Thursday, September 14, 2006

Male Authors of Romance/Romantic Fiction

This is just a very short entry to point you in the direction of Wenlock's discussion of a forthcoming series on BBC 4 about the romance genre.
Daisy Goodwin, the presenter of BBC 4's Reader, I Married Him, a three-part series on the novel to be shown in the autumn, said yesterday that, after interviewing writers and readers, she had concluded that "you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man". (The Daily Telegraph)
I think this is related to the issue of gender stereotypes that I blogged about recently. Wenlock provides some interesting links which show that much of the seemingly scientific 'evidence' provided to support assertions of sex difference are in fact exaggerations or distortions of the research. And according to a meta-analysis of the psychological research on gender differences, carried out by Janet Shibley Hyde,
The differences model, which argues that males and females are vastly different psychologically, dominates the popular media. Here, the author advances a very different view, the gender similarities hypothesis, which holds that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. Results from a review of 46 metaanalyses support the gender similarities hypothesis. Gender differences can vary substantially in magnitude at different ages and depend on the context in which measurement occurs. Overinflated claims of gender differences carry substantial costs in areas such as the workplace and relationships. (American Psychologist, September 2005)
I'm not a scientist, so I find it difficult to evaluate the claims on either side, but it seems clear both that (a) there is no scientific agreement that psychological gender differences are immense, certainly not to the extent that they would justify a claim that 'you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man' and (b) as far as I could tell, many studies are of existing adults, who have been conditioned since birth by their nurture. The brain is an organ which develops over the years and many behaviours and skills are learned. This being so, perhaps some of the observable psychological differences between the sexes (which, in any case are small, according to some scientists) are due not simply to biology, but also at least in part to nurture.

Even if we leave aside the science, both Wenlock and The Independent provide us with examples of popular romance/romantic novelists who are male.

Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to watch Reader, I Married Him (which begins on Monday 18 September) so I'll have to depend on other people to tell me about it.

27 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer14 September, 2006 20:19

    It seems likely that Wenlock is right and that Daisy Goodwin made these statements to stir up controversy for her series. As the Independent article made clear, men as far back as Shakespeare have written very romantic works, with fascinating female characters. (And they didn't even mention Victor Hugo.)

    Furthermore, it could be said that not very many women are capable of writing a "seriously-written romantic book," either, judging from the number of Ds and Fs given in the AAR reviews. Indeed, there have been times when I wondered whether a romance I was reading had actually been authored by a man. (Does anyone know definitively that Thea Devine is a woman? Her fixation on ejaculate would seem to indicate otherwise.)

    I see no reason why a man couldn't write romance fiction -- there's that "The Notebook" guy and Robert James Waller, whose "Bridges of Madison County" started Oprah Winfrey's famous book club. Anthony Minghella wrote the very romantic movie we were discussing yesterday, "Truly, Madly, Deeply" as well as the screenplay for "The English Patient," another romantic story written by a man, Michael Ondaatje.

    As for "lacking insights into the ways of women," well, not many of today's romances are deep, psychological studies into the hearts of women, anyway. Most readers just want to read a happy story.

    The downside to male writers of romantic fiction would be the tendency of marketers to turn the writer into a media freak, so that his works would be either "elevated" as more serious than female-penned novels, or held up to unfair scrutiny simply because he was a man. In fact, it would be an interesting experiment for a female author to write a romance under a man's name just to see what would happen. Maybe nothing.

    It is interesting that mysteries and, to some extent, science fiction are the only genres to be shared equally by male and female writers. No one makes the argument that women can't get into the psyche of a killer, or that humans lack insights into the hearts and minds of aliens.

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  2. Here's Thea Devine's biography. It says that's her real name, and includes a photo.

    In fact, it would be an interesting experiment for a female author to write a romance under a man's name just to see what would happen.

    Well, it's been done, but the examples I can think of aren't recent - George Eliot and the Brontes.

    No one makes the argument that women can't get into the psyche of a killer, or that humans lack insights into the hearts and minds of aliens.

    Well, according to Dr John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, we're all aliens. That title is very telling, I think, in that it exaggerates the gender differences to such an extent that it implies men and women are actually 2 different species.

