Tag Archives: romance

Review of Sex Hell

Digital_Cover_ILLUS_2

Where do I begin?

This book was ridiculous. But it was ridiculous in an at least somewhat entertaining way. Though I mostly only enjoyed it because I was making fun of it so much.

(Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.)

The main character, Debbie, has a bad sex life, so she goes to a witch and offers to trade the life force of her potted petunias for incredible orgasms. She ends up cheating on her boyfriend with a sleazy lounge singer, who also traded his pot of petunias (I don’t know why they both had petunias) for great orgasms. The witch tricks them, and they end up in Sex Hell, which is basically a holodeck where they play out various roleplay fantasies while the demon Carl watches. And every time they have sex, the witch gets more powerful.

When they try to get out of Sex Hell, the witch sends her Instant German Assassins after them, but they get melted in a rain storm after trying to kill the wrong people. Then there’s some stuff with a cantaloupe being used as a magic cell phone, a bottle opener working as a magic wand, and Debbie’s boyfriend using his Magic! Bongos! to track her down. Oh, and her boyfriend works for the Confidential Ultra Force, which is basically like the FBI for hunting down witches.

Confused? Yeah. The entire book is silly, the plot makes no sense, and even the sex scenes are boring rather than erotic. There’s no consistency whatsoever in the way magic is used, the characters flip-flop in their personalities and convictions, and the climax involves a dues ex machina where the Instant German Assassins try to kill the witch for no reason other than that the author needed a way to save the main characters.

If you enjoy really bad books because it’s so much fun to poke holes in their plots and make fun of the ridiculousness, then this book could be a good time. I actually did enjoy reading it. That doesn’t make it good, but it meant I had enough fun snarking it like the robots in MST3K that it was an enjoyable experience.

Breaking the Norms in Romance Novels

Romance novels are not my first love.

I’ve read some that were written by people I know on Twitter, a few others that I got for free through giveaways, and some that I picked up just for research purposes. There’s always a bit of a romance subplot in my own books, though my primary genre is urban fantasy. I’m always looking to improve every aspect of my writing, including the romances, so I try to look carefully at each romance I read and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what can be tweaked.

There’s a few things I’ve noticed tend to be trends in almost every romance novel that I’ve read:

  • Super-hot, perfect men with flowing blonde hair, who are also rich, famous, successful, and yet still manage to be sensitive and chivalrous.
  • A female protagonist who is, in stark contrast to the male lead, pretty bland and normal.
  • Love at first sight, or at the very least, intense attraction at first sight. I can always tell from page one who the main character is going to end up with at the end of the book.
  • Everything is very cis/heteronormative, with LGBT characters few and far between.
  • There’s always a “Oh no, they had a fight and might break up!” moment near the end.
  • Then they get together anyway and always, ALWAYS have a happily ever after.

Now, some of these tropes I can understand…as much as a happily ever after gets bland after awhile, it makes sense that readers want a happy and satisfying ending. And I can understand having a near-breakup around the climax, because there has to be conflict in order for a story to remain interesting.

What I don’t like is how every couple seems to be carbon-copies of each other. I’ve never read a romance novel where the male lead is, say, someone like me: overweight, poor, nerdy, and unable to attract women the majority of the time. And I’ve never read a romance novel where the romantic feelings developed slowly over time, the way a lot of real-life relationships do. Instead it’s always a head-first dive into True Love, where you can practically hear the violin music playing in the background.

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of romance novels for freelance ghostwriting projects (the titles and details of which I cannot share due to NDAs). What I’ve been trying to do, however, is to break out of some of these romance novel tropes. I deliberately decided to make one of the male leads a balding, overweight, middle-aged man. Another was a scruffy, shy man who spent most of his time reading. I made one of the stories have an interracial couple. And another one pairs a lesbian and a bisexual as the main romantic couple.

I’ve found these projects a lot more enjoyable because I can play around with the tropes and try to find ways to keep things fresh. I’m still experimenting and learning, and I’ll still say I’m “still learning” when I’ve written twenty, a hundred, or a thousand of these stories. But the results have been quite good, and my clients have definitely been satisfied.

And I’ll be applying some of what I’m learning here to my own future novels as well. Speaking of which, expect updates soon on revisions of Contamination, since I’m about to dive into some serious work on it this coming week.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Romancing the Ghostwriter

Getting paid to write is an amazing thing.

I’ve blogged a few times over the last few months about how I haven’t been writing much. I’ve been struggling, due mostly to a combination of life changes (leaving school, starting a new relationship) and work issues (being stuck in a crap job, working long hours, and being exhausted all of the time). It was hard to find the time to work, whether it be on one of my own novels, or on a blog post, or anything else.

To give you an idea how bad things got, here’s my Writer’s Calendar for January:

One lonely sticker
One lonely sticker

I give myself a sticker for every 1000 words I write, or for one blog post, or any equivalent amount of writing or revisions. It’s a great motivational tool to be able to look at a good week of writing progress and see a visual representation of all of the words I’ve written. But obviously, January sucked. I wrote one blog post, and that was it.

