In Defense of the HEA

You could say I have a bit of a bone to pick. Which might explain why this is really long. 

Damon Suede called romance "The literature of hope." Some folks might say that that's an inflated description for dinky little love stories; those folks don't know what they're talking about. I'm not saying that to be rude so much as to express that they are working from a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre, one that is usually based in some mixture of sexism, superiority and an unfamiliarity with the texts in question. 

When you strip away the bullshit, we're talking about the most popular, most $-generating fiction genre in publishing. Why is it popular and profitable? Because, as in any other consumer market in existence, consumers are drawn to the most efficient and successful product available to meet their specific needs. To discuss romance as if it is a profoundly important part of not only a complex, highly-profitable industry but a form of art that speaks to countless people is not inflated; it's accurate. And to call that dinky or little is to insult not only the books, but the readers who invest in them.

The real question is where and how HEAs fit into that.

Look, I think we can all agree that real life sucks. Seriously. If you're not angry or sad or bewildered by many, many things at this moment in time, it's because you're not paying attention. And it's entirely too easy to get lost in that swampland. It's like the Swamps of Sadness, you guys, only we're all Artax.

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This reference will go over the heads of some of my readers, but if you haven't seen The NeverEnding Story, you should skip out early on work to watch it. By the way, as a helpful tip, Bastien's shouting "Moonchild." You'll know what I'm talking about when you get there; no one can ever understand that line as he delivers it, which is a shame, because it unlocks, like, 95% of the father's character. Bastien's mother was a hippie, but that's no excuse for poor articulation.

The point is, there seems to be some debate about whether or not HEAs are a fundamental part of romance. The majority of readers seem to say yes; a small minority, some writers, and a few smug assholes seem to think no. (Note that I'm not saying you're a smug asshole if you find HEAs unnecessary--it's a valid point of view. I'm just saying that a few of the folks on that side are particularly given to arguing in a way that makes you want to kick them in the shins). 

The arguments against HEAs seem to center around three points. 1) They're formulaic and predictable. 2) They're unrealistic, and therefore problematic. 3) They're for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. (This is the smug asshole rendition of #2, really). 

I will address these one at a time.

1) HEAs are formulaic and predictable. Yes, absolutely they are formulaic and predictable--in some ways. This is a legitimate concern if you're looking for something truly avant-garde, I'll admit, although I'll point out that this is equally true of any genre. Let me make an (imperfect) analogy. Consider the mystery genre. We know we're going to find out who it was, specifically, that has 'dun it.' The killer is virtually always revealed. The detective/P.I./cozy British grandma solving crimes out of her kitchen will always figure out the identity and motive of the killer/femme fatale/vegetable stealer. This is formula, and it is predictable. But we read mysteries because it is, like with romance, the journey that matters. It's the how, not the if. So yeah, we know they'll get together, but the how is where the tension comes from. And if the how is predictable, the HEA isn't the problem. It's the author.

2) HEAs are unrealistic, and therefore problematic. I'll agree, that when we live in a time when the divorce rate is super high, you can't just tack on a handy marriage proposal and expect that readers will assume that everything turns out hunky-dory. Obviously this is garbage thinking. Marriage is not a gateway to forever bliss and a resolution of one entanglement does not mean that new ones will not form. So I can understand why some readers find it questionable to say that two characters can live happily ever after in a realistic book. But a glance at the structure of a romance novel proves that longevity is often a pretty realistic thing, especially compared to real life. 

So there's a thing called the black or dark moment. This is basically synonymous with the climax, but fiction writers are inherently dramatic, so some of us get a little precious with names. The black moment/climax is the scene where it seems like all hope is lost. The point of the black moment/climax is to force characters to make the last big decision--change or lose everything.