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  3. j as in jennifer14 September, 2006 22:35

    I'm aware of George Eliot and the Brontes, but it would be unwise to try it today. The prospect of the cries of "fraud!" and "hype!" would probably drive most publishers from attempting such a lark, although it wouldn't be hard to come up with a phony photo and bio like the one "Ms." Devine obviously provided. I'm joking, of course, but who's to say that we can trust that photo on the back of our novels? Unless we meet them in person, we have no guarantee that is the true writer of our stories. Which is why it makes little difference whether the writer is a woman or man. The story is the important thing.

    OTOH, if one believes that the reason romance reviews are not found on the pages of the TLS or the NYT Review of Books is because they are written by women, that is another issue. I tend to think it is more a case of not being able to come up with a 5,000-word esoteric essay on one. Can you imagine asking Vaclav Havel or Elie Wiesel to write a review of "Only a Duke will Do" by Sabrina Jeffries? Perhaps Mill Millington would say yes, but I doubt if you could get Ian McEwan.

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  4. The story is the important thing.

    Yes, I agree.

    OTOH, if one believes that the reason romance reviews are not found on the pages of the TLS or the NYT Review of Books is because they are written by women, that is another issue.

    Ah, but that could well be because the genre is perceived to be about 'feminine' things, as opposed to masculine/universal themes. I was listening to an online audio feature from BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and they'd asked a couple of men to come in and talk about romantic novels they're read. You can listen to the item here. One of the male readers agreed that the novel he'd been given to read had a 'girly cover' which he found embarrassing, so he took it off. His friends teased him about reading it. That suggests there are problems with marketing/branding and self-esteem involved for some male readers. As far as the actual content was concerned, he said he didn't enjoy it because there weren't enough dominant male characters, and the main protagonist is a woman. I doubt that women would get away with dismissing most 'great literature' on the grounds that most of the protagonists are male. He also says that divorce and relationships are feminine themes, which again, if you think about it is rather odd, given that heterosexual relationships involve both a man and a woman. The other male reader, however, pointed out how diverse the genre is, and said he read romantic fiction on the train. Obviously a sample of two male readers is not representative of all men, but it did bring up some issues which I think might well influence quite a few male readers (and female readers too, if they don't want to be teased about reading 'girly' books).

    I tend to think it is more a case of not being able to come up with a 5,000-word esoteric essay on one

    Oh, but Eric and the rest of us who contribute to this blog are doing our best to rectify that. ;-) Although I'm not sure my style's really 'esoteric'.

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  5. The Telegraph's now published another item about this, which you can read here. This time they offer two contrasting opinions, the first by a man (who believes that men can write romantic novels), the second by a woman (who thinks they can't).

    The female writer manages to imply that any woman who doesn't agree with her is a liar: 'there is a brooding, obsessive, all-consuming passion that every woman – if she is being honest – aspires to be the object of at some time in her life'. She also says that women writers can describe 'a woman's desperate longing for a lost love' 'because she has experienced them or can imagine experiencing them in a way that a man simply cannot. Men are more used to pursuit and action.' Hmm. I think Dante, Petrarch, the Romantic poets etc would disagree. And apparently

    Women writers are better at detail, too – and details are essential in creating a romantic build-up: what he wore, what she wore, how they were standing, how they moved, how they touched.

    Well, we've discussed fashion in romance on this blog, and I included a tiny excerpt of Oscar Wilde's enthusiastic description of Shakespeare's skill at describing details of clothing. Maybe not all male writers choose to describe clothing in detail, but I hardly think it's due to their biology. If men were really impervious to details, how is it that so many male fashion designers, artists and film directors are able to notice tiny visual details?

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  6. j as in jennifer15 September, 2006 03:49

    'there is a brooding, obsessive, all-consuming passion that every woman – if she is being honest – aspires to be the object of at some time in her life'

    I can agree to this, but why does Liz fail to acknowledge that there are men who undoubtedly feel this way too? I have to violently disagree with the notion that men cannot understand romance, because, if it were true, then all romance novels are a lie!! And they aren't, are they? ... Are they? ...

    Men cannot understand women and so only want them for their busts and backsides? Is that it? Well, what's the point in being a romantic, if that is so? Why do readers fall in love with Mr. Darcy if they don't believe he can love Lizzie enough to put up with her family? Why do they fall in love with Heathcliff? (okay, not sure about that one.) Perhaps what she means is that women romance writers can give their male characters all the attributes that another woman would want in a man. (i.e. he would be dressed all in black, and not “fawn”).

