Let’s Talk About Romance…and Dance Around the Kitchen

If you don’t know the name Bobbi Dumas, you need to learn it. And read her work.

But you’ve probably already read her work without realizing it (check for the bylines on your favorite reviews and articles). She is a wonderful voice in journalism and a staunch supporter of romance. You might recognize ReadARomanceMonth.com, a movement and website she founded to promote the idea that romance matters.

In her most recent post on the KIRKUS blog, she recounts a powerful conversation she had with a friend regarding book recommendations and the power of romance. Dumas sincerely believes “romance novels can help women feel uplifted, inspired and empowered,” and so do I. Oh, so do I!

And in the spirit of recommending romance to your friends, she asked three authors—Eloisa James, Kristan Higgins, and Karen Rose—to share their recommendations.


Excuse me for a moment while I waltz around my kitchen because Eloisa James is “psyched to learn” about my forthcoming release!

Click above to read more about what Eloisa James has to say about Bound to Be a Groom —and add the other titles to your lists. My TBR, it grows daily!

Blog Hop – Ramblings from this Chick

Lots of fun questions about flawed heroes and heroines during this interview. Mentioned some of my perennial favorite romance writers, including Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Miranda Neville, Laura Kinsale, Amanda Quick, Judith McNaught, Eloisa James, and Julia Quinn.

Ramblings from this Chick Link

On Perseverance

So, yeah, the whole weekly blog thing kind of turned into a bi-weekly-ish blog thing. Especially now that I am in the throes of Book Seven and I can’t really think of anything to say about anything except these characters who are on fire in my head. They are demanding!

Anyway, back when Vivian Arend suggested I stockpile blogs, I thought, “Hey, great idea!” But the truth is, I write whatever is happening Right Now and if I stockpiled stuff it just wouldn’t make any sense because I’d be all on about Andrew Shaffer’s satire of Fifty Shades of Grey and the righteous demise of DRM and then six months from now none of that would mean anything to anyone. (Andrew, I mean that in the nicest possible way.) I guess that means this blog is about what to write and when.

I started my first manuscript almost eight years ago after I read this article.

It took me a couple of years to write. I wrote now and then. Fits and starts. That sort of thing. I wanted it to be a Romance, but Literary. I wanted it to have a happily ever after, but I killed the hero. In 2006, it was finished and I sent it to a couple of agents who were friends of friends. I thought, “Hey, I wrote a book. I can check that off the bucket list.” One of the agents shopped it around for me. Very loose arrangement, no contract, all very vague. Nothing much came of it. Oh well.

A few more years passed (an infant has that effect on me…time passes).

Meanwhile, I had always been about a one-book-every-couple-of-weeks reader. I was in book clubs. In my book club in 2008-2010, we kept reading all these books that ended in misery (waves to Robin, Margaret, Joette, Margaret, Brewer, Rachel, Helene), which culminated with We Need to Talk about Kevin. The polarizing discussion you can imagine such a book would engender really set me off.

I think that was the match-to-the-fuse moment for everything that came after. I adored every word of that book. I have a mad literary crush on Lionel Shriver. I picked up Post-Birthday World immediately and loved every word of that book too. Then I happened to read Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers and loved that as well. But why?! (cue Scarlett O’Hara clutching fist of dirt raised to the heavens) WHY!? Why did they all have to end so horribly?!

I started reading romance novels. Voraciously. As an antidote. A new path. An alternative. An act of rebellion. I don’t know what it was, but it stuck. I had the whole Romance Novel Epiphany (see one of my first blog posts here) and the spigot went on full spray. I wanted to read them. I wanted to write them. I wanted to proselytize and tell everyone I knew that they needed to read them. I started what I consider my first “real” book on June 1, 2010. It came fast.

But I still had that old manuscript languishing on my hard drive and I was following the news about this strange new path that authors were taking—eliminating agents, production, distribution—self-publishing their books. I read the Kindle Direct Publishing manual and put my old book, Genevieve Arrives, up for sale. I sent a blast email to my friends. I posted a link on Facebook. I sent an email to Sarah Wendell (in which I later realized I misspelled Jennifer Crusie’s surname) and asked Smart Bitches to review it. A week later this article came out in the Wall Street Journal. I thought, “Sheesh, this whole publishing thing is a breeze. I am totally on it.”

