I recently read two novels by VERY popular romance writers...I don't usually read their work, but the books were at my disposal, I had a little extra time, and I was in between trips to the library. I was also curious to see what qualities made their books so very popular, and I was eager to see what writing tips I could learn as I continue to plod along with my own RN.
I have to say, I was disappointed. In the case of *Irish Dreams,* a collection of two novellas by Nora Roberts, the characters were decently developed but the plot seemed thin. This may be a function of the shorter form. And in the case of *The House* by Danielle Steel, the plot was medium thick, but the character development was lagging. And one analogy Steel used really seemed inappropriate to me: she compared a crucial moment in a relationship to "their own twin towers" (a loose quote, but the reference was there). In a side note, I've been keeping my eye on how post 9/11 novels deal with this defining cultural moment, and this was jarring and distasteful.
As for what I learned, my reading confirmed what I already know. I tend to prefer character development--I want to feel connected to the people I read about. I want to know some intimate details, silly preferences, and personality quirks. Real vulnerabilities, strengths, and ideologies make characters real to me and make me invested in their story. As a fiction writer, I often struggle with plot issues--wanting my plot to seem fresh and not contrived, but also wanting to allow my story to have that HEA if it cries out for one. This would be a large reason why I didn't fare so well in a grad level fiction writing class in which the emphasis was on high stakes circumstances. I can see now that I wanted to write RN in that class but knew that was not the venue, so I would create all these odd plot twists to seeem eccentric and not so, well, sentimental. Famous Beat Writer/scholar Ann Waldman memorably told me my fiction was too sentimental and I needed to "cut it up!" a la Burroughs during a seminar at Naropa University, but that's a story for another time.
In contrast, what I love about Susan Elizabeth Phillips' RNs is that they are so complex--great plots match well-developed characters (even the supporting ones). In my humble opinion, someone like Phillips should be selling more books than the aforementioned super stars.