Fantasy short story writer JK Cheney and I have been discussing that which is Romance and what makes it good (or bad, depending upon your point of view). Specifically, what makes Christine Feehan such a successful paranormal romance writer?

She’s posted her analysis on her blog, and I’ve got my opinions here. We’re hoping to get a dialog going and invite you to join in with your ideas and comments. We’ll be commenting on each other’s blogs as well.


Thanks for sending me the Christine Feehan books. I wasn’t able to read them through but I thought they had some good solid points in their favor.

She has a recurring set of characters in a single town where shoot, if it weren’t for the big bad, I’d like to live there. Each sister has a dream job and a dream talent. She has taken the elements of a cozy mystery, a paranormal, and a romance and melded them quite well. It’s like Cabot Cove if Angela Lansbury were still a young lass. So if you can get past some stilted writing she gives pretty good plot. And for all that her characters are cliched, from what I read, they are all really strong characters. They don’t need men, and the guys are rewards.

Gotta give her props.

Some of the stuff that irked me was the writing. Now, I think romance gets an unfair bad rap for pedestrian prose. I also think that writers tend to read as writers, not readers, and most readers don’t care about POV shifts, telling not showing, etc. This isn’t necessarily a lack of sophistication on the part of romance readership either, which I think may also get a bad rap. People read escapist literature to escape, and writing that disappears – i.e., doesn’t get in the way of the experience – is good writing. Feehan’s writing transports her fans to Sea Haven.

But I think she could do better. For one thing, in the one book I read, or kind of read, she describes each sister by her hair. Each one has a glorious mane of some variation. Dialog is often used to convey information to the reader and it can be clumsy, especially when characters tell each other things they already know. There was a scene where two of the sisters talk over tea, and after filling the reader in on mundane stuff, they get around to wondering if the big bad they sensed was a danger in any way. This is kind of a rookie mistake.

I’m far from being a best-selling author (yet, I’d like to add), so I am studying how they do it. And I think that what people want, and what Feehan provides, is a sense of place and a fully realized fantasy world. Sea Haven is no different than Stephen King’s Derry or Castle Rock. Add appealing characters and a supernatural plot and — do we have a winner? Well, no. If it were that easy, then everyone could do it. But I think that it’s important to see what’s done right rather than nitpick about what’s done badly. And Feehan gets a lot right.



J. Kathleen Cheney · November 23, 2009 at 7:22 pm

…writers tend to read as writers.

This is particularly true. We tend to nitpick, and have a lot more trouble suspending disbelief.

Also, we’re trained in the SpecFic version of the SpecFic reader/author contract. It’s a different contract than the one we see with most Romance readers. This isn’t a sophistication difference so much as it is a taste difference.

I talked to my nephew about a certain YA novel which he found…lacking…yet millions of girls went gaga over it. It is, I said, a little like Taco Bell. When you go to Taco Bell, you aren’t going to get lasagna. You just expect different things.

I also found the ‘dream jobs’, ‘glorious hair’, and ‘perfect destined mates’ business off-putting (not to mention the perfect bodies and the penchant for thong underwear that seems to be the most obvious trait they have in common). That made it difficult for me to relate to the main character of each book…which is why I suppose I might have found the secondary characters more interesting. When we saw each of these women through a sibling’s fond eyes, it made them more likeable. I think the POV character comes across a bit sterile, though, in their perfection.

Patrice Sarath · November 23, 2009 at 8:35 pm

“When we saw each of these women through a sibling’s fond eyes, it made them more likeable.”

Ah hah! Yes, that is true. I see that already. The affection comes across as genuine.

I was thinking about the perfect mate business. So what if the mate the Universe selected isn’t the physical ideal? Can a best-selling romance be written with that premise?

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 8:52 am

There are actually a lot of writers who don’t lean on having the perfect male joined with the perfect female. I’ve seen writers who actually have female characters who lean towards plump or are not particularly pretty. I’ve seen male characters who have had physical disabilities (Regency does this a bit more than average since so many men would have been veterans of the war).

So reading about perfect people is somewhat like watching 90210. I just don’t get it. Obviously a lot of people do, though.

Patrice Sarath · November 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

Pretty pretty people can be fun to watch, true, and I admit that I have watched 90210 and Melrose for the eye candy and the over the top campy fun. But I like a bit more realism in my fantasy, and well-rounded characters are always more interesting.

I also think that writers should be aware of “fake” flaws. For instance, Hannah is cripplingly shy, and that’s why Jonas thought she was stuck up. But that’s not really a flaw, it’s a bit of aw shucks charm, at least as Feehan presents it. (I was horrifyingly shy in high school, and it is not charming at all.)

Referring to the um certain novel that you were discussing with your nephew, that heroine has several of these fake flaws, and it’s part of what irked me about it.

So tell me more about the Russian Mafia — I don’t think that’s in the books I have.

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Hmmm….that starts up in “Oceans of Fire” and carries pretty much through the rest of the seven.

To me it looks like this happened.

a)Author wrote a hasty novella for an anthology with an idea she’d had in the back of her mind.
b)Got a surprisingly strong response to it.
c)Threw together a holiday book.
d)THe publisher says ‘wow, good sales’ write all of them’ at which point,
e)The author decides she has to get serious about this and comes up with a big over-arcing plot line.

I have to say that the novella and the first novel were a bit loosely thrown together. The subsequent novels seemed much more in line with each other.

One of the heros has a ‘fake flaw’ BTW. He’s an egghead scientist/search-and-recuse buff guy who goes around spouting random facts because he’s no good at conversation, and a belief that no one loved him because he was too rich for anyone to see past that.

Yeah, right.

Heavens, he was annoying.

Patrice Sarath · November 24, 2009 at 3:52 pm

That’s a pretty great analysis. Now I wonder how I can get that to happen for me!

Ah yes, the “too rich to be loved for his/her ownself” flaw. We’ve seen that one before.

So I have to ask, were the facts that he spouted correct? At least, as far as you know? Because that could be charming if he couldn’t get the facts right! Sort of like Cliff on Cheers.

Then again, he wouldn’t be a hero, would he.

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Sadly, I suppose he was right. I found I didn’t care. He could have been talking about the mating habits of black-footed ferrets for all I recall, I just thought it was annoying.

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 7:48 pm

“You don’t use too many antacids, do you? You certainly don’t want to end up with kidney stones. The most common elements of calculi are calcium, oxalate, phosphate and uric acid”

“Look at the ocean, baby,” Tyson said, opening the wide sliding glass door so the cool night breeze swept into the room. “The moon has such an amazing effect on the water. Do you realize that the sun has only a forty-six percent gravitational force onthe earth? That makes the moon the most important single factor for creating tides.”

Just like ferrets, I say.

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Those quotes were in two different spots, I should add.

Patrice Sarath · November 24, 2009 at 8:59 pm


Oh man. That’s just splendid.

Patrice Sarath · November 24, 2009 at 9:01 pm

That should be a new Turkey City lexicon entry:

Black-footed ferrets: When a character spouts off random facts, they could be talking about the moon, calcium, or ferrets, it’s all equally annoying.

J. Kathleen Cheney · November 24, 2009 at 9:20 pm

..and not sexy, particularly when said ferrets appear as part of a post-coitus discussion.

(as the ferrets did (and the moon, also))

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.