    You see, too often male writers get caught up in the story…

    Oh yes, the horrible story that gets in the way of the heroine gazing at the hero’s firm masculine buttocks and the frisson of awareness that she feels upon first glancing them across a crowded room, knowing that somehow she will see them again and again in her dreams, which she goes on about for 220 pages. Maybe Liz Hunt has read too much Nora Roberts. I don’t know how a writer can be so dismissive of “the story.” The story is what makes us read romance in the first place.

    Women writers are better at detail, too – and details are essential in creating a romantic build-up: what he wore, what she wore, how they were standing, how they moved, how they touched.

    She may be right about this, but I feel about too much description the way I feel when watching a lot of action films: whenever the man stops to fight with the bad guys, it slows down the story. I don’t want to watch 5 minutes of kicking and punching, no matter how well it is done. I roll MY eyes whenever a heroine notices across a room that her male objective has “smokey blue eyes” or “eyes the color of a stormy sea just before the hurricane that sinks your boat and leaves you to drown…” It’s hard enough to tell a person’s eye color from three feet away! If that’s the kind of writing our author prizes, she has no business dismissing anybody else’s writing, in my opinion. Romance writers who use very little description do just as well as others who use a lot. A good writer will use description of clothing to tell something about the character of the wearer and hopefully not objectify the hero too much by going on about the way his coat fits across his broad shoulders and the tightness of his unmentionables.

    If men were really impervious to details, how is it that so many male fashion designers, artists and film directors are able to notice tiny visual details?

    A good question. I suppose we could just dismiss them by assuming they're all gay. That's the trouble with making these broad statements about men and women. We all know they're silly, but feel obligated to attack or defend them anyway. There are women who want to claim love, romance and emotion is the entire domain of women where we will build our empires and rule. And then other women will strongly protest, no, no! We want men to think of us as equals in every way, otherwise they will use our weaknesses against us, like a crafty football strategy, to keep us out of their smelly locker rooms! Ehn. Men and women have to live together, and we can, have and do. Romances are just hyper-realistic ways of describing how this miracle can be achieved.

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  7. That's the trouble with making these broad statements about men and women. We all know they're silly, but feel obligated to attack or defend them anyway.

    I suppose it's because they touch on (a) our identities and (b) the possibilities that exist for relationships with the opposite sex. At least one of these is going to be important to almost everyone.

    Male romance authors are being told they're failures (since they 'can't write' these books), female romance writers are being handed the entire genre (but presumably at the cost of having any male readers, because if men can't write romantic novels, can any men understand them? One has to assume not, if one accepts these arguments). More widely, men and women are being told what 'men' do/feel, what 'women' do/feel (which annoys/irritates/upsets all the people who don't do/think/feel whatever it is that their gender is 'supposed' to and, as you say, it all ends up suggesting that the romance genre is nothing but fantasy and lies, because men and women will never understand each other and never give each other what the other wants and needs. Seems a rather bleak prognosis to me, and one which doesn't fit with my experience.

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  8. j as in jennifer15 September, 2006 14:31

    It seems silly to exclude anyone from any career simply on the basis of sex and goes against everything we've striven for in the fight for gender equality and non-discrimination.

    However, I believe that all this scoffing is mainly out of the fear that if men get into the business of romance writing, they will be taken more seriously than women and not be ghettoized in the pink section of the bookstore. And there's justification for that fear, alas. I remember when cover model Fabio wrote his own romance novel, he was on several of the talk shows here, and I've never seen any women romance writers on mainstream talk shows, unless you count Jackie or Joan Collins, which I don't.

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  9. Yes, I think that probably is a fear, and not without justification. Certainly one of the articles widely published in the media about the Romance Writers of America conference (you can read it here) stirred up a lot of angry feeling on the AAR boards. Although the photo which went with it has now gone, there's still some text there describing it. It showed Bob Mayer. Jennifer Crusie was there in the background, but not mentioned in the text underneath the photo (though she is quoted in the body of the article). Many of the people who replied on the thread about it at AAR wondered why the focus was on one male author, rather than any of the very, very many female authors.