But once I started doing paid writing assignments (after leaving my crappy restaurant job once and for all), this is what February looks like:

I'm a superstar!
I’m a superstar!

All kinds of stickers! Every star is from paid writing gigs. The lone sticker on the 23rd is from revisions. And the penguin is for blog posts (I get a penguin today for writing this, too).

It feels pretty good. Not only am I paying the bills with writing, but I’m also doing something productive. It’s nice to be able to look back at the end of the month and see how far I’ve come.

Most of the ghostwriting I’ve been doing has been for romance novellas (I can’t divulge the details due to NDAs, as they’re being published on Amazon under the client’s pen name). It’s a different sort of writing than I’m used to, but it’s fun and productive. And I’m getting my creative juices flowing on a daily basis. I didn’t miss one single day since February 7th. Some of the earliest stuff I wrote was what I had to do in order to actually get the jobs, but by February 21st I was officially hired and bringing in the paychecks full time.

There’s no guarantees that I’ll get nonstop work, since freelancing is on a case-by-case basis. But I’ve got two steady clients so far who are very pleased with my work and are continuing to hire me for ongoing projects. So I’m going to be ghostwriting up a storm. And hopefully finding some time for my own projects as well. After all, I’ve got a sequel to finish revising.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Infidelity and Morals in Romance Novels

Cheating is WrongCheating is a common trope in romance stories. It can add a lot of tension and conflict to a story, leaving the reader uncertain whether the couple will pull through and mend their relationship or if they’ll end up breaking up and being unable to forgive each other.

It’s easy to say, speaking very generally, that “cheating is wrong.” I doubt there’s many people that would promote cheating on your partner in real life. If you’ve been cheated on, it hurts like hell, and many people who’ve cheated on someone else end up wracked with guilt over it. Alternatively, infidelity could be rationalized by saying that the relationship was already broken due to other problems. If someone’s partner is abusive, uncaring, or for whatever reason doesn’t deserve them, then one might not care if they get cheated on because “they deserved it.” Though you could also argue that it’s best to end the relationship before getting involved with someone new. Oftentimes, relationship problems lead to people cheating because they’ve already begun pulling away from their partner even if the relationship isn’t over yet. As Jess said in When Harry Met Sally, “Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”

That symptom is fucking my wife.But when it comes to writing a novel, there can be a wide variety of ways to express infidelity. I’d like to explore four different angles: the Main Character as the cheater, the MC as the victim, cheating as a mistake, and cheating as the right choice.

The Main Character Cheated

In most romance novels I’ve read, the story is usually told in first person from the main character’s perspective (usually a woman; I haven’t yet found a romance novel told primarily from a male lead’s point of view). The basic formula of a romance novel is: they meet, there’s chemistry and attraction, the relationship grows more serious, then there’s some kind of crisis (which leads the reader to fear the relationship won’t work out), and at the end the crisis is either resolved or it leads to everything falling apart. The ending of a romance is almost always either “they live happily ever after” or “they broke up but learned valuable life lessons as a result.”

(Note: This formula is based on my personal reading experience, but if you’ve read any books that greatly deviate from it, I’d love to hear about them.)

The “crisis” that leads to the relationship either ending or surviving can come in a variety of ways. I’ve read novels recently where the crisis could be anything from a lie being revealed, to a betrayal, to an ex-girlfriend coming back into the picture and causing conflict, and so on. The main character cheating is, by this formula, just another source of conflict.

So what leads the MC to cheat? Well, as an example from a friend’s book I once read, it could be because the MC actually isn’t happy in the relationship and they’re subconsciously sabotaging it. In one novel I read, the MC cheated on her fiance with the fiance’s brother, then tried to cover it up, only to have the lid blown off the lie at the wedding. The relationship was torn apart, and the affair with the brother couldn’t last either. In the long run, the MC broke things off with both the fiance and the brother, and ended up making some major changes and starting her life over. While as a reader I was disappointed in the MC’s decisions, in the long run, I could see that she’d learned some valuable things and she was ready to move on. The ending left me with the hope that her next relationship would be more successful, because she’d learned not to “fake” being happy with a man she didn’t truly love.

Now, it’s possible a story could involve the MC cheating without suffering any consequences. It would all depend on how it was portrayed. But I think, as a reader, it’s important for me to see consequences occurring and lessons being learned. Because if the MC never even feels a twinge of guilt, I would just see them as immoral, and I’d likely lose sympathy. But if the MC changes their life afterwards, the cheating can be seen as a mistake that they overcame. If a writer wanted to show the other side, where it wasn’t even treated as a mistake, it would be important to show the MC’s perspective and help the reader understand why they don’t regret it. It would be necessary in order to keep the reader rooting for the MC.

The Main Character is the Victim

Alternatively, the MC might be the one who’s been cheated on. In this case, it’s more likely that the cheating will be painted as simply wrong. It puts the MC’s partner in the role of the villain, hurting the MC and ruining the relationship. The MC might break the relationship off and move on, finally leaving behind someone who didn’t deserve them. Or the MC might find it in their heart to forgive their partner after the partner works to make things right.

