Contemporary Romance Panel at RT: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

I was part of a panel on contemporary romance at RT, and took four pages of notes, because I thought the comments from the other panelists were so interesting. I think I've transcribed my own handwriting correctly – I hope so, anyway.

On the panel with me were Louisa Edwards, Christina Skye, who I learned has a PhD in classical Chinese literature, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Jodi Thomas.  The session was called ' FINDING THE EXTRAORDINARY IN THE ORDINARY” and was moderated by Beth Ciotta.

I don't know if you've ever moderated a panel, or watched a moderator in action, but a good moderator is a wonderful thing, for both the panel and the audience. Beth is, hands down, a marvelous moderator – and it's something of an under-appreciated skill.  She had questions for us, took inquiries from the audience, then did a one-word-answer fast question segment at the end that was fun and silly and very revealing. Moderating is difficult sometimes, especially when trying to have a multi-part conversation with four or more panelists, and Beth did a fantastic job.

Among the highlights from the panel:

Some of Christina Skye's books focus on the reintegration of the military heroes: how do you fit in, how do you come home? (Her upcoming book, Fallen, explores some of those themes.)

Skye also said that good sex has to be preceded by good intimacy. Nothing is more crucial than intimacy.

Book Cover Jodi Thomas' new book, Just Down the Road ( A | BN | K S ), hit #15 on the New York Times list this past week. She loves this book because it's one of the best things she's written, and it “just danced off the computer.” She writes two books a year, one historical and one contemporary.

Thomas is also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M, a position I find fascinating, as it means that she spends time teaching writing to the students, and helping beginning writers. I have to wonder if she receives any comments about being a romance author from the students or faculty, or if the fact that she writes books about Texas works in her favor.

One of the first questions was, “How do you make a regular guy sexy?”

Louisa Edwards: It's not a paranormal ability that makes a guy sexy. It allows authors to tap into characteristics through that ability, but it's what's beneath that paranormal skill that fascinates. So, it could be an alpha male of a wolf pack, or it could be an alpha male head chef of a kitchen, such as with her first book, Can't Stand the Heat ( A | BN | K S ). His passion was about food – and passion is something most heroes have.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips: She doesn't like heroes that are women trapped in a guy's body. She likes guys to be guys, and likes a brooding hero. Phillips thinks that type of hero can empower a heroine, because that hero can be unreasonable. It's the “edge of macho and ridiculousness” that Phillips wants for her characters. But then, no one book will please every reader, and there's no one-size-fits-all with romance heroes.

Christina Skye: She loves an alpha hero who is edgy, but becomes sensitive. One of the ways she explores heroism is through military men, but there are many kinds of heroism. Single dad? That's heroism.

Jodi Thomas: Her heroes are humans with flaws. She doesn't like perfect people: “I've only met one. He's my brother and he drives me crazy.” We are attracted to flaws, and our imperfections are what make us endearing to others – and sexy.

How do you know when you've hit the right conflict for your story?

Jodi Thomas: Stories have a rhythm to them, which is why readers so often make good writers. They know that rhythm, that song of a good story.

Christina Skye: She gets goosebumps. Then she knows that “this is what I need to write.” She also has a sticky note on her desk that reads, “Every character has a secret.” Skye added that from a psychological perspective, there are three reasons someone does something: there the reason you tell the world, the reason you tell yourself, and the real reason. That conflict makes the story.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips: She wanted to talk about when she doesn't get goosebumps, when the hair doesn't stand up on end – which is about 99% of the time. Some writers talk about being transported, but that's not her. There are some magical moments that stand out, but they are hard won.

It's also important not to shoehorn an idea into a book. All of us have done that, and it's more important to just give it up. If something is forced into a story, it won't work.

Louisa Edwards: Some writers talk about crying while they write a book. She hasn't cried while writing every one, but she did during Hot Under Pressure  ( A | BN | K S ), and it took her 3/4ths of the way through the manuscript before she figured out the reason the couple broke up and was repairing their relationship. Once she did, it was a “cry book,” and she sobbed while writing it.

Christina Skye: In a contemporary, the plot is the characters, sometimes. Plot is not the bad guy shooting bullets. The antagonist is the hero and heroine, and there's more at stake when the problem is between them.

I really need to work on my handwriting, as there were some notes I could not for the life of me decipher. I'm sure whatever it was, it was brilliantly said.

I like panels like this because they are about both writing and reading contemporary romance. How are they written, how do the authors approach construction, and how does that affect the book as a finished narrative, and the reader who reads it? There were a lot of people at this session, and I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.