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  10. I've just found another version of the same article here. This one also has a picture of many female romance authors, but you can see the photo of Bob Mayer further down the page.

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  11. j as in jennifer15 September, 2006 22:16

    I guess I'll have to read that Crusie/Mayer book, though I don't really care for military-type plots.

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  12. I'm not keen on military/violent plots either, which is why I haven't read it. I don't enjoy reading descriptions of violence.

    Another thing about the Crusie-Mayer partnership, and one which's relevant to the subject we're discussing is that when asked 'What's special about Don't Look Down they said:

    Bob: The male/female points of view being real. I know Jenny would not have written my character the way I wrote him (she wanted him to have a kitten named Bubbles) and I wouldn't have written her heroine the way she did (I would have given her body armor).

    Jenny: It's the real deal in male/female characters. We spent a lot of hours saying, "He wouldn't do that" or "She wouldn't say that," and explaining why to each other. My men have always been English teacher types, and I love them, but I had to deal with something completely different in J. T. Wilder because he's such a Guy. I love J. T. Wilder.
    (Crusie/Mayer website)

    I think what they're maybe getting at is that for Mayer to write this type of heroine and for Crusie to write this type of hero, they needed help from someone who understands that type of person, in order to make it authentic. I can see, for example, how Crusie might need some help in getting the details right with a military hero, but what they say could also be interpreted as implying that either 'English teacher types' are not real men (so Crusie could get those right on her own) or that Crusie failed in her attempts to create realistic male characters in her previous novels. I hope that's not what they meant, but if it is, it would take us right back to the 'authors can't write books about people of the opposite sex' theory.

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  13. j as in jennifer16 September, 2006 15:29

    Well, I suppose it's tough for writers of either sex to write someone of the opposite sex without projecting onto the character something of their own desired traits and fantasies. It will be interesting to see if the male character in "Don't Look Down" is as charming as most of Crusie's heroes.

    And what's wrong with a kitten named Bubbles? Could they have compromised and named it John Wayne Bubbles? : )

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  14. Hi, Laura! I J-as-in-Jennifer! I can't tell you how glad I am to be back, even provisionally.

    Not much to add to this discussion, except to say that I've read like a "gender traitor," off and on, as long as I could read. My daughter is halfway through "Little Women" right now, and everyone thinks it's wonderful--when I was obsessed with that book, at the same age, no one really wanted to hear about it. (It was fine to be obsessed with Lord of the Rings, which my daughter also loves, oddly enough. My son, just as fluent a reader, has no time for either.)

    I will say that my own female students, in the romance classes, desperately want to read at least one romance novel by a man. I've never been sure exactly why. Oh, and I should also add that I thought the male lead in "Don't Look Down" was pretty unappealing, but then, I like Jenny's "English teacher" types quite a bit, for no-doubt obvious reasons. The new one, whose name I'm blanking on at the moment, reminded me too much of the action protagonists I read at 12 and 13, trying to find a place for myself in the XY continuum. Not happy memories, as a rule; I'll take Jo & Professor Bhaer over James Bond and The Destroyer (did he have a name? Remo something or other?) any day of the week.

    Must run! More soon,
    E

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  15. Sorry I disappeared for a while, especially when this basic topic is one of the reasons I started browsing romance web sites.

    I can't say much useful about the abilities of 6 billion people, so I will confine it to myself. I have written some stories online, and, while I could be wrong, I really don't think I have any trouble writing from a woman's perspective, including when the story is romantic. At least several of my stories are 1st person point of view with a woman as the protagonist, and most readers seem to think I am female since I post under a pseudonym.

    Where I do have trouble as a straight male is that men are not all that interesting to me. When I write about a woman's attraction to a man, I know that I do a few things: 1) I end up focusing on things that I like about all people, including men, like intelligence, kindness, and honesty, not physical appearance or sex appeal. 2) I insert things that I understand are attractive by listening to others - a chest, a chin - but I don't feel that attraction, so it is hard to be unique or write with much verve. 3) I hint at the attraction of a woman towards a man, hoping the reader who loves men will fill in the rest. But when I write about attraction to a woman, I can go on for paragraphs about how he feels about her. 4) I focus on what he does to her that makes her happy, impresses her, etc.