I sold about forty copies in the few weeks it was available on Amazon, before I attended my first RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference in Orlando in July, 2010. (Oh, you lucky forty people who will forever have that on your Kindle…maybe it will be a priceless collectors’ item one day!) Anyway, while I was in Orlando I was on a fact-finding mission, asking as many Very Important Publishing People as I could what they thought about the self-publishing versus traditional publishing worlds.

Look, what can I say? A LOT has happened in two years. Suffice to say there were no self-published New York Times bestsellers in Orlando in 2010. And there were several in Chicago at the Romantic Times convention 20 months later. Anyway, back in 2010, it was a unanimous decision from Very Important Publishing People that, yes, self-publishing was definitely on the rise, and that if I was willing to devote about 50% of my “work time” to marketing and publicity and all that, it might be the way to go. BUT it was probably not the best way for me to embark upon a career that I hoped would span decades and make me the next Amanda Quick. (I didn’t even know she was Jayne Ann Krentz at that point. More on the hilarity of my ignorance in another post.)

Anyway, I pulled Genevieve Arrives from Kindle and trembled at the prospect that I might have shot all of my writing aspirations straight to hell with my rash three-in-the-morning decision to self-publish it. To this day, everything about Genevieve feels difficult, but worth it. She is my problem child. My mother swears it’s my best book and her opinion is not to be taken lightly. She buys books, people. She reads. A lot. But the problems with Genevieve from a genre perspective? Massive. Anyway, I still think of her fondly and figure she’ll demand her due one of these days, many years from now. (Genevieve, not my mother.)

The rest is pretty much common knowledge. I’ve been writing like a fiend for the past two years. I finished the duke (now A Royal Pain) in about three months and began querying agents in the fall of 2010. For all of you aspiring writers out there, it might feel like misery being rejected like that, because it is. I live in sunny Florida and I still look back on those querying months and it is always dark in my memory. Dark dark dark. And in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t even that long. People now say, “Wow! You got an agent and a book deal so quickly! You are so lucky.” I didn’t feel lucky for that year I was querying agents and on submission to publishers. I felt like a delusional loser.

At one point in that dark time, when I was talking to my husband about the agents I was querying (this is how I thought of them: AQ/SEP/JQ’s agent, Eloisa James’s agent, Kat Martin’s agent, Miranda Neville’s agent, Courtney Milan’s Agent) he said, “Not that I don’t encourage you to aim high, but isn’t that sort of like shooting baskets in the driveway and thinking you can make it in the NBA?”

Now. Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. I’ve told that one-liner often. Maybe even in one of the previous blogs here, but it is such a powerful one for me. In fact, the very night my husband said it, I finally got the courage to e-mail the query letter to the AQ/SEP/JQ agent and my opening line was, “My husband says querying you is like playing baskets in the driveway and thinking I can make it in the NBA.” That agent requested the full.

I guess the point is that my husband knows me well enough to know that I don’t like when people tell me I can’t do something. It infuriates me into action. I want to bump my chest up against someone and quote Dory from Finding Nemo.

(Not always. Sometimes I’m just disheartened and give up. But luckily this wasn’t one of those times.)

Now that the dust has settled from the Romantic Times convention from a few weeks ago, I realize the most piquant factoid was this: most agents who are taking pitch appointments tell every single aspiring author to submit a partial. Of those, only 3% actually follow through and send the manuscript. THREE PERCENT.

That’s why I love every writer who ever sent in that partial. We are the three percent. We are all there saying, “Yes, I may be a delusional loser, but come be a delusional loser with me!” And guess what? Suddenly we are not delusional and we are not losers. We are writers.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Romance Novel

This week, Manhattan will be descended upon by over 2000 romance writers. Quirky ones with glasses, sexy ones in perilously high heels, academic ones also attending the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies. Most are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that represents the interests and goals of the nation’s romantic novelists. We meet annually in different cities around the U.S., last year Orlando, next year Los Angeles, but something about this RWA, in the middle of New York City, calls to my mind the 1913 Armory Show.

