No, I wanted to blog briefly about a question a friend asked me the other night. Jenny is an attorney who does education law at a public interest law firm. (That's jargon that says she represents children and parents who are having trouble with their school system, and also that Jenny doesn't make a lot of money. Yup, she is that mythical beast: the poor lawyer.) She's also a great reader of a lot of different genres. She had checked out my website and read the excerpt from my work-in-progress, Love in Reality.
Jenny is a lovely person; she promptly insisted that she wants to read the rest of the book. (I have generous friends.) But it's clear she's not a romance reader, so she asked me what the differences were between a romance novel and any other sort of novel. I hardly claim to be an authority -- particularly as authorities do exist and some of them even read this blog! -- but I mentioned two things I think are necessary conditions of a romance novel: the HEA and what I call the No-Broken-Toilets rule.
The HEA is self-explanatory. If the book doesn't have a happy-ever-after ending, it's not a romance. Novels have been judged on the believability of the HEA; if you can close the book and think, "Ah, I'm not sure they can make it for the long haul," then the book didn't deliver to you everything it should have.
By contrast, the No-Broken-Toilets rule is far more subjective. First of all, of course a romance novel can have a broken toilet. Maybe that's how the protagonists meet each other: she's a plumber, say, and he's called Aaron's Plumbing Service thinking he's getting some guy named Aaron, and it turns out that's her surname. Meet cute over the clogged toilet!
I call it the No-Broken-Toilets rule because -- and I think we've all been there -- there is nothing pleasant or romantic about the broken toilet itself. It's a pain in the ass (sometimes literally, as when the seat cracks and pinches your tush) and it is always a hassle to resolve. I'm all for people fixing the toilet themselves, so a spunky, can-do heroine is a wondrous thing. But I don't need to read about the mess, smell, inconvenience, etc. of the situation.
Life -- real life -- is filled with mess, smell, inconvenience, and hassle. Romance writers are selective about which messes, smells, inconveniences, and hassles they detail, so that the resulting story is of a world without petty vicissitudes. And I like that about the genre. To paraphrase the old Calgon commercials, "Romance, take me away," is pretty much my ideal.
Well, I think I've stumbled upon another difference: romance novels have more plot, less character detail. I'm reading Rococo by Adriana Trigiani. She's an American author who appears to be very popular in the U.K. At least, I've seen her books in Waterstones, but not in Barnes & Noble; not that that proves anything. I have to finish Rococo by Sunday; it was loaned to me by my sister-in-law, Bryony, oh about 18 months ago. Luckily, I haven't see them in the intervening time, but she and Ross's brother Michael are bringing their kids for a trip to the States, much of it spent with us.
You guessed it -- time actually to read this book. (Bryony, if you're reading this, it's a great book. I was saving it, like dessert.)
Now, if there was one single lesson I heard over and over in RWA workshops, it was that we need lots of hooks in our writing. The first sentence, first paragraph, first page, the last sentence of each chapter, etc., etc. -- they all need to be great hooks, guaranteed to pull the reader into the action and keep her reading. That's probably true of all genre fiction -- it is meant to grab you by the lapels and drag you into the story.
What makes Rococo fun to read is the thoroughness with which Trigiani evokes a time and place. I was 14 in 1970, so a lot of what B.'s talking about sounds just familiar enough to amuse me. But I have some doubts about this book growing much of a plot in the next 300 pages. Things will happen, B. or one of his family or friends will have opinions and reactions, rooms will get redecorated, and life will go on. No toilets will stop up (I predict this) and there may even be a full-blown HEA.
Without a plot, though, it's not a romance novel.