    In the end, I think that if I personally had a barrier to writing a romance novel, that expressing real attraction and affection for the hero would be my main obstacle to overcome. Of course, I could just write a romance novel with a male protagonist, but even then, as most of my readers would be straight women, I would need to write about the person they are attracted to. I keep planning on writing some gay male stories, though I haven't yet, just so I am forced to talk about male attractiveness and not use my workarounds.

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  16. Welcome back, Pacatrue! I was thinking of you when I mentioned alpacas in my post about death in romance (the alpacas were healthy and happy, I hasten to add).

    Female romance writers sometimes write in great detail about how much the hero admires the heroine's bountiful curves/softness/full lips etc. I'm assuming that for most of them this isn't because they find women attractive, so they must have ways of putting themselves in the hero's place.

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  17. I agree that the key is to put yourself in someone else's place, and I think I can do that. In some ways, it is not a lack of ability to write from another point of view; it's a lack of interest. Why spend all this time talking about his hunky frame when there is someone in his arms that is far more attractive (to you, the author)?

    Here's a stereotype from someone who hates stereotypes. I wonder, however, if women are better at understanding what is atractive about women to men. This is different from feeling it; it's just knowledge. What I am thinking is that in our culture at the moment, for the most part women are held up as the ones with sex appeal. If you go to a mall, there will be 4 men's clothing stores and 46 women's. Even GQ and Cosmo will have 10 pages of men in clothing and just as many pictures of women in clothing - or lack thereof. One commonly hears comments by one woman about the appearance of another woman - an appraisal - but very rarely by men about other men. You are increasingly getting men who are eternally stressed by their physical appearance - they may work out or diet or usually just complain - but I don't get the impression that men diet like women do. Of course, there is the phenomenon of the metrosexual, who is a male who knows all this stuff, but that is worth noting exactly because it is considered new and odd.

    The idea I am throwing out is that the very force which can be oppressive to women such that they frequently re-arrange their lives to make themselves attractive by a cultural standard does mean that women often have a pretty good idea what men find attractive about women.

    But here is some evidence against this very thought: In the U.S. at least, there is only one razor blade commercial. For most of the commercial, the razor is presented in some sleek techie way - it can be a fighter jet or a sports car or just a gadget - and then at the end, an attractive woman walks up and strokes his now clean cheek in a sensual way. I think I have never seen a shaving commercial that did not end this way. The same is true for most male-oriented ad campaigns. Even beer, which in fact makes you fat, usually has a reward of a party at a pub with lots of attractive women. The point is that virtually all male-oriented grooming is explicitly presented as something that will make you attractive to women.

    I wonder if this is a difference. It seems like some portion of female-oriented fashion is about feeling good about yourself. Very little male-oriented stuff has the same personal focus. One drinks, buys cars, shaves, wears clothes, works on the ab muscles, in order to get attention from the opposite sex.

    So I am just babbling. And I also think my thoughts are very American. At least the European and Brit male co-workers and classmates I have usually seem to have a more conscious style than the American counterparts.

    And just for the record, I had been planning on working up some sort of discourse analysis thing on the first chapter of Crusie's Bet Me and then sending an abstract for your book. But I had to can it. I don't have time to get the background to write anything worth reading. Instead, I will just try to finish this month's paper instead. :)

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  18. the very force which can be oppressive to women such that they frequently re-arrange their lives to make themselves attractive by a cultural standard does mean that women often have a pretty good idea what men find attractive about women.

    I think you're right that advertising tells women how they should look, and that the way they should look is sexy (as opposed to authoritative, sporty, etc). So yes, I suppose that does mean that women are more likely to be aware of their own bodies in terms of how they'll be viewed in sexual terms by 'the other'. I just realised that I'm talking about women as 'they' - probably because (a) I don't see a lot of advertising, and (b) because the descriptions of women's bodies in romance tend to surprise me since I haven't given much thought to what it is that men find attractive in women. So this is just drawing on the background reading I've done about women and advertising.

    On the other hand, romance authors don't always subscribe to the version of 'sexy' that is shown in the adverts, and they not infrequently show a heroine who is not sexy/beautiful by the media's standards but who nonetheless is attractive to the handsome hero. In that sense some romances could be read as saying that the media image of the thin, tall, perfectly groomed woman isn't what men really want.

