“I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter. “ Agent Peggy Carter

That geeky quote served as my mantra for most of June and July when sales for The Mermaid and the Murders were less than wonderful. I knew my second book was a good story. I trusted my editor, publisher, beta readers, and copy editors. One of them, somewhere along the line, would’ve told me if the book was an epic failure. I paid for advertisements. I ran a Goodreads giveaway. Still, silence echoed back at me, as if I released the book into a void.

On August 1st, The Mermaid and the Murders was posted on NetGalley. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, NetGalley is an online service for librarians and book reviewers that allows them to download stories free of charge. I didn’t expect much, and to be honest I haven’t looked at my sales numbers to see if they’ve gone up.  I have  gotten a handful of really great reviews, which is wonderful, but the feeling of awe and wonder at where those reviews have come from blows me away.

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Chen Argote, called my mermaid amazing, said her town was “scary yet fascinating” and that she “loved my trip there in this reading adventure.” I’ve never met Chen. She lives in Manila, Philippines, a place I’ve only read about in books. But she gave me hours of her life as she read my book. When it was over, she was glad to have given me that time.

That’s incredible to me, in the classic sense of the word. Almost impossible to believe that someone so far away loved a story I put together to drive away their winter gloom.

In Sudbury, Canada, a place I had to look up on the map (and now need to visit) , Chelsie picked up my book and “didnt want to put this book down”. She saw herself in my mermaid, saying “I could relate to her struggles”.  She called my story “entertaining with a wonderful love interest and some great intrigue.”

Image of CharmedChelsie's twitter feed about my book

My first Twitter connection with a reader. Squee!

She connected with my characters even though we have very different lives. Did she love everything? Nope.

 

Sprinkled in my positive reviews have been tiny flecks of criticism; valid, important criticism that I’ll use to make the next book better. I haven’t had a terrible review yet. They’re all four or five stars. I’m grateful, but not arrogant. A terrible review will come. When it does, I hope I remember the wonder and joy I’m feeling right now, because even if someone hates my book, they still read my words. They slipped into my world, explored my ideas, and (hopefully) came away from it with something to think about. I might know my worth, but I never felt my connection with a reader, until now. I’m humbled, awed, in love, grateful, and praying it never goes away.

 

 

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Night vale cosplay

A member of the Night Vale City Council

I’m not sure when I got hooked on the Night Vale Community radio hour, the fictional radio broadcast that serves as entry into the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I’m sure I’ve only been listening for a few years. I caught on late, and Welcome to Night Vale didn’t start broadcasting until 2012. Somehow it seems like it’s been around much longer, like I’ve been listening forever.

Things like that happen a lot in Night Vale.

Night Vale cosplayer

One of the best Carlos the scientist costumes of the night. His clipboard was filled with actual science!

It’s like any other town, except that there’s a dog park that might be a portal to another dimension, and the secret police have outlawed learning. Or maybe learning is allowed again but wheat isn’t. In either case, the library is a dangerous place and the government keeps track of all middle school secrets. Oh, and there’s a five headed dragon running for mayor. So like any other small town, but not in most of the ways you think.

Narrated by Cecil, a wonderful radio host whose thoughts turn out to be deeper than you’d think, each week’s story is an encapsulated plot broken up by “the weather” – a single song by little known independent groups. It’s an example of the slow pay off of a story so strange it takes a minute for you to realize it. I can never tell how much of an episode is real and how much is story. I’m not alone.

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to see the live show entitled “Ghost stories”. Before the doors opened, fans showed off costumes and argued plot lines. (Is the whole show set in the afterlife?) With all its oddness, Night Vale celebrates scientists, like Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, and the group was happy to scientifically pick things apart. When the story started though, all that ended. Enraptured silence fell over the audience.

There are many different types of ghost stories in the world. Welcome to Night Vale’s ghost stories were about the ghosts of who we could have been if we’d done the right thing. Ghosts of people who weren’t addicted, who parented well, and who made good choices paraded across the stage in the final minutes. Those last stories hit somber notes, leaving the audience moved and maybe saddened. Normally I avoid moments like that, life has enough trouble on its own, but after all the joy I’ve found in the off-kilter town of Night Vale, the bittersweet didn’t bother me.

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I started this blog in November of 2010, eager to share a thousand things with the world. I blogged without a schedule, telling myself I’d get a great post out each week. Some weeks were more of a struggle then others but I made my goal. My plan included at least one short story each month. Inspiration didn’t always come when I needed it but I wrote some stories I dearly love on this blog.

Then in 2012 my writing life took a hard sideways turn I hadn’t expected. Somehow my blog became the only writing I did for a year. I succeeded at blogging but failed at actually writing and editing, not to mention the business side of authorhood. In 2013, I decided it was time to focus on those things more. When I did (predictably) the blog suffered. My posts followed a haphazard schedule, coming in between giant writing jags that produced two competed manuscripts. One of those was the Mermaid and the Murders, which is now published, so while I regret that blog neglect, I don’t regret it too much.

Still I came out of 2013 well aware that I needed structure, something to keep me on track with the blog.  I switched to blogging on the 1st and the 15th of each month. The hard deadline kept my blog going but I found that short story ideas melted away from me like a ghost in moonlight. My blog turned more toward writing and my experiences, places I went and things I did. It’s a change I’m comfortable with.

About a year ago now, I added monthly book reviews on the 20th of the month. Like my early blogging days that started out easily enough. I read about eight books a month, sometimes more, so I picked the best ones and dashed off a few excited sentences about the story.

But my reading habits have changed. I’m reading more samples and fewer complete novels. It takes a lot to wow me enough that I want to recommend a book to the world. So, from here on out, my reviews won’t come on any set schedule. When I’m wow’ed by a book I promise to share it, but the regular review posting on the 20th is over as of last month.

If I’m brutally honest, part of this blog reflection is because I’m in edits on the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. The working title is “Fire in Her Blood” and I’m enjoying polishing it for publication. I really love writing, crafting a story, researching a setting, and editing it until the manuscript shines. But while I’m happy to give up writing reviews on my blog for the chance to do more of that, at the same time I’m not willing to give up on my blog. It’s brought me too much joy to walk away.

Friday night was a sacred time in my childhood: movie time. Every Friday afternoon, usually around 4:30, my folks would pick a film. We tended to rush to the theater with barely a minute to spare. A lucky kid would be sent to the lobby for a large soda and a larger popcorn. We could never afford separate drinks and snacks for everyone, and besides, whispering “pass the popcorn” down the row was half the fun. Sometimes my brother and I would split a candy bar, usually the extra-large Kit Kat.  As the lights went dim I lost myself in the story.

I’m lucky that the story didn’t end when the lights came on. My family didn’t just watch movies, we dissected them. My father would pose deep questions, “what would have happened if…” and then challenge us to come up with a better ending or a better story all together. The worse the movie the more we would fight it out, who could come up with the best ending, the right twist on events?

Without the aid of Google and Wikipedia, we were forced to get creative, drawing on what we knew. No ideas were condemned, but a lot were rewritten as the drive home became dinner, which turned into time to do the dishes. Usually by Saturday morning I’d rewritten something that took the studio months to make, positive I’d done better.

Occasionally we wouldn’t agree on the subtle meaning of a foreign film or what the underlying metaphors meant in the Oscar contenders.  A little disagreement is natural when you watch 52 movies a year – more in a good year. I think of those early exercises in writing and rewriting, finding motivation, and fixing flaws as the basis of my writing career. I don’t want to ever write a book that couldn’t be made into a good movie. I start writing them all by picturing scenes, then picking actors to play my characters.

We all loathed February, with its deadly combination of no good movies and no good weather.  We all looked forward to summer, when the darkened movie theater would bring respite from the unending heat. I’m cynical enough know to know that some of my movie excitement was brought on by a surefire combination of soda and candy, caffeine and sugar. But some of it was the story, the escape from the world I lived in, and the jewel-box way another world would expand. Walking out of the theater into the Florida sun was a blinding experience, brightness enveloping your vision until everything looked white, like re-entering the world through a hot cloud.

I miss those moments, those seconds of whiteness before I realized I was still in my small town. That shift from the story I’d seen to my own story felt drastic in a way adulthood has ruined.  I’m lucky that my last move simplified my life and brought me close to a wonderful movie house. I have high hopes for this summer, for Ghostbusters, Star Trek, Suicide Squad, and the Secret Life of Pets. For the first time in decades there’s a movie to see each Friday, and sometimes a second movie to watch on Sunday afternoon. I can’t wait to slip into those stories in the dark room and set aside the hot reality of life for the cool dark world of the movies.