In romance, this is the scene where you're sure they're going to break up. Their differences are irreconcilable. Love is doomed. Press the back of your hand to your forehead and swoon your grief to the stars. But the thing is, we all know the black moment isn't likely to actually be The End Of Our Heroes/Heroines/Whoever Floats Your Boat. Why? Ha, if you said the HEA, you're wrong! I tricked you! It's because of communication. In romance, the black moment most frequently resolves with communication. Also forgiveness. And self-sacrifice for a partner. AKA love succeeds in a romance novel because people practice good relationship skills. This is what inevitably removes a lack of realism from being a worthwhile critique of HEAs.

People can learn. A romance is, at its core, about people learning how to be with each other and get their needs met while meeting the needs of the other person. The resolution of the black moment is a perfect example of this new, good, conflict-management behavior, and we're seeing the success that becomes possible when this communicative, giving behavior is employed. HEAs aren't unrealistic in this context, because we aren't seeing a lack of future problems so much as proof that our trust in these characters' ability to handle those problems isn't misplaced. We know this because the characters just modeled it for us in resolving the black moment. We watched them clean up their mess, ergo future messes will not be a problem.

So unless the characters are shitty d-bags who treat each other like crap until some god-like creature magically resolves the whole situation for them, you've actually got a pretty good argument for why HEAs are fairly believable. Remember, if half of all marriages result in divorce, that means half of them don't. And when characters resolve stuff maturely, you've got strong evidence that you're looking at one of the success stories. (Also, if a god-like creature is running around fixing shitty characters' problems to ensure happy endings, again, it isn't the HEA that's the problem. It's the author.)

3) HEAs are for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. If you're throwing this one at me, please know that my reply in #2 will address all major issues of #3 except for your smug assholery, and for that you get dismissed from the conversation until you can present a logical argument that doesn't rely on ad hominem attacks.

Moving on.

Why is the HEA so satisfying? Why are people so willing to throw down about this and demand that an entire genre conform? I mean, it's just a couple of made-up people boning and spitting some purple prose at each other. It's not such a big deal if we skip that part, right?

Well, in a word, yes. In a bunch of words: yes, it fucking is a big deal. And here's why. 

Part of the satisfaction of the HEA lies in basic story structure. For the purposes of this part of the argument, I have math, which automatically validates my perspective! Well, I have a graph thingy. I don't know if that counts as math. I had to take geometry twice, guys. Proofs. Ugh.

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This is known as the plot graph or camel's back, or, as it is known to writers who didn't spend way too much money on an MFA, as that "That upside-down check-mark thingy." It's meant to help writers understand the way that plot--specifically the chain of cause-and-effect events that make up plot--creates tension and movement on the page.

How it works is this: your character is out living the good life when something happens that starts the whole catastrophe rolling (this is the Inciting Incident, if you're fancy). Voila! Your character is forced to make a decision about how to handle this problem. What they choose reveals who your character is, and--crucially--sets in place the next catastrophe. Each decision a character makes creates a future conflict because of the way other characters (and the world at large) then react. If your heroine's wastrel brother shows up asking for money yet again, what your heroine decides to do tells us who she is and what she values. If she says yes, she's nice and she wants to help her family, even if it costs her the funds she was going to use to start her own sex-supply store. (I would love, just once, to read about a heroine who tells an asshole to get lost b/c she has to go sell orgasm-aid devices to other women. That sounds amazing.)

The point is that her decision to help sets another problem into place--if she says yes, the d-bag brother uses the money to gamble, and gets himself into trouble with a loan shark, and now the heroine has to bail him out. Or, she says no to the d-bag brother and he ends up dead because he couldn't pay off the loan shark, and she has to deal with the guy coming after her to get the money.

Plot = character + decisions + the resulting, escalating problems. The process repeats, and each time the decisions are more difficult to make and problems get more difficult to resolve, until finally you get to the big bad, where it's win it all or go home crying. In romance, it's that black moment again, when they either work things out or break up, so that last decision is basically DO I DO WHAT IS NECESSARY TO BE HAPPY WITH THE CHOSEN FELLA/LADY/WHOEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT? If the character has learned and grown over the course of the story, that last decision is answered with a resounding "yes!" and that resolves the last problem standing between our lovers. That's how you HEA.

