Jun 20 2014 1:00pm

Breakin’: Reading Between the Rules

When You Are Mine by Kennedy RyanToday we welcome author Kennedy Ryan to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Kennedy's When You Are Mine, the first book in the Bennett series, is a story of forbidden love—namely, when a woman realizes she's falling in love with her fiance's best friend! Kennedy is here to talk about breaking the rules of romance, and why she likes to read rulebreaker authors. Thanks, Kennedy!

When I decided to seriously pursue publishing my novel When You Are Mine, I didn’t have an English or a creative writing degree. Or an MFA. My degree was in journalism, and I knew nothing about trade fiction, but I’d been reading romance since the seventh grade. That should count for something, right? What was there left to learn really? Based on contest feedback I received, a lot.

“You’re breaking too many rules. This isn’t a romance.”

But I had two people in love! I had a happily ever after…eventually. I had hot, steamy moments. How was my book not a romance with all those elements present? Turns out when you read between the lines, or rather between the rules, there’s something much more insidious than rules at work.

Reader’s expectations.

As a reader, I want a delicate balance between accommodating what would more accurately be termed “conventions,” rather than rules, and becoming so predictable I could practically write the novel myself after chapter one. A few years ago, I found myself in a reader rut. I wanted to be surprised. I wanted to grapple. I wanted to be discomfited. A few trends, in the hands of some gifted writers, have done those things for me.

1. (In Joan Crawford/Mommy Dearest Voice) “No Cliff…hangers!”

There is quite a bit of vitriol surrounding the becoming-more-common cliffhanger. And I get it. I’m not crazy about them either, but sometimes there is a read so good, you wouldn’t have missed it, even if you have to wait for the happily ever after.

Collide by Gail McHughSeveral books lately have left me dangling over a cliff, but were so good, it was well worth the wait. Gail McHugh’s Collide and Karina Halle’s Shooting Scars both wind you up, spin you around, touch your heart, rip it out, then start all over again. And on the last page, there is no bow. No neat HEA, but the journey is worth it, and the promise of more good storytelling will bring you back for part deux.

There are a few things that seem to relieve the sting some for readers.

  1. Tell us when the next installment is coming. (Bonus points if it’s soon, like within four months or so)
  2. Once the date is established, for the love of all that is holy, don’t move once, twice, thrice…
  3. If you can, include a little bit of the next installment to remind us it is just over for now, and the next part is underway.

Some people will just never accept cliffhangers. Some refuse to read any of a series until it is complete, and maybe not even then. If a writer grips me with her words, characters and storyline, makes the ride worth my while, leaves me wanting more, and promises it will be worth the wait, I will follow her anywhere. Yes, even over a cliff!

2. Heroines Behaving Badly

“Your heroine is not behaving heroically, so she is not likeable.”

Readers usually have high expectations for heroines. Are we still in the times where we expect their great flaw to be, I don’t know, stubbornness? A new batch of heroines has delighted me with their fallibility. Lily Calloway from Krista & Becca Ritchie’s book Addicted is one such heroine. She’s a sex addict, and we meet her in the THROES of her addiction, not in recovery. Porn, one-night stands, multiples—the whole she-bang. (Bad pun alert!) And our hero, an alcoholic himself, enables her behavior. Got any warm fuzzies yet? It is a truly amazing book that I would have missed had I given up on a heroine in the process of finding her way.

Or Karina Halle’s Ellie Watt, a con artist who swindles for a living and who hits both points of her love triangle, if you know what I mean (eyebrow wiggle). Or Laurelin Paige’s Alayna Wither, a former stalker in therapy for her obsessive love disorder. These are not your mama’s heroines. They make their mistakes. They bear their crosses. And if we let them, they teach us their hard-won lessons.

Love, In English by Karina Halle3. Infideli-what?!

This is a biggie! Cheaters get no passes in real life, people! But in a story…at the nimble fingers of a skilled writer…ain’t no angst like that forbidden love angst. Look no further than Dr. Zhivago, Anna Karenina, and one of my favorites, Age of Innocence. It’s the touch-me-not train wreck we can’t look away from. (Sorry, Anna Karenina. Too soon?) And there are some modern writers in the romance genre doing this carefully…and beautifully. Shining/tarnished examples are Karina Halle’s Love, In English, Mia Asher’s Arsen, and Tarryn Fisher’s Love Me With Lies series. If you shun these and many more because of the c-word (not THAT one, gutter girl!), then it will be your loss.