I stayed up until 1 am reading and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized it helped fulfill my goal of reading more books with disabled characters.

Heath, a strong young woman, is confined to a wheel chair after injuring her spinal cord in an ice climbing accident. In the first pages of the novel she bitterly wheels her wheelchair through an accessible camping lot, only to fall out onto a pair of lost girls. The two girls, one twelve and one thirteen, have been lost in the wilderness for almost a month.  They’re nearly naked, horribly traumatized, and unwilling to be parted from Heath.

The book is part of the Anna Pigeon series, so Anna is the main character. Heath gets a lot of page time though, and is able to help the lost girls both because of, and in spite of, her status as a paraplegic. Her character moves from being angry and bitter almost all the time, drinking and smoking, to fighting for others, working hard, and accepting that her new status doesn’t change who she is. The book included a great passage about her wheelchair going from being “other” to being a part of her body.

There was also a very fine mystery going on. The girls turn out to be part of a religious cult/commune that practices polygamy and child marriage. Their parents are firmly against any psychological counseling. They don’t want the police or anyone else involved in their life. Questions arise about demons; did the girls see one? Is it responsible for the dead animals and strange attacks in the night?

Trigger warning: torture of animals and violence towards women (including rape). While the worst abuse takes place off stage, the story doesn’t shy away from portraying uncomfortable scenes. When I got to the end I was surprised by the depth of the villain’s depravity and unsure that all the characters would recover well. So while it kept me turning pages, this book might not be for everyone.

I was fairly sure I had the mystery figured out at least five times, only to change my mind twenty pages later. I stayed up late reading because I had to know how it all came together. I suspected all sorts of things for the characters, which include a handful of park rangers, a youth pastor, and the girls’ families. Most of what I guessed didn’t come to pass. It was nice to see a book that didn’t rely on the usual tropes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Anna Pigeon stories, hopefully they’ll all have characters as good as Heath.

 

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I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.

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Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.

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Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:

When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar.  I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.

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The Author’s copies of The Mermaid and the Murders have arrived!

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

While the rest of the books won’t be shipping until June 10, I’m delighted to have these editions on my shelf. My mother claimed a copy, and some will be given away on Goodreads.  One will always be on my shelf though, a wonderful reminder of the challenge I set for myself one snowy February.  At the time, I wanted an excuse to daydream about my long-ago home of Key West. I wanted to walk the halls of the palatial home on Porpoise Point, where I’d watched dolphins from the private beach before going back to my job as a glorified baby sitter. I missed the heat, the smell of the ocean, and the strong Cuban coffee. I wanted to capture the fierceness of life on that island, the way women  were as strong and sexy as the men and no one felt the need to fit in.

The book that came out of that wintry month wasn’t the one I expected to write. But this scene, probably my favorite in the whole book, is exactly what I wanted. I hope you all enjoy it (and the rest of the book too).

Even as I thought about finding something meaner, I shadowed the six-foot shark. Stalking it felt natural to me. I stayed behind my prey, waiting for it to be distracted. The shark sensed my presence and took off, swimming fast to deeper water. I chased it, my tail going faster. Soon we were side-by-side, coal black eyes staring at me as the beast turned to bite. I threw my shoulders back and sent my tail forward, wrapping around it like a lover. I squeezed and my scales released blood into the water with a thousand small cuts. The shark thrashed, fighting against what it must’ve known was coming.

I felt my teeth grow in my mouth, sharp fangs coming forward. When the shark came forward to bite me, I moved quickly and bit it first. My teeth sank into gills, the flesh rough like sand, the slits in the skin moving between my teeth. I kept biting, my tail pushing the life out of the beast.

Around us, other sharks gathered, large and small, brought by the smell of blood. I ignored them; focusing on the death I intended to deliver. The creature in front of me had seconds left but I knew it could still hurt me. Fighting off my hunger, I drew back, ducking around the mouth. My arm moved too slowly and I felt the intense pressure of its bite. Pounds of pressure started to come down, enough to crack a lobster’s shell, enough to break my bones. The pain left my vision red and my tail moved in deadly instinct.

A tight squeeze with a sideways motion, one I’d never made before, and half the shark fell away. Even in death, it was reluctant to let go of my arm.

 

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Charlaine Harris writes my kind of candy: small towns filled with weird, diverse characters who have depth and appeal, with an element of the supernatural to keep things interesting. I gobbled down the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series on a gloriously hot Memorial day weekend. I was on vacation in St. Simon’s Island and ended up not seeing much of it.  The shorter Harper Connelly series went by in a flash. I can’t remember when I read it, only that I longed for more. Rumors still fly that it’ll be a series on HBO. I’ve got my finger crossed.

So it’s probably no surprise that her latest series is my May read. The third book came out at the beginning of the month and I’m already scouring the web hoping for rumors of the next one. The series feels like Harris is having fun, collecting left over characters from other books and plopping them down in the improbable small town of Midnight, Texas. Harper Connelly’s favorite psychic friend, Manfred lives on the corner. He’s two doors down from Sookie Stackhouse’s ex-boyfriend the weretiger, Quinn. Somehow a town of less than a dozen permanent residents contains vampires, assassins, witches, murders, angels, and few normal seeming folks who aren’t all that normal.

Each book brings the townspeople together to confront a ‘big bad’. The big bads range from the mundane to the almost unbelievable but the battles and confrontations always ring true. The very small town functions as a sort of extended family – a diverse family with people of various colors, sexualities, and ages who all want to keep to themselves. That never works, and each book shows us another towns-person having to reveal secrets or share parts of their past they hoped would never come to light.

One of the things I enjoy so much about this series is the very different ways everyone has of handling things. When a murderer is discovered in town responses range from ‘call the cops’ to ‘let me get my gun’. Each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view and I enjoy seeing each person thinking through the goings on. The only character who doesn’t enjoy a chapter of is own is the wonderfully grumpy talking house cat (who reminds me a lot of my rabbit editor).

When I ran into another Charlaine Harris fan at my local book store we enjoyed a good long talk about all the hidden references to other books. The stories do stand on their own though. I had no idea the pawnshop owner came from another book series – one Harris wrote that doesn’t have any supernatural aspects. I’d never read any of those books, but the character still felt fully developed.

The books won’t help meet my goal of reading more books about people who have disabilities as I talked about in a previous blog. Everyone is fully able bodied and even the character who endured serious abuse as a child seems completely free of mental issues. These books aren’t going to change the world, but they are fun. I hope I get to read more like them.

I use reenactments and historic society gathering as research.  When I’m writing about WWII era life or fourteenth century Germans I find reenactors give me a more real life perspective on the time. It’s the difference between knowing people wove cloth and seeing someone weave cloth on a reproduction loom. Reenactments are a great way to see a fairly close to realistic piece of history.

Renaissance festivals are the opposite. They’re not concerned with realism or even getting things pretty close to right. You’ll pass a tent set up as a Victorian tea shop on your way to one selling medieval garb made of rayon and nylon. Ren Fests, as they’re lovingly called, are all about having a good time. Most Fests pursue this with abandon, setting up multiple drinking areas, usually in the shade of a large tree. A band will play, and the songs may stray into bawdy drinking ballads. It’s probably the closest thing you’ll find to live Dungeons and Dragons game – assuming you’re not into LARP (Live Action Role Play). When the Georgia Renaissance Festival opened back in April I took advantage of the first cool sunny day to check it out.

I was stunned by how very anachronistic and clearly out-to-have-a-good-time the Georgia Renn Fest was. The Fest holds a series of themed weekends – pirate weekend, Celtic weekend and so on. My visit fell on pet weekend, which also happened to be time travelers’ weekend, which I’m sure explains (some how) the Batmobile parked out front:

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

Pets were on display, but not the type I expected. I imagined large dogs like dire wolves, parrots on pirates’ shoulders, and maybe a well placed iguana or two. Instead, I saw all sorts of fairy dogs wearing wings. There were scary fairy dogs with gargoyle-like wings and pretty princess pugs with light gossamer wings.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

And then there were the Ghostbusters:

 They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.


They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.

The Fest offered an array of distractions, like any sort of food you could imagine served on a stick. My favorite was the macaroni and cheese on a stick. Deep fried cheesy nuggets of pasta skewed and served up hot is my new favorite once a year indulgence. On the other side of a grassy area a unicorn waited for someone to purchase hay for a dollar. Feeding the majestic white pony with a wooden horn attached to its head felt like an act of kindness. Not petting the bunnies next door in the petting zoo felt equally compassionate. A reptile group displayed a menagerie of rescued animals, including a tortoise who plodded about with a bucket on his back accepting tips.

Fire eaters, mud throwers, and a belly dancer who danced on a bed of nails rounded out the entertainment. I skipped the jousting match, but enjoyed the glass blower demonstration, as well as the women spinning wool. I almost came home with a wicked looking dagger, but the “Made in China” sticker stopped me at the last minute. If you’re in the area, or if you’re lucky enough to have a Ren Fest in your area, I heartily recommend spending an afternoon as part of the foolishness. It’s a good time, even if it isn’t realistic or really educational.

 

I’ve found some of my favorite authors by judging a writing contest each year in the spring. I’ve been a judge for several years now, but I’ve never seen this many “jerk” entries. That’s my pet name for romances where the hero is, deep down, a jerk. Thus I give you, signs your hero might be a jerk:

Your hero doesn’t let his heroine make decisions.
It doesn’t matter how he does it, withholding information is just as bad as sharing but ignoring her opinion. In either case, or any other situation you can think of, not letting an adult decide what will happen with their life makes you a jerk. I recently threw a book across the room because the hero refused to share with the heroine what was happening to her. He’d turned her into a vampire, but he wouldn’t say what that meant or how it would happen. While she (literally) sat in the dark wondering, he set up a car accident to fake her death, bought new clothes for her, and generally decided how her life would go. Jerk.

Your hero decides what the couple will do. All. The. Time.
The heroine wants to talk through an issue; the hero wants to have sex. They end up having sex instead of talking. The heroine wants to run errands; the hero wants to go to the game. They go to the game. Partnerships require communication and compromise. The hero picking every activity, meal, and sometimes even the heroine’s clothes isn’t fair. I don’t mean the hero should always do what the heroine wants. In The Mermaid and the Murders, the hero turns down sex, twice. Both times Danika, the heroine, is ready, willing, and excited, but the hero, Sam, isn’t. Now if Danika was a jerk, she’d insist or belittle him. She doesn’t. She’s still frustrated but she talks to him about why he said no, eventually coming around to his point of view. A hero who turns aggressive or pouts when he doesn’t get his way? He’s a jerk.

Your hero plays tricks or tries to catch the heroine in a lie.
People make mistakes and tell white lies. Accepting that and forgiving your partner is part of being in a healthy relationship. Tailing them to confirm they’re going out with who they say they’re going out with, using the “find my phone” feature to track them, or insisting they call you when they reach their destination is a jerk move. This behavior pops up in historic mysteries too. One of the books I judged had a hero who waited in the alley outside the heroine’s, watching her. Another set up a dinner where the guests could test the heroine’s knowledge of India to ‘help her’ prove she had really been there. If you’re hero can’t trust the heroine at all, he might be a jerk.

Your hero shouldn’t rape. Ever.
I hate that this has to be said, but I saw in two books this year. Here’s the deal – rape is an unforgivable crime. I can’t move past it to care for the hero. There are no circumstances where rape is okay. Not if the victim is a prostitute and the hero gives her extra money after the assault. Not if the hero uses supernatural powers to make the victim forget. Not if the hero is part of culture where rape is okay. There are no heroes who rape.

I’m not saying every man in a romance novel must be perfect – flaws make characters real. There’s a big difference between a flawed character and a jerk. A flawed person apologizes when they screw up. They recognize what they did was wrong and try not to do it again. They might not always succeed but their apology is meaningful and sincere. You can see that they’re making an effort to be better. The jerk doesn’t think he’s screwed up. He might apologize but it’s an insincere effort to get something. Maybe he’ll do something the heroine wants, once or twice, but always with the idea of quid-pro-quoi in mind.

I read romance to see a healthy relationship develop over the course of the book. I expect to see the couple talking, considering each other’s feelings, making decisions together, and generally working through their troubles to have a healthy, happy relationship. I don’t need them to be perfect people but I require kindness and respect.

Because at this point in my life, real heroes aren’t the guys with abs or bags of money; they’re the guys who do the dishes, take care of the kids, and remember my favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m more impressed by people who show they genuinely care. Diamonds are lovely, but taking the day off work to sit with me in a doctor’s office when I’m scared is priceless.

Of course not every guy is going to do that. It’s asking for a lot, but at least the guys in romance novels shouldn’t be jerks.