Romantic Times

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  1. 1
    Sos Aloha says:

    Aloha, Sarah!  I enjoyed this panel!  I also have pictures of you and Jodi up posted on a guest blog at the Reading Reviewer, challenging readers to caption the photos:


    So far, the best caption is you and Jodi “teaching” the hula.

  2. 2
    CC says:

    Oh, there’s so much fantastic information in this post! As a writer, this gives me even more stuff to think about. Thank you so much for sharing this, Sarah!

  3. 3
    Ruthie Knox says:

    This was a great panel. As a writer, it reminded me of something I’m constantly having to remind myself of—that contemporary romance is all about character. Yes, yes, there still has to be conflict, there still has to be a plot, but it all grows out of the character development, so you have to really know your characters. Who they are, what they need, what they want. I torture myself when I’m writing or planning a book—not enough conflict! it will be boring! So it was lovely be reminded, again, that what contemporary readers are showing up for is the characters. Christina Skye said every character has a secret, and that as authors we have to know our characters’ deep motivations: what they tell other people their motivation is, what they tell themselves it is, and what it actually is. I thought that was a really astute comment.

  4. 4
    Bnbsrose says:

    Okay, so now “Hot Under Pressure” moves up higher on tbr pile. Damascus!

  5. 5

    Great review of our panel, Sarah!
    And Beth did a truly amazing job.  It was great to talk about characters as plot, emotional intimacy vs physical intimacy (and all points in between) and about all the different kinds of heroism.  To bad that many qualities of heroism get lost in the rush for high-action, bullet-flying suspense.  (Guilty as charged.  I’ve written those kind of books too.)

    My favorite moment?
    When you attempted to swallow the paper with your notes.  Okay—you had to be there to get the joke!

  6. 6
    Danielle says:

    “We are attracted to flaws, and our imperfections are what make us endearing to others – and sexy.”

    Hmm. Quirks can be endearing (depending on circumstances), but while actual flaws humanise what might otherwise seem intimidating or inapproachable, it is the virtues that attract me and keep me interested. I don’t think I have ever looked at a person and melted at how wonderfully flawed s/he is. A good or interesting or intelligent person’s flaws can move me to compassion or humour or annoyance, but that flaw or imperfection is not generally the origin of my attraction to them.

  7. 7
    Becky says:

    Ruthie, you were in the audience at this session?  I wish I’d known that, I’d have said hello.  I read Ride With Me a couple weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it!

  8. 8
    PaulCCarter says:

    A good or interesting or intelligent person’s flaws can move me to compassion or humour or annoyance, but that flaw or imperfection is not generally the origin of my attraction to them.

  9. 9
    Beth Ciotta says:

    Sarah, thanks so much for your very kind words and also for such a fabulous write-up. Easy to lead a discussion when all of the panelists are so entertaining and inspiring, and the audience so attentive. YOU were hilarious… and informative as always. Hard to choose a favorite moment—so many great stories and fabulous advice—although the one answer Q&A was pretty darn awesome. A huge thank you to you, Susan, Louisa, Jodi and Christina!

  10. 10
    Mary says:

    I agree that Beth was a terrific moderator and all of you on the panel were interesting, insightful, and entertaining.

    I have something to send you based on your answer to a question. :-)

  11. 11
    Ruthie Knox says:

    Oh, cool! Yep, I was up front. Would’ve loved to say hi!

  12. 12

    I feel the same way while writing. I felt so good leaving that panel because it was exactly that – the reminder that’s it’s all about character – that I needed to hear.
    Ruthie, I wished I’d known you were there. I would’ve loved to meet you :)

  13. 13
    Becky says:

    I was in the front row, too.  Just a couple seats down from Shannyn.  (Who I know online and didn’t even know it until someone else introduced us!)  Were you sitting on the side in front of Sarah?  Because if we were sitting next to each other and I didn’t realize it, I’m going to laugh.  And then maybe cry a little bit.  :P

  14. 14
    Melanie Greenberg says:

    I attended as a reader, and I enjoyed this panel very much.  Great summary!

  15. 15
    WriterMomma78 says:

    As a “beginning” writer, if there is such a creature, this post gave me some great advice for what I am working on. Thanks!

  16. 16
    Spunkybean says:

    Like your review. If your readers are into Contemporary Romance then check out book review of Jill Shalvis’ Lucky in Love and the Lucky Harbor Series characters remind me of one of my favorite television shows, Gilmore Girls. It even has an inn and a diner, although in this case, it’s called the Eat Me Café.…

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