When I first started to tell my friends and family that I was writing romance novels, they were a bit surprised. I was always one of those literary readers – bordering on literary snob, I suppose – who spent the college years lugging around my volumes of Keats and Shelley. I took classes called “The American Literary Experience,” and “American Literature in the 20th Century” and talked late at night in the college coffeehouses with my friends about Saul Bellow and Willa Cather. We never even spoke the names of genre writers, let alone took them seriously. Many English majors did take a class called “The Popular Novel,” in which we read two books in five genres (romance, western, sci-fi, mystery and horror), but the object of that class was to explore the “formulas” of those genres, not to extol their virtues. We rolled our eyes at the clichéd phrases and acted like we had to read them at gunpoint. We were impressed that the writers made so much money, but we didn’t think they were writing “real books.”
When I moved into the real world, then, I continued reading literary, going through my Margaret Atwood phase with a good friend from work and desperately searching for a book club so I could discuss Toni Morrison and Milan Kundera. I started writing my own “great American novel” – a literary novel, of course – focused on manipulating language to tell a story in a different way.
But then a funny thing happened:
I kept thinking about that pop novel class. …
And I kept thinking about the romance novels. …
And I kept thinking about writing one.
Romance novels weren’t even part of my upbringing, really. The only true romance I had ever read was for the above-mentioned class. And, worse yet, I didn’t like it. (It was Danielle Steele.) I did read genre fiction when I was a teen, but my genre of choice was actually horror, with my shelves lined with black-and-red-covered books with titles like “The Babysitter’s Dead” and “Cemetery of the Doomed.” (And I read plenty of Stephen King and John Saul.)
Yet romance is what stayed on my mind. …
I realized that what I probably loved was simply the concept of romance, both in writing and in real life. I myself was always in love, and I loved hearing about how people fell in love, and stayed in love, and fell out of love, and found love again. I always enjoyed the romantic elements of any books, even kid books. I thrilled when Calvin held Meg’s hand in A Wrinkle in Time, or when Almanzo first paid attention to Laura Ingalls. I loved Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe when I was in 5th grade, and I dog-eared all my Judy Blume books like any preteen girl did in the late 70s. I pined like Meggie did in The Thorn Birds, and I sighed along with Florentino in Love in the Time of Cholera. I was in love with love.
So maybe I should write romance novels?
It took me a really, really long time to walk into the romance section. I kept thinking I was going to get more Danielle Steele, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. I kept thinking I’d get “heaving bosoms” and “hair like silk” and “gazing deeply into crystal-blue eyes.” I kept worrying I’d get a pirate-rape story, because I remembered those Fabio covers from the ‘80s, and I knew that would bother my feminist sensibilities. I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted a really good romance that was written with the cleverness of Margaret Atwood.
I think I walked in and out of the romance section about seven times over the period of about a month, always empty handed. It was too overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start. And I didn’t want to start with a dud. So I went to the message boards. And the blogs. I can’t remember what I originally searched for, but eventually certain names kept popping up: Jenny Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Suzanne Brockmann, Lisa Kleypas … Eventually, somehow, I decided on the Jenny Crusie. (I think someone mentioned “humor” and I thought that sounded like something I’d enjoy.) So I marched into my library (worried I wouldn’t like the book and didn’t want to spend any unnecessary money) and found Bet Me. I walked to the checkout counter. The librarian smiled when she saw the book. “This is SO GOOD,” she said. I shrugged noncommittally and told her I’d never read Jenny Crusie before. “Oh, you’ll be back,” she told me.
I recall giving her my best look of skepticism.
“I’ll set some aside,” she said with a knowing smile.
Needless to say, I was back in two days. I snatched up every Crusie book she set aside. I went through Fast Women, Faking It, and Welcome to Temptation in short order. I hunted down every Crusie ever written and sucked it down like popcorn (along with several of her essays on how she was a former literary snob who did her dissertation on romance and fell in love with it herself). Next, I moved on to Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Then Suzanne Brockmann. Then some Nora Roberts. I took a break from Nora and read some Laura Kinsdale. I dabbled in Lisa Kleypas, J.R. Ward, Mary Balough.
Basically, I can’t get enough.
Currently, I’m making my way through AAR’s “Top 100 Romances.” I jump around – sometimes reading contemporary, sometimes historical, sometimes time travel. I’m trying everything. And I’m finding tons of books I love.
I realize I was right the first time – I’m thoroughly in love with love. I’m not one of those people who is bothered by the constant “happily ever after” – I cherish that. To me, it feels like walking up to random couples on a train and asking “How did you meet? How did you fall in love?” Sure, the story always ends the same, but the route to get there is as varied as snowflakes. And I believe in true love. I’m in it.
Additionally, what I’ve come to admire is the thing that makes genre novels really stand out: they can make my heart pound like no literary novel can do. Literary writers are masters at using language to make us think and sigh and want to write down everything they say as a quote, but they don’t make my heart pound, or put me on the edge of my seat. I realized that’s what I loved about all those horror novels of my youth: they took me on that roller coaster each and every time. Genre writers are true, around-the-campfire-type storytellers: they take us on that familiar up-and-down, knowing when we’re going to lean forward and when to let us sit back. They know the pacing that resides deep within our souls – some kind of cultural consciousness, certainly – that’s as old as time. And that’s what I admire about them. They can make your heart pound.
So that’s what I decided to be: A storyteller.
With stories about love.
Together, they’re a great way to spend a lifetime.
“I’m thoroughly in love with love. I’m not one of those people who is bothered by the constant “happily ever after” – I cherish that. . . And I believe in true love. I’m in it.”