Thank goodness for the writers I’ve referenced, and so many more. Their rule-breaking, trope-bending, wild-ride stories breathe life into the genre. Am I saying every romance novel needs cheating, or cliffhangers or cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street heroines? No, but allowing them, including them, is good for romance.

I want to be jarred. Jolt me. Grip me. Challenge my convictions. Submerge me so deeply and sympathetically into that character's point of view that I wrestle with the moral dilemmas they face. That even if I wouldn't make their choices, I ache for them. Even if, when at a crossroads, they take a path I wouldn't choose, make me want to follow them down that path. Even if it's a slippery slope.

Make me love those complex, shades-of-gray, flawed characters…the way somebody loves me with my flaws and imperfections. Will you do it voluntarily? Or do I have to make it a rule?


Learn more about or order a copy of When You Are Mine by Kennedy Ryan, available now:

Buy at Amazon

Buy at B&N

Buy at iTunes

Buy at IndieBound



There were several signs that Kennedy Ryan would be a writer, but making up stories with a mop as her long-haired heroine while the other kids played kick ball may have been the most telling. After graduating with her journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill (GO, HEELS!), she found various means of gainful employment having absolutely nothing to do with said degree, but knew she would circle back to writing, in some form or fashion. After years of working and writing for non-profit organizations, she finally returned to her first love - telling stories. Her debut novel, When You Are Mine, the first of The Bennetts trilogy, releases through Grand Central's Forever Yours imprint in June 2014.

In an alternative universe and under her government name, Tina Dula is wife to Sam, mom to Myles, and a friend to those living with autism through her foundation Myles-A-Part.

You can learn more at:
Twitter: @kennedyrwrites

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1. KennedyRyan
Thanks for posting! Looking forward to dialoguing with folks about this!
2. Kadiya
Interesting points. No cliffhangers. That's a huge issue for me now with the sudden rise of ebook serials. If you tell me up front it's a serial, then I might give it a shot. If you tell me at the end of book one that to get the rest of the story I have to buy the next book, you better believe that's going to guarantee me not getting the next book. I've gotten into the habit of closely reading the blurb about the book if the title says anything about "Book 1". I've also expressly reviewed books to tell people it is book one in a serial and/or that it has a cliffhanger.

For badly behaving heroines: addiction is fine, being an assassin is fine, mental illness is fine. Con artist who uses hero as a mark, not fine. Committing a non-relationship crime against the hero (or the heroine in the opposite case) is just not fine with me. (I specify non-relationship crime because I do read books that include forced seduction and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. It's not the best way to say it, but it's the best terminology I can come up with at the moment.)

Cheating can work. I loved The Bridges of Madison County, for example. It was the first book that made me look at cheating from a more nuanced perspective. I recently read Winter Blues (Jade Goodmore) which has infidelity and I liked it a lot less because of the ending.

I'm not sure if the impression I got (that your book was meant to be included in the rule/expectation breaking examples) is the impression I was meant to get, though.
3. Scarlettleigh
You know I am okay with non-perfect heroines. One of my favorite plot devices is when a author takes an antagonist and then changes her into a heroine -with believable character growth, not just re-writing her characterization. So I am with you there.

Infidelity -- mostly not. I read quite of bit of U.K. Chick-Lit and they treat the subject differently than most American authors. And as long as it is done in a comedic vein I don't have a big issue with it. In Jill Mansell's Kiss, at the beginning of the book the heroine is having two friends with benefit relationships and neither of the men know. While this plot device is not my favorite, I still love the book.

Add in melodrama and angst then I won't be reading it especially if the infidelity is the main conflict of the story. A blurb stating Jane Doe has gotten into a rut , so when 20 year old John starts flirting, she is tempted. . . is the biggest turn off to me!

Cliff Hangers-- I spent five years waiting for a couple to get their HEA. I had long gotten weary of the author's style of writing, but I wanted this couple's HEA. And most books had hints and insinuations of more to come, so I kept reading. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that my couple -- after waiting five years weren't a couple. The author explained that having a one-off is not a relationship. Well, in romanceland for the most part it is.