Why am I being pedantic? Why won't I shut up? What has it got to do with why people are so vociferous about their HEAs? Because of that tiny little moment where the heroine tells the d-bag brother to get lost and then he dies b/c he's stupid. When a character makes a choice and a good or bad thing happens in response, you're not only setting up the path to an HEA, you're setting up a commentary on human behavior that can be extended beyond the page.

The HEA is the reward that the author dangles in front of the characters as a way of getting them to be good. This is a moralizing thing that shows up in all fiction, actually. We have been trained, ever since we first started reading board books with our parents as toddlers, to view good behavior as a thing that earns good endings. This is a deeply internalized thing; we, as readers, as authors, as human beings, like the idea that being good gets you good stuff, and that being bad gets you stuck in a trash compactor. It makes us feel safe. "Yup," we say, "here is my world and it is structured and if I just Live Right, it will remain so and I can go about my business and nothing bad will happen to me." HEAs prove that people who get their shit together and love one another are entitled to love and happiness.  A lack of an HEA contradicts this. It says that you can be good and do all the right things and still get fucked over. 

Saying "Yeah, but it's realistic," isn't a useful rebuttal in that situation. Not only did we take care of that in point #2 above, it definitely doesn't help with the larger emotional implications of the HEA. It makes it worse, actually, because now you're saying that no matter what I do, the world might piss on me. And maybe there's a perfect afterlife where a divine being punishes the guy who just cut me off in traffic, but I'm angry now. 

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Let me be clear: rejecting this idea and clinging to the HEA and order in general does not mean you are weak or stupid. It doesn't mean you're delusional. It means you like the idea of a world where the good guys get the good shit and the bad guys pay for it. That's not a bad premise. And romance readers aren't blind ninnies. They simply want, desperately, to believe that doing the right thing isn't a futile enterprise.

This is how we get back to Damon Suede's fabulous quote: Romance is the literature of hope. Hope requires feeding. Hope requires HEAs, because HEAs reaffirm not only the idea that relationships can be successful, but that the world itself, as a whole, can be successful. Good behavior, good communication, and the ability to clean up your mess = good life. It's the same theme you'll find in fantasy, mystery, horror, comedy, etc. (anything but literature, I would argue, because literature exists to fuck with you. It's the paper equivalent of the tilt-a-whirl.) The heroes are good, ergo they win. Good wins. It's not a romance thing, exactly. It's a people-cling-to-stories-for-happiness thing. It's just that romance is uniquely drawn in a way that makes it an excellent delivery system. When you mess with the HEA, you're not only messing with our best source for that high, you're threatening a deeply-needed source of reassurance that our efforts and sacrifices in life will not go uncounted. 

So leave us our happy endings, okay? I spent an hour watching CNN yesterday, and I fucking need to read some purple prose about reunion boning.

And now, just to undermine my own argument, I'll tell you that I'm one of only, like, five people who really liked the ending to JR Ward's Lover Unbound. Insert mad laughter here.

Tobias Has a Title...and a Date.

I know, I know, I haven't had a lot of news lately. I gave myself a lot of time to write Tobias's book, in large part because I'm a slow writer, and also because I knew I would have to do a lot of research for it and I didn't want to skimp. But now that the book's in and we've begun the editing and pre-publication process, things are finally starting to roll!

Hard Line, Tobias's book, second in the Woodbury Boys trilogy, will be released April 2, 2018.

As soon as I have a cover (it'll be a while yet, so don't get too excited) and a blurb, I'll put those up for you, too.

Gettin' Fighty

Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between writing healthy relationships, realistic relationships, and the sort of conflict-based relationships that are crucial for page-turning fiction.

Let me give you an example with some mild spoilers. In Bad Judgment, my two heroes get into an argument. They're both tired and pissed off and neither one is getting what he wants from the other and they're too emotionally involved at this point to walk away. Neither one has any good options. There's no obviously right answer. It's just a shitty situation and they don't know how to handle it.

So what happens? They yell at each other. One of them slams a door open without really meaning to. They get to a point where they both feel that a line is about to be crossed, and they back off and do something different.