Good Lord are you in my head? Absolutely following your blog now 🙂 Thanks for sharing.
I always hate it when any description of a “handsome male” includes a chiseled jaw. And not only that, but the description of how their jaw “works back and forth” when they’re angry.
I guess I have jaw issues…
I would love to read it when it’s done! Keep up the good work!
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Crystal — Thanks so much. Sounds like we have the same thought processes! Following you back … And welcome to the blog — please visit and comment often. Would love to learn more about what you’re writing!
Jeanne — Ha! Yes, the ol’ chiseled jaw … That’s a popular one because that square jaw is just so inherently … MALE, you know? One of those easily visible characteristics that’s so manly (and, we translate then, so sexy) right from the start. I know I’ve mentioned it for both my male leads so far, but um … [*shuffling papers*] … I don’t believe I mention um … [*getting out red pen*] “working back and forth,” exactly …
(Thanks, Jeanne! See, I need this kind of feedback!!!!) : )
I love a good storyteller. They fascinate me because they seem almost like magicians. They know how to misdirect you, in a good way, of course, get you swept up in the story, have wonderful props and characters. Yes, if they write well, know how to use the English language well, that makes it so much better, but even someone whose writing skills are not high falutin’, I still love the story. I may not make friends here but that is the way I thought of The Da Vinci Code.
I wish someone could tell me why Nights of Rodanthe drove me insane though.
Keep your chiseled jaw. I think you could probably count on one hand the number of women who don’t like a chiseled jaw. For some reason it reads too ruggedly good looking for me. But then, I like a guy who has some quirkiness. He doesn’t have to be hot. In fact (and this is really weird) hot guys turn me off. I mean, the ones who rely on just their hotness (see Matthew McConaughey.) SO – all that to say, it’s probably just my weird read on the whole jaw thing. But why do they ALL have to have them? It has to be asked…
The problem with very good looking guys is they don’t have to care. (A generalization, of course.) My ex-husband was in the Air Force and flew a trip with what he even admitted was a very good looking guy. He said he was it weirdest trip he had ever been on. Women would throw themselves at him, left their phone numbers, and just generally made fools of themselves. When my ex would ask why he was so blase about all these beautiful women, he said because it didn’t matter, he could have his pick of whoever he wanted. He wasn’t a total jerk but he did not have to think about women, find out what them tick, nothing. But I still love chiseled jaws…sorry Jeanne~!
Kat and Jeanne — Yes, describing a hero is a tricky thing, because what “works” for one female reader may not work for another. (As evidenced by you two!) Since your objective (as the writer) is to get ALL of your readers to fall a little in love with your hero, you walk a fine line. (What if one reader doesn’t like curly hair? What if another’s despised ex had blue eyes? etc.) The best approach, I think, is for authors to be very, very vague. Sometimes it’s best to just let the reader fill in the blanks with her own imagination.
Now, that said, there is usually one stand-out characteristic. If you’re really, really good, you make the physical characteristic represent an emotional need he will end up fulfilling for the heroine. For instance, if he “sees” something in her that no one else does, his unique characteristic might be his eyes. Or if he “protects” her in a way she’s never experienced before, his unique characteristic might be his arms.
The jaw thing is usually a “catch all” characteristic to make him simply, intrinsically male! It’s like mentioning an Adam’s apple or a forearm muscle. So Jeanne, it probably just rubs you the wrong way because maybe it seems sort of lazy! Like it’s an attempted “shortcut” to quickly get you to think “hot.”
Some writers have heroes who are not hot at all, though, which you guys might get a kick out of. Suzanne Brockmann does this especially well — she has heroes who often look weird or slightly bizarre. Laura Kinsdale, too, has heroes who are super flawed, physically. (One, believe it or not, is a stroke victim!) But great storytellers like those two can make their heroes sexy by their behavior and other heroic characteristics (honesty, courage, etc.). They work at it, but man, it works!
I love your feedback, both of you!
Haha Kat – see, I know most women love the jaw.
And I think you’re right Laurie – I do read it as cookie cutter. And truly, how would it be interesting if it read “I was immediately drawn to his double chin and hairy back.” Ugh. Yet, it’s possible to fall in love with someone with both those characteristics. So I totally get what you mean when you talk about the chiseled jaw being intrinsically male. I guess it’s just not my particularly cup o’ tea. Now the strong arms? Yes, please. ;p
I’ll have to look up the authors you mentioned. I love to read and am ready to go and get more books from the library anyhow, so it’s perfect timing.
OK, this is probably too personal for a blog site, but I want to say this. I have just been catching up on Laurie and Jeanne’s blogs (I know, I’m horribly sporadic), and I am SMILING at the conversation between you two. What a joy for me!
And on a different note, having just read some of your comments to Mark, he says he’s thinking of getting a hair transplant…on his back. You haven’t discussed the attractiveness of WEIRD.
I literally laughed out loud when you wrote that about Mark! Too funny. And for the record, I like weird! Maybe it would be better if we just termed it “interesting…”
Hi, Rosy — Yes, thanks for electronically introducing me to Jeanne! : ) Love her blog, too.
And Rosy and Jeanne — Weird? Maybe. Interesting? Definitely. But Mark is smart and witty! Always a good combo for a hero. 🙂
More on hero qualities in a future post. …
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I enjoyed the comments as much as your original post, ha! I’ve been meaning to read this post for some time, since you mentioned it a while back, because I always wanted to know how you ultimately veered from literary (the path I simply assumed you’d take) and into romance. Not my genre, either—but I am completely ready to dive in now that you are published! Let the fun begin…