The difference here, regardless of whether the relationship is salvaged or ruined, is that the MC wasn’t the one who made a decision that led to the conflict. If the MC chose to cheat, they face consequences they must address based on their own actions. If their partner cheated, it’s more like a catalyst coming from an outside source. It could serve as a “wake up call,” letting the MC see their partner for who they really are. Or alternatively, if the MC was mistreating their partner and driving them away, then the MC might come to realize something about themselves. There could be introspection as they consider how they neglected their partner or in some other way allowed their partner to slip away. How this is addressed–whether the MC is seen as the wrongdoer or their partner is–will depend a lot on the MC’s perspective. For example, the MC might come to say, “I’ve been mistreating them, no wonder they sought out someone else,” or they might say, “Nothing I did makes me deserve this, they had no right to hurt me.”

The focus here, of course, is still on what the MC gets out of it, and what they decide in the end. They can choose to forgive their partner, or choose to end it all. What decision they will make will be the question that will keep the reader hooked.

Cheating as a Mistake

I already touched on this a bit in the above sections, but I’d like to go into more detail. Cheating might be seen as a mistake the MC (or their partner) made, and a sign that the character isn’t perfect. Everyone succumbs to temptation now and then, and there have been stories about seduction and weakness going all the way back to biblical tales and ancient Greek myths. Such affairs can have disastrous consequences, such as when Helen of Troy ran off with Paris, leading to the Trojan War (note: while the 2004 film depicts this as a voluntary affair, other versions of this story say that Helen was kidnapped).

There are several different ways to address the “cheating as a mistake” trope. One can be to make the affair lead to consequences, as in the example of Troy, above. Or the victim of the affair might resort to violence or murder, killing either the cheater, the person they cheated with, or both. There could also be less severe consequences, such as a divorce, a broken family, or public scandal if the characters are celebrities and the affair is revealed by the media.

In each of these cases, the consequences of the affair will be far-reaching, and will likely affect the rest of the plot. Though it’s also possible for the consequences to be more internal to the MC. Say, for example, the MC simply struggles with their own actions for the rest of the plot. An example of this is the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise going down a path of dangerous choices because he’s angry with his wife over an almost-affair (the wife confessed that she was tempted to cheat once, but never did). Early in the film, Cruise comes close to sleeping with a prostitute, presumably because he feels betrayed by his wife and he is driven to drastic actions. He stops just short of going through with it when his wife calls his cell phone while he’s at the prostitute’s apartment. Later, he finds out that the prostitute just found out she is HIV-positive, so Cruise barely escaped the serious consequences he would have been faced with if he had slept with her. His actions for the remainder of the movie still continue down a dangerous path, until he finally gets caught in the end.

Cheating as the Right Choice

I started this post saying that it would be hard to consider cheating as the right thing to do, but there are some examples in media that address it this way. One of the most famous is The Notebook. During the main flashback scenes that show the MC’s past, she has a short-lived love affair with a man named Noah, only to have the relationship end, partly due to interference from her parents. Years later, the characters reunite, only by that time, the MC is engaged to another man. It’s clear that the MC doesn’t truly love her fiance, and she ends up cheating on him with Noah, rekindling the romance they ended years ago. The fiance even offers to forgive her if she’ll stay with him, but in the long run, she leaves him for Noah.

Stories like this depict cheating as “the right choice” because the MC ends up with the person she truly loves and is meant to be with. It is still a struggle, and such stories usually involve a moment of indecision where the MC has to choose between their current partner and the person they’re having an affair with. Sometimes, they choose to leave and go with their true love. Other times, like in the classic movie Casablanca, the affair has to end because the characters know it can’t go on. This is the meaning behind Bogart’s most famous line in that film, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” This is Bogart’s way of telling her that she needs to stay with her husband and not be swept away by the fantasy of a passionate romance that will never work.

In any case, infidelity is a complex issue in many stories, and there are a lot of different ways to address it. Because not every relationship is guaranteed a happily ever after.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Review of Secondhand Heart

Secondhand-Heart-FOR-WEB-200x300I just finished reading Secondhand Heart by Kristen Strassel, and I found it sexy, surprising, and touching. It got me right in the feels.

I took a liking to the main character, Daisy, right off the bat. She’s got a great attitude with just the right touch of snark. She’s not afraid to say “fuck” when she wants to, and she’ll get right up in someone’s face when they need to be put in their place. I also felt bad for her, learning early on that she’d recently lost her husband and was overwhelmed by the pity and pampering everyone was directing at her when she really just needed some time alone. I also found it refreshing that Daisy wasn’t your “typical” romance novel heroine. I’ve read a number of romance novels lately where the main character has a perfect body, perfect hair, and is generally unattainable in every way. It usually makes me feel like the author is trying to write an idealized version of reality in order to fulfill some fantasy. Daisy, on the other hand, refers to herself as “chubby” in the opening chapter, and throughout she comes off as a more realistic, ordinary woman. She struggles with her body image throughout the story. I found this easier to relate to as a reader.

