, my parents died in a hot-air balloon accident, and I still don’t know how I survived.”  (I’m not saying that’s an amazing opening line, but it’s got a little more oomph, right? Because it sets up a little mystery around the narrator.)

So, this time your homework is to study some opening lines.  Do as many as you want, and again, I’d suggest a mix of some books you’ve read and some you haven’t. Ask yourself with each one if you think it’s a strong beginning, or not, and why.  Which commonly accepted conventions does it follow, and which does it break?  If you think it’s weak, how could you rewrite it to make it stronger? Or, for bonus points, are there stronger sentences on the first page that would have made better opening lines?  Could they be moved to the beginning, or does everything ahead of them need to be cut?

As for the book that inspired this exercise, I did tough it out to the end of the first chapter before I gave up.  It was ten pages long and covered eight years of backstory in the narrator’s life.  I would much rather have gotten all that information spaced out over the first few chapters, and this is a romance, for pity’s sake!  Couldn’t there be character discovery through dialogue?  Couldn’t the romantic hero be curious about the narrator’s past?  If/when she tells Mr. Right everything laid out in the first chapter, it’s all going to be rehash to me, the reader, and there was nothing there so interesting I’d look forward to hearing it twice.

I do not feel any guilt about setting this one aside.

5 More Prompts to Help You Develop Your Characters: Music

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It’s been too long since my last prompts post–I really need to sit down and organize my various series, so I can keep track of them better! (You can find all my prompts posts here.)

Since I’ve had music on the brain lately, and the plot bunny that won’t go away while I finish up the current project draft is about a band (squee! I heart musicians!), it seemed like a perfect topic to tackle next.

So, let’s do this.  As always, “they” = the character in question, regardless of gender.

  1. Are they a music fan at all, or do they manage to go through life without being exposed to it much? Do they actively avoid music for any reason?
  2. If they do listen, then to what? Mainstream radio, or a particular genre? Current music, or older music from a particular era, or a particular time in their life?
  3. How do they listen? Vinyl for purism or nostalgia, or have they embraced the digital age?
  4. Where do they listen? At home, or do they have a job where listening is okay? Do they have a job where the radio is always on and they have no choice? Have they got music going at the gym or on a run? Do they sing along in the car or in the shower? Pro lip-syncer, or do they actually sing? Well, or badly?  And do they care?
  5. Do they have friends/family who they talk music with, or is their love of music a solitary thing? Do they live with someone who doesn’t share their taste in music, and how does that affect them, or their relationship with that person?  (Story time: I had a roommate in college who had a CD player/radio/alarm clock combo.  I spent an entire semester waking up to Rent.  I am so very, very tired of Rent, to the point where I can’t listen to it ever again, even now.)

Until next time, enjoy the prompts and have fun fleshing out those characters!

Writing Homework #1: Studying Description

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So, fellow writers, here’s what I want you to do.

Pick a book from your shelf.  It doesn’t matter if it’s one you’ve read before or not–we’ll get to that in a bit.

Start at the beginning and read until you reach a sentence that is entirely description, whether it’s for a character, object, or setting.

Write that sentence down, then work out everything it actually tells you.

My first example, from a favorite of mine, The Wizard of Earthsea:

Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

This comes at the middle of the second long paragraph–early, but not instantly.

What does this tell me?

  • [From the very first sentence, I already know we’re on an island. I want to mention this so I can refer to it without confusing anyone…]
  • The island contains several different types of landscapes: forest, farms, a river, and mountains high enough to get snow.
  • “Pastures and plowlands” means there are both crop-farming and animal-raising going on, though we don’t know which crops or what livestock.
  • “Vale” plus a river means the part of the island being described here is a river valley.
  • The village in question is the highest village in the valley, because there is nothing above it but forest and stone–it’s remote.

Why is this important?  Our wizard Ged has a humble beginning (as they so often do) in an isolated village, far from the more sophisticated civilization of the world, and that becomes important in his character development.  It’s established early (and often, with further description to come) what Ged’s home is like, both the village and the valley around it.  The scenery isn’t just about painting an impressive picture of the world, but giving the reader insight into the characters who live there, who grew up there, who were formed by their environment.

I know this because I’ve read this many times, so I see where the description is leading me, and what purpose it’s meant to serve.

But what about a book I haven’t read yet?

I grabbed The Night Circus from my TBR shelf, because I hope to get to it soon.  Let’s see what I find.

From the first page, third paragraph:

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen.

So what does this tell me? Not as much as AWoE, but to be fair, it’s a far shorter sentence.

  • [And we’ve already established from the title and first line we’re discussing a circus, so off we go…]
  • We know the tents are tall and striped in black and white.  I know that’s obvious, bear with me, please–
  • But by deliberately mentioning two brighter, more vivid colors the tents are not, this stops being a simple observation, and becomes a statement of how different this circus is from your garden-variety circuses, which usually riot with color.

Now, I haven’t read this yet, so that’s as far as I can go with my analysis; but already, a strong image has been created in my mind.  (Aided by the cover, too, in this case, which is gorgeous.)

So what have we learned about descriptive styles from only these two examples?

AWoE uses a long, lyrical sentence to provide a lot of information about the setting quickly, and extra meaning can be teased out of word choice.  TNC uses a short, emphatic sentence to say less, but make its message clear and powerful.  (I could hardly have picked better contrasting examples if I tried, which I totally didn’t.  I browsed a few of my favorites for good lines to analyze before settling, then grabbed TNC without opening it, so my reading would be honest.)

Both styles have advantages, and in AWoE‘s case, the expansive tone matches the landscape and the style of the rest of the prose–long sentences with little punctuation (less than I’d use, certainly, being a comma devotee) but vivid word choice.  As for TNC, I’ll have to read the rest to find out.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to try this exercise with at least two books, one you’ve read and one you haven’t.  And more, certainly, if you like! If you want to go deeper, ask yourself these questions about what those first description-only sentences tell you:

  • [Read] Does this particular bit of description set the tone for the book? Does it tie into the theme? Does it reveal something important about the character(s)?
  • [Unread] What do I expect, based on this first description? What can I predict, if anything?

And then, apply this to your own work.  How strong is your first descriptive sentence?  Do you even have a single one, or are your descriptions dribbled in piece by piece through dialogue or action sentences?  What’s your style, and how does it fit the tone of your piece?  (Or does it?)