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Monday, September 1, 2008

Romance Writing - Is it For You?

I found this article online at SFgate - which is, inexplicably, my home page. Because I lived in San Francisco for 12 years and it still feels like home, I guess. Anywho, interesting article by Chris Colin.


Drea Rousseau was contemplating her creamy white silk lounge outfit while Rafael Salinas conducted business with the assassin he'd hired. She should have gone with shell pink, she thought. The assassin made an indecent proposal and looked at her with that cold, unblinking gaze. Icy fingers of sheer panic laced around her spine and -

At this point I closed the book and shook hands with its author, the sweet and unfathomably bestselling romance novelist Linda Howard One feels dirty immediately reducing an author to numbers, but Howard's are remarkable. Her books, which she spends eight weeks writing, bring her as much as $2 million apiece, according to other authors I spoke with. By my count, that's about $35,000 a day, if she worked continuously during those eight weeks. I wanted to know what being a romance writer in America was like.

I was in luck. Howard was one of a great many women -- plus a handful of men -- who'd descended on San Francisco for the annual Romance Writers of America conference. Like, say, NASCAR, the industry is roundly dismissed as low-brow, and like NASCAR, the romance industry cries its way to a very large bank. Last year its 8,000 or so new titles constituted the largest share of the consumer book market, with revenue estimated to be $1.375 billion. By comparison, classic literary fiction brought in $466 million. If you read a book in 2007, there's a 20 percent chance it was a romance novel.

"I speak Southern," Howard warned me as we sat down. "I like" was "ah lahk." She's lived in the same Alabama county all her life, in a town of 4,000 people and one traffic light. She raises cattle and llamas when she's not typing.

How do you get to be Linda Howard, a legend up there with Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts? Step one, apparently, is to drop out of community college and start working for a trucking company at 18. Howard controlled 100 truck drivers and married one of them. Her husband is now a professional bass-tournament fisherman. They dote on their two golden retrievers and are in the midst of building a new vacation home in the Smoky Mountains. The last vacation home kept filling up with relatives.

I wanted Howard to talk to me about the romance genre in big-picture terms. How flexible are its rules? In what direction was the form heading? Are its messages good or bad for women? But she says she doesn't think about it in that way -- "I just write my stories," as she put it. So I asked how she did that.

"There's the thinking process, and that's the longest part," she explained. With her most recent book, "Death Angel," the idea began with the vision of a plane crashing into water, and a woman drowning -- then coming back to life. It morphed over time, and soon the woman was involved with a drug lord -- Rafael Salinas.

"Usually something about one of the characters becomes clear to me: an expression, a line of dialogue," she says. "I get to know them for a few weeks or months. Every time I meet them I learn more. Then it reaches critical mass and I realize they know me well enough to tell me their story."

Next, she starts researching "the peripheral stuff." For her time-travel book, she had to learn physics. Howard has no use for outlines, synopses, or rules for how many words she writes each day. Here we get into more of those remarkable numbers. She might produce 30 drafts of the first chapter. The last two weeks of writing, she works 20 hours a day. The last couple days, she doesn't sleep at all. "I've topped out at 96 cups of coffee in a day." Her husband receives strict instructions not to bother her "unless blood or death is involved."

Somewhere in there, she reads, too -- 30 to 50 romance titles a month. She reads while she cooks, she reads at that stoplight, when it's red. Let me type that again: She reads 30 to 50 books a month. I was beginning to suspect Linda Howard was actually the android creation of the publishing industry until I ran the numbers by another writer.

"No, that sounds about right," said Allison Lane. The former computer programmer and classical piano teacher has been writing romance novels -- hers the traditional Regency subgenre, mostly -- for 14 years. Like Howard, she writes fast, sometimes as many as three books a year. Unlike Howard, and far more representative of the field, she does not support herself on these books, even after more than two dozen of them. Her husband, she says, has a good job.

I was glad to have stumbled across Lane. The RWA group was a cheerful bunch, friendly, too -- unlike, say, all other writers in the world, the ones I met here enjoyed a genuine-seeming camaraderie. Authors heaped praise on one another at every turn, and it was the pure kind, unpickled with envy or resentment. Still, I knew that not everyone here had it as good as Howard. I wanted to hear what it was like to be a more typical romance novelist.

"Many of these writers barely make anything at all, year after year. You do it because you enjoy it," Lane said. You have to, she added, because the number of publishers is shrinking fast. Popularity aside, the publishing industry as a whole is in decline.

At this point you'll notice that I haven't once used the words "bodice ripper." If that phrase is scrolling through your head now, take a moment to frantically delete it. As Lane and others hastened to explain, this was a dismissive and offensive term used to describe a small and short-lived type of novel from the '70s. The enormous variety of books today, from historical to suspense to paranormal, should put that phrase to rest -- and yet it persists.

"We are writing for the masses. Each book is looking for hundreds of thousands of readers. Literary fiction doesn't have to do that. They often consider themselves too elite," Lane said, explaining what she perceives as routine condescension. "They like big words and long, flowing sentences. They look down their noses at us. If I'm reading anywhere near San Francisco, they'll see me and literally sniff, and say, 'I would never read that trash.'"

"Literally?" I asked. I'd never seen someone actually sniff.

"Literally. That's exactly what they do."

What a strange predicament for these writers -- as disparaged as they are beloved. I decided to sit in on the convention's annual general meeting, perhaps glean something about their way of being in the world. Or at least see what a huge room full of romance writers is like.