I lost some of that relatability when the male love interest, Cam, was first introduced. He’s immediately described with a focus on his unattainable hotness:

 “The faded denim made his thighs look amazing. Who the hell checked out thighs? Well, if you saw these thighs, they were worth checking out. On The Spotlight, Cam had been an overgrown, almost goofy kid, playing a role. Doing what he was told. Now, on this tiny stage just feet away from us in this club, it was obvious he was all man. All smoking hot man.”

This seems to be a common, and in my opinion overused, romance novel trope. Even though the female lead is an ordinary woman, her love interest is “smoking hot” and the initial attraction is all physical (combined with the fact that he’s a somewhat famous musician, and wealthy enough to own his own bar/nightclub). As a male reader, I get a bit uncomfortable reading such a description, because it makes me feel like these stories set an unrealistic standard for male beauty. I tend to hear people complain more about unrealistic media portrayals of female beauty, but it happens with men too. It made me wonder whether Cam would turn out to have other, more worthwhile character traits to explain Daisy’s interest in him (intelligence, personality, a sense of humor, kindness, etc.). These things didn’t factor into the initial attraction, so I made a point to watch carefully as I read on to see if they’d come up later on.

By about halfway through the book, it seemed like the entire basis of Daisy and Cam’s relationship was their sexual attraction to each other. Daisy even acknowledges this at one point when she says, “But everything with us is about sex.” The fact that she acknowledged it made me pay even more attention to the development of the relationship. Between the earlier focus on physical attraction and the later development of their sexual relationship, I was curious to see if there would ever turn out to be something more between them, something emotional and serious and worth building a long-term relationship off of. Most of the second half of the book focused really well on addressing these issues, and Cam started to develop a lot of depth. It was enough that by the end of the book, I was thinking of him more as a kind, caring, chivalrous kind of guy, rather than a rich piece of man-candy. I still couldn’t relate to him in many ways, but I did end up liking him by the end.

A secondary plot in the book followed the main character’s sister, Ev. Ev is pregnant and about to get married, and there’s some hints of jealousy between her and Daisy. This leads to some conflict between the sisters that adds more tension to the main Daisy/Cam relationship, though on one level it was underutilized. This is because Ev’s fiancé, Roger, is almost never seen. He’s referred to regularly, and Daisy always describes him in unflattering ways, but the reader doesn’t get to meet him. As a result, I could never quite tell if Roger was actually a jerk, or if Daisy was being too hard on him because of her own biases. He finally appears on the page during a tense high point in the story, a moment charged with a lot of emotion. But it was hard to connect with Roger in that moment, because it was the first I’d seen of his character. Roger actually ends up being the catalyst of a key turning point in the story, but at the same time, I felt like I never got to know him. I would have liked to see more done with his character, considering how crucial Ev was to the story and how big of an impact this turning point has on the final chapters of the book.

Aside from the story and the romantic relationship itself, I also considered the overall writing style. The prose and the voice of the main character were very strong. Daisy has a lot of sass, and her voice in the story comes off as very genuine and down-to-earth. The only issues I had with the writing itself were 1) A handful of typos and formatting errors that cropped up every other chapter and 2) Not enough use of “he said/she said” dialogue tags to make the speaker clear (80% of the time, context clues indicated who was speaking, but there were plenty of times I got lost and wasn’t sure who the speaker was). These issues didn’t detract from the story, but they were a bit distracting. Which is a pity, because it’s a beautiful story, with amazing characters and some twists that you will never see coming.

If you like romance, country music, and down-to-earth girls who know how to live life the way it should be lived, I definitely recommend Secondhand Heart. It’s on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and you can find it on Goodreads.


You can find Secondhand Heart on Amazon.com, along with Kristen’s other books, Because the Night, Night Moves, and Seasons in the Sun.

kristenpic 2You can also find Kristen on Twitter, Facebook, her website, or her blog, Deadly Ever After.

Secondhand Heart, by Kristen Strassel

Secondhand-Heart-FOR-WEB-200x300Kristen Strassel, author of the Night Songs Collection has a new book that just released. Her book, Secondhand Heart, is a New Adult contemporary romance novel about a struggling country singer, a military widow, and their journey together as they find their way back home and into a new stage of life. I asked Kristen if she’d be kind enough to talk a bit about her book, and she was happy to do so.

1. Your first three books, Seasons in the SunBecause the Night, and Night Moves are all paranormal romance novels with vampires. Yet this newest novel, Secondhand Heart, is a New Adult romance starring a country singer. What made you decide to take such a different direction with this book, and what did you find was different about the process of writing in such a different genre?

I decided that I was going to write books about musicians or vampires, or any combination of the two, so Secondhand Heart fits the bill. Once these characters presented their story to me, I knew it wasn’t paranormal.  Everyone has pointed out how different Secondhand Heart is from the books in The Night Songs Collection, but I feel that they all have my stamp on them. The process for this one wasn’t different. Once I met Daisy, she spoke to me in a very strong voice.  The main difference between paranormal and contemporary is that you have to stick to the facts in contemporary, which is sometimes easier and harder. You can’t make something up to get the characters out of a situation.  I tried to stick to “the rules” of contemporary romance in SHH, but I’m not much for those.