This is one of those moments that, as a writer, I thought about a lot. Not only because it was an important turning point in the plot but because I suspected that someone might get upset about it. And a few folks did. Not unreasonably.

Yelling is a big thing. Most people who've been yelled at in relationships realize that it can be a big red flag for later abusive behavior, and while the stats on men abusing women are a lot scarier, anyone can abuse anyone, regardless of gender and orientation. The fact that both my heroes are men doesn't mean abuse can't happen, and yelling is still a red flag.

Does everyone who yells hit? Of course not. Does everyone who slams a door manipulate and name call? Obviously not. But many readers--particularly readers who've been through this sort of thing--see yelling and door slamming as a bad sign, and I totally get that. It's a fact.

I want to model healthy relationships in my books. I'm not one of those readers who thinks back on the romance novels (and TV shows and movies) of the 80's and 90's with warm fuzzies. In way too many of them, emotional manipulation and abuse and rape are portrayed as romantic. As someone who read that shit through my formative years, let me just say that it took a long time for me to get some of that crap out of my head and out of my relationships. So yeah, I think it's important that romance novels say here, this is what's really ideal, this is what's actually romantic, you can have higher expectations for your partners.

But the opposite extreme can be just as tricky. Fiction where people always do the right thing and never have bad, stupid, or mean thoughts is, in my opinion, preachy, unrealistic and fucking boring. The reality is that we weren't all raised with parents who modeled healthy disagreement skills for us. Some of us have better emotional control than others. And personally, I like messy people who are imperfect. I like people who don't always know how to express themselves. I don't mind yelling every once in a rare while, because I'm less concerned with volume than I am with tone and content and word choice. That's why Brogan yelling about being frustrated and scared that Embry was hurt didn't cross a line for me, although your mileage may vary. I like people who don't all fight like they've had conflict resolution training, both because the vast majority of people haven't, and because it can be good to see couples model getting better at fighting. 

Which is something Embry and Brogan do over the course of the book. In fact, by the end, they're both so fucking grown-up it's almost sickening. 

But I'm working on Ghost's book now, and Ghost makes Brogan at his worst look like an after-school special. Hell, Ghost makes Embry look like an after-school special, and Embry's no cupcake. Ghost isn't someone who yells, but what he does is far worse. Let's call a spade a spade; Ghost is capable of real meanness. He's manipulative. He lies. He doesn't mind hurting people, and at times in the past, he has actively enjoyed doing so. It is entirely in character for him to do things which, to some readers, will be unforgivable. And while he needs to learn how to be better and he will--it's kind of a theme in this series--at the same time, people are who they are. He's never going to be selfless or kind or gentle. He's capable of doing selfless, kind, or gentle things, but doing isn't necessarily being. 

He has very good reasons to be the way he is, although I'm not sure how far mitigating factors go to excuse bad behavior. He recognizes that he's not a good person. He's capable of being better and is even willing to try, which in my mind is the line between an antihero and a villain. None of us is raised to be perfect. We're all works in progress. We learn and improve, and that means that characters who do stupid or mean things but are trying can still be worthy of love. That's a comfort to me--as someone who isn't perfect at all--but some folks find it really upsetting. They see it as rewarding or excusing bad behavior, and that's a valid perspective too.

It's a tricky line to walk without tipping over. How much wobbling can Ghost do before readers won't forgive him?

Well...

I guess we're gonna find out.

The Revision Process in Gifs

Revision is a long, unwieldy process full of insecurities, small setbacks, and large improvements. It is, to be frank, the emotional equivalent of the tilt-a-whirl. In the micro sense, the process is different for every book because you always manage to screw up in new, colorful ways.

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In the macro sense, however, there's a fairly predictable path that can be summed up pretty well in gifs. Like so...

Step One: Sending the book to beta readers:

Step Two: Waiting patiently:

Step Three: More waiting, because your beta readers have lives or something apparently, and didn't drop everything to read your book. Alternatively, it's because the book is a garbage fire:

Step Four: More waiting because now they're just fucking with you. 

