The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

One man. One romance novel. One bottle of bourbon.

A classic from my old blog. Back by popular demand. Enjoy.

I vowed to read a romance novel, you made suggestions and debated the worthiness of various novels in the comments. And then you voted.

So I journeyed in the Epic Black Car to a local store of books, where you hand them pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents and walk out the door with 3.6 metric tons of books.

Sometimes, I rent a U-Haul.

My favorite bookstore of all time is Powell’s in Portland, as it is giant and independent and impressively badass. However: Portland is far, far away from my secret lair. I went to Borders, which has apparently decided to lump all books into four categories: Mystery/Thriller, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Literature, which means “everything else.”

I couldn’t find the winning book in Romance, but this book did not exactly come out last month, so maybe they didn’t have it in stock. No. They did.

It wasn’t in Mystery/Thriller or in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, though apparently people are writing a helluva lot of novels about Star Wars and video games that really should not have a bunch of novels written about them. Halo novels – seriously? No.

The winning novel was in Literature, near stuff by Hemingway and Heller.

The cover was surprisingly normal and boring and literary. You wouldn’t know it was a romance novel. It could be anything.

I expected something typical of the genre, and I wanted it to be crazy and outrageous. I wanted Fabio with a sword and a beautiful woman.

The back cover copy puffed up the author for a bit, then set up the story: combat nurse from WWII is on a second honeymoon with her husband when she touches a mysterious boulder and GOES BACK IN TIME.

Then she has to choose: try to get back to hubby in 1940-whatever or stick around 1740-whatever with Captain Kilt in the middle of a war and spies and treachery.

This isn’t a bad setup. I raise my glass of bourbon to war and spies and treachery. Go go go.

Chapter One starts off foreshadowing things in the first sentence, saying this little village is the last place you’d expect for a disappearance.

The housekeeper at the inn is nosy and tends to sweep the floor outside the room where the heroine (Claire) and her husband, Frank, are staying.

Frank is an archeologist who’s traveled all around the world who’s now starting a job at Oxford. He is Indiana Jones: smart, but adventerous. OK. Cool.

The cover of the winning book.

The heroine is a combat nurse who saw a lot of action. OK. Also cool. She does tend to talk about her curly hair a bit much. I could do without that.

The rest of this chapter, they’re hiking around the countryside and meeting villagers, who do speak in dialect. “Kenna have a whiskey, lass?” Think of a village full of Scotties but no Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock and you’ll get the picture.

If I didn’t know from the back cover that the disappearing involved the heroine touching a rock and doing Back to the Future without the use of a DeLorean, then this could easily be the first chapter of a cozy, and it could be that the vicar is the one who does the disappearing — only the heroine finds him later behind the pub, strangled by his own bagpipes, and then Miss Marples shows up.

But this is not a cozy.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing about Frank’s ancestors being important back in the day, and of the circle of stones that are sort of like stone henge, but not, being important. She visits them once, then goes back and witnesses a mysterious dance by villagers there.

Verdict so far: It’s fine. A bit talky and slow — this novel clocks in at 830 pages — but the writing does the job and there’s plenty of setups for the payoffs to come.

I have not thrown the novel across the room. This is always a good sign.

The author raises questions that haven’t been answered yet, and there’s enough layering and interweaving already to lay the foundation for a lot of stuff. Let’s see if she can pull it off.

The third time she hikes to the stones, she touches one. Bam. Back to the Future.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

32 comments on “One man. One romance novel. One bottle of bourbon.

  1. Pingback: Vini sinks DEEP BLUE by Kat Martin | The Red Pen of Doom

  2. jody
    August 22, 2012

    I read the first of the series, but they have gone on and on and on and on, well past the interest of the original premise. I kinda liked the first one–Braveheart meets a Modern Girl.


  3. Good for you! I think more men would like romance novels if they tried them…except, perhaps, for the bit about talking things over instead of blowing them up.


  4. Amber West
    April 19, 2012

    How I miss Powell’s. ::takes a moment to pour a 40 for my previous Northwest life::

    You are the second person to mention Outlander today. I’m one of those girls who doesn’t read much in the way of romance, so I just might have to check this one out.