2. Your books tend to include characters who are celebrities in some form or another. Secondhand Heart includes a country singer and reality TV show competitor, and your other books include rock stars and the Las Vegas nightlife. But you also work on movies as a makeup artist. How much inspiration for your celebrity characters and their rock and roll lives comes from your real life experience working in the entertainment industry?

Even before I worked in film, I was involved in the entertainment industry. I’ve always been very connected to music, and have had friends who’ve enjoyed all levels of success. I pull from equal parts work and play.

3. Every author tends to put a little bit of themselves into their characters. What parts of your life, experiences, or relationships went into Cam and Daisy, and how did those inspirations help shape the narrative?

There’s a lot of me in Daisy. We have similar senses of humor, similar bodies, and we’ve been through similar things. If we met in real life, we’d love each other or claw each others’ eyes out. I binge watched “The Voice” while I wrote Secondhand Heart, and I have a giant crush on Blake Shelton, so I’m sure you can do the math on my inspirations for Cam.

4. Will Secondhand Heart be the first book in a series, just as your Night Songs Collection has been, and if so, what can we expect from the future?

I think it will be a series. They’ll all be stand alone books that build on each other, if that makes any sense. I’ve drafted another book which also features a Spotlight winner in a very different story.

5. There may not be any vampires in this novel, but do you see Secondhand Heart and the Night Songs Collection as having any connections? Do they take place in the same “world,” or is Secondhand Heart set in the “real” world where nothing supernatural exists, even behind the scenes?

Night Songs exists in this world, there are just vampires in it. 🙂 When Daisy and Cam go to the drive in, the movie they go see is a complete nod to We Own the Night. Other than that, there are no supernatural elements in Secondhand Heart.

6. You just published We Own the Night on September 1st of this year, Secondhand Heart is being released just over a month later, and you have another book, Silent Night coming out later this year. Are you secretly a robot? How do you manage to produce books with such drive and dedication?

Hahahahaha. I wish. It was actually just circumstance. We Own the Night had been finished for a while, but in order to coordinate the digital release with the Audible release, it had to wait until September.  Silent Night is a Christmas themed story, so I’d been sitting on that one as well, and that will release November 18. I could have waited on Secondhand Heart, but why?  I won’t be able to keep up this pace forever, but it sure is fun!

I’m totally self-employed, and I think that’s really helped me be able to produce material consistently and oversee the release of the books. You can’t ever get comfortable in a creative industry. There are always ten other people willing to take your place.

7. After branching out from paranormal romance into New Adult/contemporary, do you ever think you’ll expand into any other genres as well? Do you have any future plans for your writing that you’d like to share?

My writing partner, Julie Hutchings, thinks I should write horror, but the story has yet to present itself. Right now, I’m pretty content with paranormal and contemporary, but I would never rule anything out. I’m playing with some ideas in these genres that are different that what I’ve written, but they aren’t fleshed out enough to talk about yet.

8. You’ve mentioned on your blog that writing and releasing a book is both exciting and scary (something I think all writers can relate to). Taking a different direction with this book compared to your previous works is probably scarier than usual. How do you cope with that fear? Can you offer any advice to other authors who might be struggling with fear of their own?

I will cry and drink most of this week. Ha. I’m only sort of kidding. Branching out into something new is scary, because there’s nothing there yet for me. It’s strange because I’m not a debut author, but I’m still in the door-to-door phase, working for every sale. But with this one, there are different opportunities and avenues to explore, and I’m exited.  My advice would be don’t be afraid to try new things, especially if you’re an indie author. If something’s not working, you can always change it.

9. Stephen King has said that every writer has to have their “toolbox” well-loaded with all the writer’s tools they need for success. Obviously on a basic level, this includes strong prose, an understanding of grammar, and a personal voice and style that makes their writing unique. What other “tools” would you say have been most valuable to you as a writer, and what tools would you say you’re still learning or you’d like to acquire in the future?

Going through the editing process and understanding what makes a story work were both huge for me. I feel like that’s the biggest thing that improved my writing. I’m a Pitch Wars mentor this year and helping other people with their manuscripts has been an invaluable learning experience. The number one thing that people seem to struggle with is bridging the emotional connection from character to reader. That’s something I want to master. I want my narrators to sound like a friend telling you a story over drinks.

10. Lastly, you’ve said that this is “a story about coming home.” What does that mean to you on a deeper level, whether it be literary or personal? If you could hope for readers to gain one important thing from reading your work, what would that be?