Step Five: Finally going through the beta readers' comments:

Step Six: Thinking about your beta readers' comments:

Step Seven: Deciding your beta readers are picking on you and you're going to ignore them forever because they're jerk-faces:

Step Eight: When time and perspective make you realize you are not only wrong...

...but an asshole.

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Step Nine: Looking at the Garbage Fire that is your book with an honest eye:

Step Ten: Looking through the millions of possibilities and suggestions for the clues to success:

Step Eleven: You want to be an deep sea diver. You want to be a kindergarten teacher. You want to jettison this manuscript into space, because...wait. WAIT. What if...what if you move that to there, and do that there, and then he does that with him...BREAKTHROUGH.

Step Twelve: Oh, yeah. You got this. You got this so hard:

Step Thirteen: Channeling earnest Robin Williams:

Step Fourteen: Re-reading the new, revised, brilliant ART that your beta readers selflessly helped you create, despite your self-indulgent, narcissistic tendencies:

Step Fifteen: Sending the new draft to your editor:

Don't worry. Eventually you'll get back to Walter White levels of confidence again. Just in time for the release date.

My Search History is Going to Get Me Arrested

A romantic suspense author's internet search history is a terrifying thing. Because we're constantly doing research so we can write from the perspectives of all sorts of heroes and villains, if something exists under the sun, chances are we've googled it, whether it's sexual, violent, or just plain weird. And we can yell to the heavens about the fictional purposes of the thing, but that's not going to keep anyone who takes a peek at our laptops from thinking that we're either a) psychotic, b) pervy, c) criminals planning a major crime, or d) all of the above.

The nature of my research habits can be summed up with a simple look at my browser's (Chrome, in case you care) search suggestions.

For example, the other day I needed to know whether all Canadian police were Mounties or if Mounties were a special group of law enforcement officers within the larger framework, and this is what happened.

I started by typing "Can," planning to type in "Canada and Mounties." Simple, right? 

But before I got any further than "Can," Google took a look at my previous searches, made some guesses about the kind of person I am, and offered the following:

"Can I shoot someone who enters my home even if they're unarmed?"

And, "Can I get avoid getting extradited?"

And, "Can I get STIs from unprotected sex with a prostitute?"

And, "Can you score a goal and still have a 0 +/-?"

Okay, that last one is legitimate; it's about hockey stats. Everything else is the product of previous work-related searches. I swear.

For the record, the answers are as follows: #1 --yes, if you live in Colorado, as long as the person is using some form of force against you, although 'force' is vaguely defined, #2--it depends on where you go and what you did, but I wouldn't recommend you get legal advice from anyone but a lawyer regardless of your location or activities, and #3 is yes, you can potentially get an STI from any unprotected sex you engage in, no matter who your partner is. I hope you already knew the answer to #3, but I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't, because sex education in this country is a joke. If you want to do your own research, Teen Vogue is an excellent resource for healthy, sex-positive info and education about messed up crap like "stealthing."

Oh, and on a less-creepy note, the answer to the hockey question is yes. +/- provides (flawed) insight into who's scoring while you're on the ice. If you score a goal (yay!) they give you a point, but if you're on the ice when the bad guys score (boo!), they take a point away. So yes, it is possible for goals to cancel each other out, giving you a big, fat donut hole for your troubles. I actually already knew the answer to that one, because I'm a hockey nerd who reads about this shit for fun, but anytime Google wants to help me out with WAR analytics, sign me up. That stuff's confusing.

But I have really digressed. The point is that I've clearly been lumped into a very select group of searchers, and I'm not sure it's one that'll be good for my reputation if I don't make it clear somewhere that these searches are for fictional purposes. I do not plan to shoot anyone or commit a crime and run away to another country or have unprotected sex with a prostitute. Or any kind of sex with a prostitute, as I'm married to someone who is not a prostitute. So far as I know, anyway.

It's fiction! Hello, FBI? It's FICTION.