  5. @KasieWhitener
    April 16, 2012

    I wish I’d known you when you were taking suggestions. I’m on the 7th book in the Outlander series and it’s fine. They’re all fine. But they pale in comparison to Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman. Now THAT’S a romance novel. History, war, a great American-turned-Russian-turned-American-again hero. Communism. Death. And a whole chapter devoted to the best part of “romance” as a genre. ahem.

    Anyway, enjoy Outlander. Gabaldon is top of the game for sure.


  6. I love Outlander, although it took me about a month to get up to the time travel bit because the beginning is awfully slow. But after that, I couldn’t put it down. And Jamie is my favorite romance hero of all time, without question. The only hero who is still vivid in my head years after reading the book.

    BUT: If I were to recommend one and only one romance novel, it would have to be KATHERINE, by Anya Seton. To me it is THE classic historical romance against which all others can be judged. (Even if I do love Jamie more than John of Gaunt.)


  7. zabethmarsh
    February 9, 2012

    Seriously, if I had to only pick one romance to ever read…. which we be equal to cutting my heart out… Outlander would be in the top five. I love this book and series. Great characters, great story, great romance. You picked a winner. Have you read about The Eclectic Reader 2012 Challenge… .

    It requires you to go outside your reading comfort zone.


  8. susielindau
    February 6, 2012

    Sounds great, but Isn’t that the book that has 85 gazillion pages??? Boy they picked a big one for you anyway. I had heard great reviews, but have not yet made the time investment…


  9. epicblackcar
    February 14, 2011

    I believe it’s time for me to read a redneck romance, or something involving Victorian women in giant hoop dresses or whatever.


  10. L. Shannon
    October 13, 2010

    Well, my name pops up on the google alert thingamajob and I hop on over here to find Lex Valentine tooting my horn. Don’t believe a word she says. LOL She’s completely biased since she sees a good bit of my work before it even makes sense, usually around three in the morning. (Thanks gal! Now get back to your own writing!)

    Great site, by the way. Think I’ll wander around a bit. 🙂


  11. Lex Valentine
    October 12, 2010

    Thank you for telling me everything I sort of already knew. There is a REASON I’ve never read this book. It would probably put me to sleep like the craft books. I’ll just have a margarita and read something by L. Shannon. Dragons. Demons. Hotness. And dark plots. Very dark. The Outlander can stay with you.


  12. Nik
    October 10, 2010

    I so hoped the winning book would have been an old school romance with epic amounts of man titty on the cover. I have nothing against Outlander. I’ve actually read most of the series, but there is a reason it’s not in the romance section.


    • Nik
      October 10, 2010

      I accept your challenge to find the Best of the Worst and toast to you with my glass of Jack and Coke. This could get ugly.


  13. Sitaraman
    October 9, 2010

    Nice review this….. Liked the style of the take. Havent read Outlander or Diana Gabaldon .. Seems worth a try.


  14. Erin
    October 9, 2010

    ‘m learning from this experience, a good thing.

    I’ve always thought books for settlers and pointers were basically the same save that for pointers the protagonist always seems to have a head with a build in compass. Plus the little problem of sexual differences. Pointers always seem to win sex. Settlers, I’m not sure what settlers do with sex, it’s just there. —-

    Anyway, I liked the Chapter one review. It was refreshing. I’d best return, learn and revise.


  15. Ernur Anik
    October 8, 2010

    I just want to say that I hated this book, it went on and on and on and on…you get the picture. I was half way through it before I tossed it into my herb garden. It’s probably still there. Curious to see what you think of it.


  16. Larry of the Palouse
    October 8, 2010

    You know I’d admire your fortitude and ability to consume bourbon. But…you should really take on the daunting task of reading trash romance. Sure, it’s a wasted couple of hours. Think of it as anthropological research.

    When I was in high school, my mom had a rummage sale with friends. I spotted a grocery sack full of books, and then to my deep consternation, realized that 90 percent were trashy bodice-rippers. I read three of them.

    What did I learn? The inevitable success of formula in appealing to certain audiences. That bad prose and innuendo can carry a reader to the end, and leave that reader unsatisfied. The cotton candy of writing. Of course, that was a long time ago, so I might be deluding myself. Hell, I may not have read any of that trash.

    Now, I have not read Gabaldon. It sounds like decent stuff, particularly if brazen Scotsman duking it out on the shores of lochs before burying their sorrows in haggis and whisky. But that’s not trashy romance. Gird your kilted loins, EBC, and read “Highland Magic.”