Man, it really is, on so many levels.  Both Daisy and Cam thought they had gone from wanting something to having something. Daisy had married her childhood sweetheart, and was working towards living overseas and becoming a teacher. Cam had won The Spotlight, and was releasing albums and going on tour. He was also married. But both of them are now back home, starting all over again unwillingly. For me, “home” is something that doesn’t change, no matter how much I do. And at times, that can be a real struggle to reconcile the past, present, and future. No matter how successful you are, or how much you’re on cruise control, it can all be taken away at any time. Then it’s up to you what you do next.


You can find Secondhand Heart on Amazon.com, along with Kristen’s other books, Because the Night, Night Moves, and Seasons in the Sun.

kristenpic 2You can also find Kristen on Twitter, Facebook, her website, or her blog, Deadly Ever After.

Running Away

It’s my great honor to present to you the latest release by a good friend of mine and an author I seriously look up to, Julie Hutchings. Her latest novel, Running Away, released on September 26th:

Running Away Final Cover

Running Away is a vampire novel, but probably not one like you might expect. The rules for vampires in Julie’s world are quite unique, from absorbing memories to soul bonds to the threads of fate leading vampires to seek out victims that have been marked for death. And you can be assured that no one sparkles.

Running Away (The Shinigami series, #2) is a New Adult Paranormal Romance novel and the sequel to Julie’s first book, Running Home. You can find both books on Goodreads by following the links above, or read more here to find out what Running Away is all about:

Eliza Morgan is desperate to escape the horrors of her mortal life and understand why death follows her, leaving only one man, Nicholas French, in its wake. He’s the one she loves, the one she resents, and the one fated to make her legendary among the Shinigami– an ancient order of vampires with a “heroic” duty to kill. He’s also decaying before her eyes, and it’s her fault.

On the ghostlike mountaintop in Japan that the vampires consider home, Eliza will be guided by the all-powerful Master for her transition to Shinigami death god. When Eliza discovers that sacrificing her destiny will save Nicholas, she’s not afraid to defy fate and make it so—even when Nicholas’s salvation kills her slowly with torturous, puzzle-piece visions that beg her to solve them. Both Nicholas and his beloved Master fight her on veering from the path to immortality, but Eliza won’t be talked out of her plan, even if it drives the wedge between Nicholas and her deeper.

Allying with the fiery rebel, Kieran, who does what he wants and encourages her to do the same, and a mysterious deity that only she can see, Eliza must forge her own path through a maze of ancient traditions and rivalries, shameful secrets and dark betrayals to take back the choices denied her and the Shinigami who see her as their savior. To uncover the truth and save her loved ones, Eliza will stop at nothing, including war with fate itself.

You can find Running Away on Amazon Kindle.


About the Author Julie Hutchings:

Author Julie HutchingsJulie Hutchings is a pizza hoarding, coffee swilling, beer guzzling, karate loving book geek with a love of all things creepy and obscure. She lives in America’s Hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts with her hilarious husband and two genius children.

Julie Hutchings is also an amazing person who will ENTHUSIASTICALLY ENCOURAGE YOU IN ALL THINGS IN ALL CAPS! You can find her on Twitter @HutchingsJulie, or find her on Goodreads. She also has a blog, Deadly Ever After, alongside @KristenStrassel, who ALSO writes awesome books.

Running HomeAnd I did mention that Running Away is a SEQUEL, right? That means you should probably go read Julie’s first book, Running Home, which you can find on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

And if you want to connect with Julie on Twitter, make sure you tell her, Jason sent you.

9 Mirages of Love

I recently read The 9 Mirages of Love: How to Stop Chasing What Doesn’t Exist, by Chiarra Mazzucco. I’m not normally drawn to self-help books, but I have a strong interest in romance and personal relationships. Part of this stems from my background in Communication Studies, where I’ve studied how relationships form and how to manage conflict between two people with different viewpoints. Another part comes from my recent interest in studying romance novels, which have become a common topic on my blog lately. Because of these interested I thought it might be helpful to read this book and see what insights it had to offer.

In the introduction, Mazzucco begins by describing a process I’m familiar with, both from my own life and from my studies of Symbolic Interactionism:

We’d like to believe we’re above clichés and that we’ll never be caught dead in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, but the truth is, we are slaves to love and will risk anything to attain it even if it means pushing everyone away in order to create our own reality.

What Mazzucco is describing here, the idea that we’ll “create our own reality” in order to get what we want, is an interesting psychological concept. While Mazzucco says she is not a psychologist, the idea she expresses here is one that’s grounded in a lot of research. The reality people believe in is often forged by our communication practices. For example, if someone (say, a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend) continually tells you you’re worthless or won’t amount to anything, you’ll start believing it. When you believe these things about yourself, you’ll subconsciously sabotage yourself by not putting your best effort into things or by giving up on opportunities that could have been great for you. If you’re surrounded by uplifting people who encourage you, however, you’ll do better in life because you’ll be more likely to pursue those opportunities and put your best effort into everything you do.

Mazzucco’s book delves into these psychological issues by labeling them as “mirages”: illusions about your relationship that you convince yourself are real. A simple example of such a mirage is when someone in a controlling relationship convinces themselves that their partner is controlling “because they love me” or “because they just want what’s best for me.” Anyone outside the relationship might be able to tell that the controlling individual is acting out of selfishness or a need to be domineering, but as for the person being controlled, they lie to themselves again and again. With each lie, they sculpt the reality for themselves and make themselves believe that what they’re saying is true.