The Modern Art Exhibition that brought Matisse, Duchamp, and Picasso to American eyes for the first time still resonates. What is “real” art? Who decides? Like those three disruptive pioneers, I feel a giddy sense of percolating change. Among romance writers, there is a healthy skepticism aimed at those who see themselves as “real” writers. I got my smack down at last year’s RWA conference when I thought I’d impress a fellow romance writer with the news that I used to work at The New Yorker. She replied, “Ooooh! Look at you all fancy!”

How are the mighty fallen!

About three years ago, a well-read friend handed me a small paper bag—it wasn’t brown, but still—that contained a couple of her favorite romance novels. I thought, What the hell is she giving me these for? I read Nabokov and Lionel Shriver, Hitchens and Amis. Both Amises. Jhumpa Lahiri was my intern. I majored in British Literature at a respected university. Austen, the Brontes, Vita Sackville-West: These were my people.

In the bag were Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Quinn went to Harvard, I rationalized. At the time, I thought her books were representative of a minor sub-genre of a larger foolish genre: historical romance novels, a subset of the romance novel category. I finished both in a matter of days, and headed to the library—after all, who would pay money for these books?—to get another dose of guaranteed pleasures, so unlike real life, so undemanding. I then devoured every historical novel by Judith McNaught, and pursued Julia Quinn with the same ardor. Unfortunately my local library does not have a lot of Julia Quinn. But it turns out that Quinn is shelved next to Quick.

The mother lode.

I started reading one Amanda Quick every night. Quick has written over a hundred romance novels under three different names, one for each sub-genre: historical, contemporary, and futuristic paranormal. Her historical books have titles like Ravished, Desire, and Mischief. This went on first for weeks and then months. I was immersed. I started reading “real” books about 19th-century England, such as the fabulous biography Lady John Russell, and a lengthy tome about Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. I became re-acquainted with entailments and royal forms of address, fichus and squabs. Arguing with my snippy inner snob, I convinced myself that I was simply reading Jane Austen with sex.

I would never want to read a contemporary romance, I thought. Historically accurate romps? OK. Some tawdry approximation of reality? Not OK. I was an intellectual.

I had unwittingly joined the likes of Philippa Gregory who propounded a similar line of literary elitism in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Anya Seton’sKatherine. Here Gregory (she of the incest, bondage, and more gratuitous sex than most) posited that romance fiction, as opposed to her brand of more elevated historical fiction, “has no authentic interest in different times and cultures.” Gregory went on to malign the romantic tropes and stereotypes, “cardboard characters come ready-made; they are not forged by their particular experiences, their history, or their society, and nothing interrupts them as they work their way through the story toward a happy ending.” She declared that, “A good historical novel is always conscious of our shared humanity.” (The implication being that romance novels are not.) That’s when I started underlining. And laughing. What is more representative of shared humanity than a story that relies on the most basic and potent of human currencies: sexuality?

Eventually I ran out of Amanda Quick’s historical novels and, like an addict who runs out of quality cocaine and settles for speed, I delved into one of her contemporary novels, penned under her real name, Jayne Ann Krentz. Turns out happy endings in imaginary cliff-top inns outside of Seattle are just as emotionally satisfying as those involving viscounts and Napoleonic privateers.

As the library ran out of McNaught, Quinn, Quick, and Krentz, I started reading—and buying—books by the writers who had blurbed the books I had already read. Friends of friends, as it were. People like Eloisa James, Teresa Medeiros, Christina Dodd, and Lisa Kleypas; ex-pat Brits like Miranda Neville and Janet Mullany; sexy feminists like Pam Rosenthal, Carrie Lofty, and Zoe Archer.

How was it possible that these authors (WOMEN) had sold millions (MILLIONS) of books and I had never heard of them? News of the stunning sales figures, material evidence of the powerful rise of the genre, has started to crop up in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and on blogs like Sarah Wendell’s Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The story runs along the lines of a $1.3 billion market share, and 75 million readers, academic conferences in small European cities and lively feminist blogs that defend the rights of women to speak and write joyfully and explicitly about love and sex. (They speak quite eloquently to my inner snob.)