I rarely rarely ever read clift-hangers now. There is that element of trust. I can just see the author thinking -- oh, wouldn't it be great to shake things up. There are too many authors that give me closure.
4. KennedyRyan
Kadiya, hi! I ddn't write the post specifically about my debut novel, but my book is first ina 3-book series, and does end on a semi-cliffhanger, meaning though the book has some closure, it is apparent this is book 1 and the next book continues the same couple's story. I include chapter 1 of the next book at the end to make that clear. I actually totally get, as I said in the post, some folks not liking cliffies. I just don't mind them if the story has pulled me in. Some of the stories that have been most impactful for me as a reader have involved 1 or all of these elements, and I hate to think that I would have missed them.

In my book, it is mostly emotional infidelity, but I wouldn't take that lightly in real life, nor do I take it lightly in my fiction. I don't really judge other reader's preferences as much as want to make sure there is room at the table for the authors who may step into those "trigger zones" from time to time. Sometimes those are the stories that jolt me most, but I competely get that they could be the very stories that turn other readers off completely.
5. Scarlettleigh
@KennedyRyan I want to apologize if my post came across as crass. I hope that you didn't take it as criticism -- because on first read I didn't realize that you had a book out with these elements.

I tend to read more on a superficial level most of the time because at times my job can be very sad and emotional. Every once in a while I will dip my toe back into an angst filled book

With connecting books - there seems to be more room for more intense emotions hence the reason I tend to stay away from them.
This week or last, there was a blog here talking about new adult, and how the characters "own the pain." Isn't that what we do as readers when we read an emotional book?

And getting burned -- third degree burns (grin) by a cliff hanger (which you already know about). I just don't want to get involved that much in a character's life again.

Sure I want to care about them, and travel with them for a while, and then I want them to have their HEA.

However, I do think that way you are setting up the books does give a reader who is looking for emotional intensity the best of both worlds -- as long as the books are not spread apart too much.
6. KennedyRyan
Oh, sweet Scarlett! :-) I didn't even process any of your comments as directed at me at all! I just wanted to clarify the relationship between my post and my book, which is loose except that I enjoy reading authors who jolt me, and sometimes these are elements that do that. I don't like devices used just for the sake of being different. When it is truly a unique storyline or approach to a tried and true trope, with stellar writing; something fresh - I'm there! I can understand not wanting to read angst when you are seeing so much of it in real life. If you read to escape, like so many of us do, that's kind of "out of the frying pan into the fire" reading. :-)

I do enjoy emotional intensity. Ironically, I'm a very chipper, sunshine-y kind of person, who enjoys emotionally wrenching fiction! LOL. One of my friends read my debut and was, like, wow. Never would have thunk it. You're so much fun on twitter! My book isn't much fun. There is definitely some "owning of the pain." Some people like that. Some won't. I am not arrogant enough to expect anything different. :-)
7. Rhapsody96
I'm a bit torn when it comes to cliff-hangers and serials. My problem is that by the time the next book comes out, I've read so many others that I've forgotten what happened in the previous book, so either I have to go back and start over again (no chore), or I just wait until the series is complete and read them once I have them all. I've done that a few times now.
8. Rhapsody96
As far as infidelity, that's a deal breaker for me.....if..... it happens after the H/h have established any kind of connection, I realize that unless they are 'betrothed' or married, it's not technically infidelity, but I still can't get past it once the H/h have connected. There has been more than one book that went into my DNF pile because of it. Silly, I know, but it's what I like.
9. KennedyRyan
Rhapsody96, I agree about the long waits in betweent he cliffies and serials being problematic. One serial that has been hugely successful is REASONABLE DOUBT by Whitney Garcia. She released the first in March and the next in May, and became a NYT bestseller. And she has RD 3 coming soon. Leaves 'em panting for more, but doesn't wait too long to give it to them. And great writing, of course. That is the worst. To know you loved a series, but struggle to remember details when it's time for the next book because it's been so long.

I don't think it's silly to know what you like. Fortunately, there is such a voracious appetite right now for good romance, an author can piece together her own little tribe of readers who like what she does and find some degree of success without any of those who don't. For some, like with Arson, a huge degree of success. I think sometimes in the hands of the right writer, some readers surprise themselves with what they will accept and respond to.
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