Not all of the mirages Mazzucco discusses, however, are as negative and destructive as that. She also warns against positive illusions, like the idea of the “perfect mate” or the “perfect relationship.” Holding idealized versions of love and romance in your head can blind you to reality. Part of Mazzucco’s advice involves telling you to look past these illusions and to not hold yourself to preconceived ideas of how a relationship should start and how it should develop.

After discussing various illusions, including the lies people tell themselves when they’re having an affair with a married person, the mistakes people make when they stay with a cheater, the loneliness and self-esteem issues that keep people in abusive relationships, and how obsessive relationships can convince people they’re in love when there’s really no future, Mazzucco goes on to discuss how to break up with someone. When someone is ending a relationship that didn’t suffer from these illusions, breaking up might be a comparatively simple (if emotionally messy) thing to do. But to someone who’s been blinded by mirages, breaking up is much harder to do.

I found the chapter on breaking up particularly interesting with regard to my research into romance novels. Most romance stories I’ve read end with a “Happily Ever After” between the main couple. I’ve read one excellent one, however, that ends with a double-breakup. The main character is engaged, but ends up cheating on her fiance with his brother. After the engagement ends, she has a short-lived love affair with the brother, before leaving him as well because she realizes their affair was only about lust, and there was no long-term relationship there. These ideas are good examples of Mazzucco’s mirages. The woman in this novel was clinging to a mirage of the ideal, perfect relationship with someone she wasn’t truly, deeply in love with. Then she succumbed to the mirage of the affair, only to realize that the forbidden fruit didn’t offer her what she wanted.

And while I’m not currently in a relationship at all, let alone one suffering from these mirages, I find the ideas presented in this book to be interesting tools to use in my romance subplots. For example, Mazzucco lists a step-by-step process detailing what it takes to get yourself out of a mirage relationship, starting with coming to the realization that the relationship needs to end, making a promise to yourself, and confronting your partner about it. From a writer’s perspective, this is a recipe for some excellent conflict, both internal (as the main character struggles with the decision) and external (when the breakup discussion/argument begins). It also seems like sounds advice that I could have used in a few past relationships myself, particularly the later steps where she recommends searching internally to find out why you were attracted to a mirage to begin with, and “diving into the next relationship with the same childlike curiosity and hunger as you did your last.” The idea seems to be not to let past experiences taint your future. You can learn from the past and enter the next relationship with more wisdom and understanding of what you did wrong in the past, but you can still have hope and optimism at the same time.

All in all, I found 9 Mirages of Love to be an interesting read. There were times the language was a bit more blunt than I might have liked, but the concepts it covers are interesting. It might give me some interesting things to consider as I continue my study of romance novels and relationships. And if I end up in another relationship of my own any time soon, I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for any mirages.

Romance Novels “Telling” Me the Characters are in Love

For most of my life I was never interested in romance novels. My preferred genres are fantasy, sci fi, mystery, and spy thrillers. However, I’ve started reading more romances within the last couple of years because of a combination of two factors: one, I know a number of romance writers online now, and two, I’ve been exploring romance subplots as part of my Arcana Revived series. This has given me the desire to learn more about the genre and what does and doesn’t work in it.

So far I have two main complaints, both of which are directly related to each other. The first is that often times, I don’t really believe the characters in the story are in love.

A lot of this comes down to “show, don’t tell.” I look at the characters’ actions, the way they treat each other, and the way they behave in their relationships, and I just don’t see love there. Instead, I usually see the characters’ thoughts when they think about how much they love their partner, how devoted they are to each other, how they can’t live without each other, and so on. But reading a character thinking, “I love her more than breath, more than life itself,” tells me nothing. I need to see the love. Just like I don’t want to read a character thinking, “I’m so happy.” Instead I want to see their breath catch, their eyes light up, and their honest reactions to what is going on around them.

The second issue I have with these stories is, I believe, the cause of the first. So far, almost every romance story I’ve read has a male lead whose only desirable features are his gorgeous eyes, chiseled abs, long, lustrous hair, and muscular arms. The male leads in these stories are never ordinary men. They’re Greek Gods carved straight from marble and blessed with the most amazing sexual prowess imaginable. The stories inevitably focus a great deal on what happens in the bedroom (even if the book isn’t erotica), with the man able to perform three or four times a night, bringing the woman to heights of pleasure she never thought possible.

There’s lots of complaints these days about unrealistic media portrayals of women, with models and actresses being ridiculously thin with perfect bodies and flawless skin. The male leads in the romance novels I’ve read are basically the same thing. They’re unrealistic, too perfect, and set an unattainable standard that an ordinary guy like me could never hope to achieve.

These men also often have little personality, or at the very least, they don’t do anything to win a woman’s affections other than being gorgeous at her and waiting for the magnets in their abs to pull the ladies into their beds.