I love that talk—the analysis, the dissection of meaning, the profit margins—I am comfortable with detached academic observation. But when I crack open a new romance novel (yes, I am a spine-cracker) I have learned to dispense with academic analysis lest I forfeit the immediacy and urgency that characterizes a particularly good one.

And the good ones are all alike in this respect: I am transported. Mission accomplished. Often I cannot even remember the names of the characters two days after finishing. I rarely underline. Philippa Gregory implies that this type of fleeting joy is “suitable only for women readers who wanted entertainment without intellectual challenge.” Her point is valid on one level and utterly misleading on another. In a well-told romance, a reader is certainly entertained, but also challenged. If “intellectual challenge” is defined strictly as thinking about thoughts, then these books are not always “intellectual”. If on the other hand intellectual challenge allows for other forms of thinking such as about the motivating nature of desire, greed, lust, and power, then they are. What makes these books great and controversial is the fact that they elicit an immediate, visceral response.

And then they are over.

Which leads me to the subject of pornography. Please refer to the above-mentioned authors’ web pages and blogs for spirited discussions on the differences between romance, erotica, and porn. There is plenty of porn on the shelf, and I have read my share. But this is not it. Romance novel sex tends to be overwhelmingly metaphorical: angry sex, make-up sex, submissive sex, mistaken identity sex, consummation sex, ambitious sex, tentative sex, healing sex.

Some romance readers contend it is the compelling pace of the narrative that draws them in—sometimes a slow burn, sometimes a frantic sprint, Anna Karenina versus The Woman in White—and they say that at times they even skip right past the sex scenes. Um. I do not skip the sex scenes. For me, these books present an ideal world and, to my mind at least, an ideal world includes lots of happy ending sex.

These novels provide all the usual mortal coil stuff, but in a more palatable form. Sexy. Heroic. These are not characters, they are heroines and heroes. And they deliver. Romance novels are provocative without being provoking. While I love them both in their own way, Ian McEwan demands things of me whereas Victoria Dahl satisfies my demands. That is the intellectual challenge I suppose Ms. Gregory suggests I am shirking, but why must my multifarious tastes necessitate the denigration of the entire genre? In other arts, the esoteric and the ephemeral have happily coexisted for decades. If I express an interest in Giotto and yarn bombing, Bach and Lady Gaga, I am well-rounded. But if I read Thomas Mann and Harlequin…I must be slipping.

Contemporary romance is often dismissed as bread and circus. For many critics, its very mass appeal disqualifies it as art. Recently, after confessing that I was trying my hand at writing my own romance novels, a literary friend asked me, smiling but with a quizzical expression, “Okay…but what do you write when you write from the gut?” I must have looked as confused as I felt. Every wrung-out word is from the gut, especially when I am trying to write a scene about a really good blow job without sounding like an anatomy teacher or a pornographer. Writing sex exacerbates creative paranoia: the exposure, the choices, the inadequacy, the judgment. It is not a hall pass from “real” writing. But it is fun.

Reading and writing contemporary romance novels has become my subversive act. And a joyful one. When asked about his bicycle wheel, which may or may not have been created with artistic intent, Duchamp replied, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” I think readers enjoy reading romance novels in the same way, for its own sake. RWA provides cheerful statistics about the real lives of romance readers. They tend to be happy. For the intellectual, happiness appears unintelligent. Blind. Thoughtless. I disagree. I am on a quest to hit people (women, really) over the head with how much I disagree. Many smart women are trapped in a dialectical prison: intelligence must be grim or at the very least ironic. Anyone who is joyful must be living in a state of ignorance. Brainwashed. Touched. Not true. I follow the news, I weep for injustice (far more than I did a few years ago). Maybe that is the reason I avoided romance novels for so many years: it was easier to think than to feel. Too late now. I am a feeling machine, all thanks to the unexpected romance novel.

So, when I venture into Times Square this week and see my favorite romance writers milling about the place, I will thank them. Just as Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse encouraged viewers to question the notion of real art, these authors have encouraged me to redefine what constitutes a real book. Because, let’s face it, that kind of liberation doesn’t happen every day and I am keenly grateful (as is my husband, but that’s another story).