    • epicblackcar
      October 8, 2010

      Lord Larry of the Palouse,

      I see great wisdom in your words, and appreciate all that you say, for it is PACKED WITH TRUTHINESS.

      I did kind of want to read trash, and while this book is not trash, I may — after the Literary Smackdown is over — read the trashiest trash of all four major genres, just for fun.

      So: let’s think about the best of the worst.

      * sci-Fi & fantasy
      * mystery
      * thriller
      * highbrow pretentious literature

      And let’s look for the trashiest covers of all time for those genres. Our search for the truth will not be stopped, not even for lunch, or fine Belgian beer.

      -Epic, Lord of the Hissy Fit


      • Larry of the Palouse
        October 8, 2010

        Best of the worst. I like it! I’ve got a few drifting up from my cesspool of memory right now. Tami Hoag can cover romance/thriller in one very fell swoop.

        You should pose the question as a separate post and see what your fans and followers say.


      • Camryn Rhys
        October 8, 2010

        It’s funny that you say “the four major genres” when 60% of today’s fiction market is romance…


      • Nina Pierce
        October 9, 2010

        Romances of all trashy romances … pick Spork. He just had a new release. Sorry, no trashy covers involved. Only sappy, endings where someone dies. But the man’s got it down to a million dollar science … I must give him that cred.


      • epicblackcar
        October 9, 2010

        This is my vow: I will never read of the Spork.

        One exception: unless it is to scan a page and use his own writing style to skewer him.


      • Camryn Rhys
        October 9, 2010

        I approve this message. Not that it matters, but, yes.


  17. Elise Logan
    October 8, 2010

    I hope you bought much bourbon. At the rate of a glass per chapter, you will need much.

    I can’t say I’m in the Gabaldon fan-girl camp, but it’s a decent story. If you were looking for the Fabio cover, though, I think Johanna Lindsay cornered the market on Fabio for a while. Truly, epically Fabio covers. Though, naturally, the romance novels Fabio “wrote” were the most epic Fabio-ness of all times.

    I have one. It’s autographed. I’m not making that up. There are pictures.


  18. Camryn Rhys
    October 7, 2010

    I believe Powell’s is the place where they invented awesome. And yes, if you could have bought “Outlander” there, that would have been like the bookgasm of all times. But I’ll settle for bookshelf porn. I used to live in Portland, and it was my natural habitat. In fact, I’ve bought several romance novels at Powell’s and they are considerably more awesome than the other romance novels I’ve read.

    Not really. But in my head, that’s a true story.

    I am remiss in my blogging about Jack Reacher. Must catch up.


  19. Maddy Barone
    October 7, 2010

    I have to say, so far so good. And THE ENEMY is on order at the library. it must be good; there’s quite a waiting list.

    And THIS is a marvellously apt description of the movie: “Juliette Binoche in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, which is a beautifully shot movie with great actors telling a horribly depressing story.”


    • epicblackcar
      October 7, 2010

      THE ENEMY is epic and wonderful.

      THE ENGLISH PATIENT is gorgeous and terrible and wonderful and horrible. Also, Ralph Fiennes insists that people pronounce his name like “Rafe,” rhyming with “Rake,” and that’s fine and all, but YOU ARE AN ACTOR, and if you want a stage name, change your freaking name. “Ralph” will always be “Ralph.”


  20. Sharon Hamilton
    October 7, 2010

    Bravo for going into uncharted waters. Diana’s following is almost legendary, as her characters. It isn’t a traditional romance, but the hero is one of the best I’ve ever read and, IMHO the standard.

    If you find yourself drawn further, there are great stories of how this book was written, all the research she did. If I’m not mistaken, she wrote it without going there. I think she’s a genius.


    • epicblackcar
      October 7, 2010

      Diana writes fine. She is much talkier than what I’m used to, for in Man Books, we don’t spend a lot of time describing things. No. That would take away from time spent blowing things up.


  21. oldbitey
    October 7, 2010

    Some, like the author, argue that Outlander is not romance. But you decide how to classify Gabaldon. Enjoy the epic ride, Epic Black Car.


    • Camryn Rhys
      October 9, 2010

      I would agree that the books after Outlander are not “romance novels”, because they don’t follow the classic “one hero, one heroine, what keeps them apart and what draws them back together” format.

      But Outlander does. For sure.


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