I think this is why I don’t believe the characters are in love. I believe they are in lust. The female leads of most of these stories melt into puddles under the gaze of their perfectly-figured man, and from the first moment they lay eyes on each other they’re filled with uncontrollable desires. That’s not love. It’s lust.

Especially considering the large number of these women who cheat on their current boyfriend or husband, who is less attractive and not as good in bed. Yet this infidelity is often praised based on the idea that the new man is “her one true love.”

I’m certain there are some excellent romance novels out there that don’t follow this formula, and I admit that I’ve only read a comparatively small number so far. I’d like to find some that have more well-rounded characters, imperfect men, and more of a focus on showing me why the characters are in love instead of telling me that they can’t live without each other. I’m eager for any suggestions anyone has of a skilled romance author that can tell this kind of story, one with more of a focus on personality, heart, and intelligence than on pectoral muscles and other well-endowed body parts. Please let me know if you have any recommendations.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to explore the romantic entanglements of my own characters. Being that romance isn’t my strong suit, I won’t in any way make a claim that my romance plots are better than any others. But after reading a number of romance novels, I’m starting to learn what I believe I shouldn’t do, and hopefully what I should. Hopefully this means that when these stories are complete, I’ll never need to tell the reader that the characters are in love. They should be able to see it for themselves.

Friendships Among Your Characters

A lot of people talk about romantic relationships in their writing. Romance is certainly a popular genre, and one a lot of my friends write in. I’ve written about my thoughts on romantic relationships in books before, in particular the question of whether a romance should be followed until death does them part.

Yet there’s another type of relationship I don’t tend to see as many people talking about: friendships. While I’m sure there are plenty of great books out there that are focused purely on friendships instead of romantic relationships, I don’t tend to see them often. Usually a friendship is developed more on the side of the main plot, rather than being the focus.

I’ve been thinking about friendships in writing a lot lately because I’m developing one in my own novels. While the friendship would certainly be a subplot instead of part of the main plot, it’s still an element I’ve put a lot of thought into developing. There’s a few certain specific concepts I’ve been exploring, each of which has different variables worth considering.

The specific friendship I’m talking about is between two of my main characters, Tock Zipporah and Maelyssa Southeby. They’ve got quite a bit in common: they’re both teenage girls who have developed magical powers, they both dislike authority figures, they both roll with a tough crowd, and they both enjoy excitement and wild rides (Mae is a skater and Tock likes to cruise in arcane-powered vehicles of her own design).

Of course, your novel might not contain these supernatural elements. You might write about detectives solving crimes. Soldiers returning home from war. Explorers on an interstellar spacecraft. Llamas procrastinating by drinking coffee. But whatever your story is, the focus should be on the characters.

So what elements will affect the development of a friendship between your characters? One question is “What is the basis of their friendship?” This question can help you know whether the friendship is a key part of your story or just part of another plot element. For example, many romance novels have a friendship story on the side, usually between the female main character and her best friend. These kinds of friendships fail the Bechdel Test, which asks the following:

1. Does the story have to have at least two women in it?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something besides a man?

It’s #3 on this list that will make the difference between a friendship that’s there to be a friendship versus a friendship that’s there to support the romance plot. Usually, the best friend in a romance novel is someone for the main character to talk to about her new boyfriend, someone to support her after the inevitable fight that almost breaks the romance up, and possibly someone to backstab her somewhere along the way (such as by revealing a dirty little secret or trying to seduce the main character’s love interest). In a situation like this, the friendship doesn’t have anything to stand on by itself.

I wanted to make sure Tock and Mae’s friendship existed independently. So I made sure to develop it based on their personalities and interests and goals, rather than on any external variables. So far, they’ve never once talked about a man or each other’s love lives (though I’m sure they could in the future, after their friendship has been firmly established). They show genuine, platonic affection for each other. They’ve supported each other through some serious tough times. And they have a really good rapport, so that when you see their interactions on the page, you should really feel that they’re true friends.

Of course, not all my characters have developed as strong of a friendship as Tock and Mae have. For instance, Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez are good friends as well, but their friendship hasn’t gotten quite as much development. That might be because there was always a greater focus on Gabby’s relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough. Which means that Gabby and Maria’s friendship might have a harder time passing the Bechdel Test.

And I think another interesting type of friendship to explore would be a platonic friendship between a guy and a girl. Usually, male/female friendships have some underlying sexual tension and the assumption (or hope) that they’ll eventually get together. Just look at something like the Harry Potter series and how many people ‘shipped Harry and Hermione (including, it later turned out, the author herself). A lot of studies have shown that male/female friendships are rare, and the majority of the time one person or the other is secretly attracted to their friend. Despite this, it could be interesting to explore a legitimate friendship with no romantic or sexual aspects whatsoever. Though odds are, your readers will still ‘ship the characters anyway (just like some will probably ‘ship Mae and Tock, even though that’ll never happen).

There’s probably a lot of other variables that go into a good literary friendship. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, along with any other examples of well-developed friendships in the books you’ve read.