    You sound like you've been really busy. It's a pity you haven't had time to write a proposal. Probably sensible on your part, though, not to overburden yourself with work (which seems like an appropriate metaphor for an alpaca - they were used to transport things weren't they? You'd be loaded down with books and papers).

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  19. As a self-published comedy author, I decided I needed to explore my genres. Simply on the fact that most movies my wife and I enjoy together are romantic comedies, I went that route. My problem is finding a publisher that isn't a scam artist, and deciding what my nom de plume should be, not that my name can't be used, except some namesake of mine has about 30 crime novels. I have 2 novella romances complete, and 2 in stages of completion. My female reviewer thought my first was "The Next Notebook." All I have to do now is convince a publisher to believe this. I believe my sex descriptions are descriptive without bordering on obsession. My characters are unique, and the formula is not necessary to follow, fight yes, but why hate from the beginning when its more meaningful near the end. The formula is written so often you see it before it happens. (CLICK rule) Maybe there are a few names of male authors that had great romantic stories, especially comedic ones (Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream). I would prefer the recognition earlier though.

    John Ross Harvey
    or maybe Nahtan Hoj
    or Wentworth Vaughn
    or Markham Wells
    or even T. Foe Vil

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  20. "As a self-published comedy author, I decided I needed to explore my genres. Simply on the fact that most movies my wife and I enjoy together are romantic comedies, I went that route."

    Yes, romantic comedy in book form doesn't seem to be selling so well at the moment. Harlequin had a "Love and Laughter" line, followed by Duets and then Flipside but they didn't achieve sustained success so at the moment there isn't a Harlequin romantic comedy line, and I haven't seen/read about many romantic comedies coming out in single-title romances recently either. There are some, of course, but they don't seem to be very common.

    You mentioned that "the formula is not necessary to follow" and I'm not exactly sure what you mean by that, but if your works don't have happy endings with the couple together, they probably won't sell as "romances" (the RWA definition can be found here) in the US market, which could also make things harder for you.

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  21. What I meant by the formula, is that the couple in love has to hate each other first in most romantic comedies, then you automatically know they will get together. I prefer a "Nottinghill" approach where they simply fall for each otehr first and then have a fight to resolve. I believe the drama is better that way.
    Not that I wont try the formula, my 3rd effort uses it, I just find its far more predictable.

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  22. Thanks for the explanation, John. Obviously I'm not really well acquainted enough with romantic comedies to have realised that was the "formula," but now that you mention it, I can see what you mean. Have you read Jennifer Crusie's Anyone But You or Kirstan Higgins' Catch of the Day (details here but you'll have to scroll down the page a bit)? They both have the problems arising towards the end, and they're both award-winning romantic comedies in book (rather than movie) form, so if you haven't read them they might give you some ideas about the kind of thing romance readers (and romance editors) might like. The Higgins is relatively recent (2007), and although the Crusie is older, it does keep on being reissued.

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  23. Cruisie's book sounds a bit like a book I wanted to pick up by Garth Stein
    The Art of Racing in the Rain, where his dog is named Enzo, in a dog's perspective story. The premise is different of course, but the dog idea I like. I'll have to pick them up, thanks. My first story's characters pretty much parallel her's in age (ok exactly).
    A good comedic novel I'd reccommend is Spanish Fly by Will Ferguson (Canadian), about hustlers in the depression era, one which has an obsession of eating pie.

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  24. You can find some of my comedy style here, not stories, mostly rants, but it's an idea.

    http://threeforcesofevil.blogpsot.com

    John

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  25. After you mentioned the dog, I realised that both the Crusie and the Higgins include a dog. That's a minute sample, of course, but it does make me wonder if pets are more common in romantic comedy.

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  26. I've picked up Higgins, and will pick up Cruisie's later today I hope. Not sure when I'll get to them but I'm happy for the advice.

    I haven't used a pet yet, I do have one insistant friend though.

    The ideas are pouring right now, I need to catch up on them.

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  27. I hope you find the Crusie and Higgins helpful. I've no idea what editors and agents are currently looking for, but I don't suppose it'll do you any harm to read them. Hopefully you'll enjoy them. And good luck with all those ideas!

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