The meeting consisted of 21 women at a long table with microphones, facing a sea of golden chairs under florescent lights. To generalize about the crowd: White, glasses, highlights, a few Southern accents, one leopard blouse. No heaving bosoms, though one woman sneezed a lot.

The proceedings were just slightly more official than a meeting of the UN General Assembly:

"Madam president...quorum...discretionary proxies," I scribbled in my pad. "If there is no objection...adoption of the standing rules...your president is pleased to report verbally to you at this time..."

One British writer went to the front of the room and asked the board to consider adding an erotic romance category to one of its contests. A current ran through the room: Some don't like that dirty stuff, others feel that good writing is good writing. Another writer, from Virginia, took exception to the amount of space left for answers on a recent survey of RWA members. Another found the website to be user-unfriendly. The writers seemed happy to be together for their annual gathering. But there was also low-level stress. When we filed out, I heard a good number murmuring about the consolidation of publishing houses, and the difficulty of finding a good agent.

I phoned Lane some time after the convention. She'd explained to me why readers like romance: "It's an escape," she said. But slaving away on the author's end for years, only to see advances shrink and markets whither -- what was the pleasure, exactly?

"It allows you to play God," Lane laughed. "You can pretty much write what you want. If you develop an interest in something, you can slip it in, and suddenly skydiving's a business expense!"

Being free to write what you want -- doesn't that gloss over a central component of genre fiction? The romance genre means there are rules, most centrally that the book must be a love story with a happy ending.

"If you ask me, everything's a genre," Lane replied. "Literary fiction is a genre just as much as romance -- it has its rules. It likes to take a problem and explore it from all angles. It often likes to have a complicated, unsatisfying ending. I find that genre depressing ... Human nature likes to see something good happen. That's just how we are."


So what do you think, Wavers? How do you feel about romance writing? Do you hold it in contempt or secretly read it? Did you know that romance novels are consistently the best-selling genre in the US? Can anyone here confirm my suspicion that Danielle Steele has a Jeff Koons thing going on and actually hires ghost-writing Oompa Loompas to churn out her books? Why is it that everytime I open the NY Times Book Review I see an ad for yet another Steele book? How is this possible?

My personal two-cents - I would write this genre and reap the rewards if it didn't make me a little ill. I just - can't - get - into it. It's goofy. It's not that I don't like romance - I love, love, love romance and love in life and in the movies. But to me romantic is when that Sikh character in THE ENGLISH PATIENT unraveled his turban and invited what's-her-bucket into his candle lit tent. Or when Richard Gere picks up Debra Winger at the end of AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN or, or, a million examples. It's great. I love it. I'm no jaded person. Love is great. Love is all you need. But - Drea Rousseau was contemplating her creamy white silk lounge outfit while Rafael Salinas conducted business with the assassin he'd hired - arghghg I just can't go there. What do you think, Wavers?

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Anonymous said...

Not sure exactly what makes a novel a romance novel beside the obvious like a love story and half-naked sexy beautiful people embracing in an uncomfortable exaggerating pose on the cover? If so I never crack a romance novel in my life, especially the latter. But I think Atonement is a romance novel, is it not? If it is then I'm all for writing romance novels. Can someone shed some light on the difference, say between Atonement and Stranger in the Night (I made this up) with half-naked sexy beautiful people embracing in an uncomfortable exaggerating pose on the cover?

Julie Gray said...

I'm going to GUESS in an obviously prejudiced but possibly accurate way that the difference is the complexity of character and plot. I have often posited that romance novels are socially acceptable soft porn for middle-aged women. Boy, that sounds really opinionated. I'd love more clarification on this. Romance novels are like candy, romantic literature is like creme brulee. More complex, layered and sophisticated.

Future Man said...

I would be the first to admit I read romance novels -- if they had even an ounce of authenticity to them. But I cringe at their overly choreographed fakeness in much the same way I do exhibition wrestling.

meg said...

I can't even imagine reading 30 to 50 romance novels ever much less in a month.

Last year I was working on a short novel and decided to read a few books outside the usual genres I reach for in the hopes of stirring up my thoughts and maybe seeing my story in a different light. Among the books I checked out were two romance novels by popular authors. I did read them. But I couldn't tell you the titles or the authors' names. When I was finished I had no desire to read any more. There was a part of me that wished I could write a romance novel because it's so popular. Our library have shelves and shelves of them.

I don't know about the middle aged thing though. I had high school friends who loved reading them. I have a friend whose wife left him after 7 or 8 years of marriage. She was around 30 at the time. He said all she did was read romance novels. When we all went on vacation together a couple of years before the divorce she didn't want to do anything but read her romance novels.

I guess I don't have a high opinion of romance novels which makes me uncomfortable because i don't like to knock anyone's reading /writing preferences.

The romance/sex/love is the plot not the subplot. Without that there is no story, no book.

JPS said...

Meg, remember that Flaubert's Madame Bovary read romantic novels all the time. And look what happened to her...

E.C. Henry said...

GREAT post. Love hearing the back story behind sucessful writers. Was pleasantly suprised to read how hard Linda Howard worked when she was getting close to completion.

Romance novel writing doesn't capture my imagination so I'd never even make an attempt. Romantic comedy screenplays, however, is my favorite of all genres. I'm happiest there. Unfortunatly, I don't always have a pressing romantic comedy story to write. Still, I find that I'm able to infuse some romance fairly effortlessly into every screenplay or fictional work I write.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA