The Witness

Cara Lawrence drained the last of the martini and slid the shiny stemware away from her. A little world to itself, the elegant glass on its clean white napkin. A little white square with a world on it. She wanted to go there.

The muscles in her neck relaxed. God, she needed this. She’d chewed the inside of her cheek raw, driving mile after mile across land colored in faded shades of brown, tan, gray. Scraps of bleached vegetation. Peaceful in a desolate way. Like her.

At some point, she had redirected the air conditioner vent away from her face and slipped into a reverie. She could be anywhere in any time. Not much traffic on the highway. Cactus dotted the landscape. Finally, as late afternoon started to quench the outside glare, she’d been able to smile.

Now, not so much. Much as she needed her senses on full alert, she also needed a break. She sighed, not carried away, not in a different world. That man lurked in the back of her mind, dark and threatening. Looking at her intently as if he could read her mind. She wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts. He knew.

Not many people remained in the dim hotel bar, but it felt good to be tucked into this corner booth at the back of the room. Everything about the place comforted her, the scent of leather upholstery, the clatter of glassware, the faint drone of the television above the bar blending with distant voices, the bartender, a couple of nearby people talking. Facing the door, she could see anyone who came in. Not that he would come in. She was seven hundred miles away in another state. There was no way he could have followed her here.

But she felt like he had. That feeling crawled up the back of her neck like he was watching, waiting. For what? Why did it matter what she knew? Wouldn’t he fare better leaving her alone no matter what heinous act he committed?

A short laugh rolled up her chest. Fucking ridiculous, Cara. What the hell is wrong with you? She’d never been this paranoid. All this terror built on the flimsiest of evidence, a few minutes of unexplained noise, a brief encounter…so what? He’d been polite, said he was sorry, left her alone. A killer wouldn’t have done that. Would he?

She hadn’t seen anything anyway, not really. She saw him go in, heard a loud noise like gunfire. Maybe it wasn’t gunfire. Maybe the sound didn’t come from where he went. Maybe he just went in and came back out. Maybe leaving the door open didn’t mean anything. She drained her glass, satisfied that between the hearty chicken-fried steak dinner and a couple of strong cocktails, she’d have a good night’s sleep.

Okay, most of the dinner had stayed on her plate.

She wanted to sleep, a deep restful sleep with no restless half-awake time lying there, listening, waiting. Resisting the urge to have a third drink, she slid out of the booth, dropped a generous tip on the table, and walked across the room. Her legs hadn’t recovered from being in the car all day. And the day before. Walking felt good. A long walk in the twilight would feel fabulous.

No. He might have followed her. She had been his only witness. He would want her gone.

Cara got to her floor gripping her door card. If she had a Xanax, she’d take it now. She kept seeing the guy’s eyes, pale gray in a weathered face. A face that had seen a lot. And that scar. How many regular guys had a scar on their cheek?

How much of this was being off balance from the breakup with Travis?

A cluster of young men stood at the ice machine, talking and joking.

“I need your help,” she said impulsively, aware of the absurdity of what she was about to say. “Someone is following me,” she continued, thankful the young men looked at her with concern. “I’m afraid to go to my room,” she continued. “Would you help me get my bags, maybe let me sleep on your couch?”

The young men glanced at each other, all of them tall and athletic. Surely they’d defend her, if it came down to it.

Had she gone mad?

“Sure, lady,” one of them said. “Charter,” he said, straightening his shoulders and sticking out his hand, his valor ready. “Besom, Hank, Jason,” he said, waving his hand at the others.

“Charter, nice to meet you. I’m Cara.” Maybe she was drunker than she knew. What did they think about this, really? What the hell was she doing?

It was a brilliant plan, she decided as they closed her room door and walked with her to their suite. A rugby team. That explained it. Did it mean anything to her that their bodies radiated youthful male exuberance? Maybe she would give herself to them, yield up her flesh to their exploitation for however many hours they would have her.

What if she offered and they declined? After Travis, could she endure another rejection? Oh hell yes, this would be exactly what she needed to get Travis out of her mind forever. Travis hardly mattered now that she had a murderer on her trail.

What was she thinking? First she was thinking a murderer was on her heels and now she was imagining sex with a sports team. She shook her head. Did therapists have nervous breakdowns?

Maybe first thing tomorrow she’d look up a local therapist and try to get a session. Stay here long enough to get her head on straight. This whole thing with Travis had wrecked her equilibrium. Everything had been tossed in the air, years of shared goals, combined assets, promises about the rest of their lives.

She’d been a damn fool. And then she had to go and witness a murder. Or not.

Charter and the other boys jostled each other, joking back and forth as they walked down the hallway. She couldn’t believe she had invited herself to sleep on their couch. Or especially that she contemplated having sex with them. They probably had their pick of countless females younger and more attractive. What could they possibly gain from sex with a freaked out thirty-something woman clearly in diminishing grasp of her sanity?

Well, of course, they didn’t know that. The most obvious point was that they probably hadn’t thought about sex with her at all. They were upstanding young men, dedicated to their sport and their team, doing a favor for a stranger. She straightened as she hurried along behind them.

No one could say, actually, that she was losing it. Everything she thought could be true. She was intelligent and intuitive. There was something about that guy. He knew she knew what he’d done.

“Our team has six suites down this hallway,” Charter said. “So if we piss you off, you can check in with some of the other guys.” He grinned and the corners of his green eyes crinkled. His hand ran through short hair as he closed the door behind her. The room smelled of men, slightly sweaty, spicy. The television blared and she wondered if she would get any sleep at all.

“We’ll turn in pretty soon,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Game tomorrow, so no late crazy stuff.” He leaned slightly closer. “Tomorrow night, that’s when things will get wild. You’re welcome to stay around, if you want.”

He paused, his eyes searching. Oh, my god. He had thought about it. Her breath caught. She knew what he wanted to know.  Hell, she wanted to know too. How do you tell someone about a fear formed on so little basis? How do you explain something that makes no sense? She leaned up and brushed a soft kiss across his startled lips.

“Thanks, Charter. You can’t possibly know how much I appreciate you taking me in. Thank you.”

She watched him react, a slight blush, the inevitable thought of whether she wanted him, what he should do, if anything, in response. So young, so beautiful with his lean muscular body, perfect in so many ways. Her fingertips longed to smooth over his tanned skin. His scent filled her nose. If they had been alone, if she wasn’t on the run …

She stopped herself. Was she on the run? From what her marriage had become, from Travis and his selfish ways, yes, most assuredly. From the crazy incident this morning, something that even now at the brief memory, gooseflesh ran down her arms? Yes, that too.

But she was running toward something, too. A new life. On her terms.

She shook her head and gave him a thin smile. “Sorry, don’t mean to intrude. I’m just feeling worn out. It’s so good to feel safe. I’ll take the couch and get out of your way.”

He watched her with the eyes of an older man. Maybe that meant he felt desire. She had no energy to speculate. The day and the alcohol swept over her like a leaden blanket, and all she wanted, now, finally as she dropped her shoes, snugged her cheek against the pillow, and stretched her feet to the armrest at the far end of the couch, was to disappear into oblivion.

Sometime in the night a disturbance roused her. Light from the parking lot rimmed the heavy curtains and illuminated the room. Snoring, a cough. Someone moving around. Her head fell back onto the pillow. Probably someone going to the bathroom. She waited to hear the flush to know the coast was clear for her own trip to the toilet.

Sleeping forms reassured her as she returned to the couch, glass of water in hand. If her circumstances hadn’t been so completely bizarre, she would have been amused, even pleased, to be sleeping amid a room full of young men.

How long had it been since she felt the pleasure of men, their predictable ways with food, rest, entertainment. Simple and yet exquisitely complex, each one of them a world of contradictions and needs that would probably never be fully met. And yet so irresistible, sweet and funny and tender in so many ways. Nothing like Travis with his demands.

The pillow sweated her head and she couldn’t get comfortable. Alcohol did this, gave her that early crushing slide into sleep then later kept her awake. She lay on her back, forearm over her forehead as she wondered if the man in the truck had lost all his charming male attributes. What if anything did he still have in common with these young men? Not that she knew, really, anything about these young men. She turned to her side, pulling at her rumpled clothes.

She wanted to take off her clothes and lie naked on the soft upholstery, receive Charter and the rest one after another until their semen filled her like a warm flood. Let them kneel at the altar of her body, lavish her with their mouths and hands, spear into her with their hot cornucopias. They would fill her up and all her lines would vanish, her empty places, her loneliness and fear. There would be no place left untouched, no shadow not illuminated. Whispering, groaning, they would yield their youth and plenty to her age and hunger until she had been restored, reborn, resurrected.

“Cara.”

She felt his hand on her foot. Charter. His weight dented the couch where he sat by her knees. His hand ran up her leg.

“Yes.” Her voice barely penetrated the thick silence. His breathing told her everything — shallow, fast. Her legs eased apart, welcoming his hand to her thighs as he eased his way upward.

She sat up and pulled her shirt over her head. The bra fell to the floor, exposing her breasts to the cool air. Her nipples shriveled to hard knots, more from the certain knowledge that he would touch her than from the air conditioning. She lifted her hips to let him remove her skirt and panties then lay in blissful quietude as his hands explored her.

He wore nothing but a towel, she realized, now that her eyes had taken a cat’s sight in the dark. He leaned over her, his torso rippling with honed muscle, his thighs parted. She slid her hand onto his thigh where fine hair bristled her palm. Tense, hardened, his body arched over her.

“I want you,” he muttered, bringing his lips to her mouth. “Can we do this?”

“Yes.”

His mouth grazed over hers, his tongue explored gently. His hands brushed her breasts, her belly. Asked permission, discovered, got his bearings. How many young girls had felt his touch? She smiled into his kiss.

He drove himself into her, plunging in short hard lunges like a coiled spring, like iron, like a lion stalking and running and leaping on its prey. His mouth on her neck, biting. His back bowed, his hips tucked. Her fingertips brushed over the soft skin of his taut buttocks. Tears of relief burned her eyelids.

She swallowed her shouts, her screams, her groans of pleasure. Short gasping huffs escaped her in the last seconds as his motions peaked, his heat burning into her with long trembling ejaculations. Maybe the sounds were as much his as hers, their muted voices as mingled as their bodies.

As much as if she heard his words, she knew his thoughts. They echoed her own, whether they had done the right thing, whether the other person was satisfied, what to say or do now that it had happened.

None of that matters, she said back silently. We did what we did. It was good and that’s what counts.

He returned to his bed. She dressed in silence then lay quietly, waiting for dawn. It’s my life now, she thought, smiling into the dark.

The Hell of Writing Isn’t Writing

There’s a perfect irony about self-publishing. Work hard, pay for professional editing and cover design, and then like the dog that chased a car until it stopped, what now?

Does it really matter how good you are if no one ever reads what you write? Oh, sure, you can pay for promotions and reviews, but in the real world of publishing, that simply doesn’t count.

The rule is that if you aren’t published by a “real” publisher, you can’t get “real” reviews. Without such, you might as well be waiting for hell to freeze over.

Traditional publishing has all the power. There’s a process. First you must convince an agent to read your work. Or you can write by the formula fitting your genre and submit directly to a select few publishing houses.

If you find an agent who likes your work, you then embark on a lengthy process of editing your work to fit the agent’s criteria. Then the agent submits your work to a variety of publishers which the agent believes will be interested in what you have to offer. Or make that, what you and the agent have to offer.

Assuming the publishing house thinks your work has merit, there’s more editing. The final product is not your work any longer, but rather the product of your ideas and hard work plus the agent’s tweaks and the publisher’s tweaks which fit their idea of what you were trying to say.

That’s when you find out that your publisher expects you to market the book yourself. You’ll be at their beck and call to appear (at your own expense) at book signings and conventions. You’ll be expected to maintain a website, Facebook page, and other social media platforms where you will work tirelessly to promote your book. At your own expense.

The only good thing to come out of this insider game is the “real” reviews your book can get now that you have jumped through the industry hoops. In exchange for this generous bestowal of a gold star in the middle of your forehead, you can expect to yield up to 90% of your book’s proceeds to the publisher and agent. For a book that retails for ten dollars, you’ll get one.

Been there, done that. Believe me, it hurts to see all that hard work and creative energy fly through your fingers into someone else’s pockets.

No wonder that so many authors choose to self-publish. No wonder hundreds of review blogs and Facebook groups have sprung up to assist Indie authors in getting the word out. Problem is that the vast majority of those blogs and groups are frequented mostly by other authors.

For example, I’ve “joined” over sixty promotional Facebook groups whose stated goal is to promote books. After five years of watching this ebb and flow, I’ve realized this is all preaching to the choir. Virtually everyone else visiting those groups is also an author.

I’ve participated in Goodreads groups to learn more and participate in various “communities” of certain genre writers all of which is intended to help authors reach more readers but ultimately consists mostly of writers or, in other cases, mostly of readers who’d rather not hear from writers unless they’re giving books away.

At no small expense, I’ve given away paperback copies of novels, packaged and mailed, to recipients of Goodreads and other group giveaways as promotions. For the most part, the recipients don’t even bother to post a review as promised.

There’s reason here for me to point out that among the reviews of my works which have been posted, they’re mostly four and five star reviews. So it’s not like I’m peddling trash. And I write romance, so it’s not an obscure market.

There are 1.2 million hits on a Google search for “Indie author promotions.” Among the top sites appearing in such a search, Published to Death offers a cautionary list of how best to spend your promotional budget. Oh – don’t have a promotional budget with three or four figures? Well then, aren’t you precious.

Here’s a cheery note from another website on this topic: “Marketing is dead. You can’t go out there and promote your book to everybody you know. Sales and promotions won’t really work.”

Yep, I believe him.

Other blog posts and websites tell cautionary tales about how to spend a lot of money on marketing without getting a decent return. Or any return. The most successful method of promoting a book is to write a book about how to promote a book.

One of my personal pet peeves is advice to get to know your fans. It’s as if by making friends with your readers, you can get them to talk excitedly about you with their friends. This might work a little while, but there are multiple downsides to this, not the least of which is the coercion factor that you pretend to be friends and your only real purpose is to sell books. I mean, how many real friends can you have? What happens when you forget their birthday or don’t appropriately comment on their life event? I mean, you are writing, aren’t you? Or do you give up writing entirely just to maintain a stable of “friends”?

And when was the last time you heard from your friend, the author of your favorite book?

No doubt reviews are key to book sales. Any other kind of promotion is likely to flounder if there aren’t good reviews, and more than a handful. As noted by A Marketing Expert, along with lots of other good up-to-date suggestions:

Include a letter in the back of the book inviting your readers to review the book and link to the book page on Amazon. Make the letter friendly, thank them for taking time to read your book and ask them, good or bad, if they might also make the time for a review. You might be surprised how many of your readers will do this, simply because you asked. This back of the book letter is a must for indie authors.

So yeah, for writers struggling to work out character development and plot lines and settings, marketing is the last thing you want to do with your time. But face it—even if you snap up a hot agent and mainstream publishing loves your book, it’s up to you to do the bulk of the marketing. Best to write because you have no choice, do what you can to get the word out, and give up that dream of making it big.

You  might, but odds are against it.

How Primal Is Your Life?

What’s behind the popularity of romance fiction that features alpha males succumbing to women’s charms? Does it reflect the reality, that whether they admit it or not, men want women?

That’s what women want to believe. To some extent, it’s true. Men want women. They want the satisfaction of feeling manly, desirable, in charge. They want the pleasure of sex. Their libido is pushed along by the fundamental biological imperative to reproduce. Being the object of a woman’s attention gives men those satisfactions.

But men also need to satisfy other drives, and these other instinctual objectives can at times equal or surpass their interest in a woman.

It all has to do with evolution. For ancient man, survival meant traveling in small groups of tribal companions to stalk game, sit quietly for hours, then attack and kill the unruly beast and haul it back to the cave to share. Success as a hunter meant physical prowess, the ability to run, leap, throw a spear, and carry heavy weight.

Survival meant staying alert to possible intruders who might steal the food and kill you in the process. Or worse, steal your woman. Sometimes, men’s survival strategy meant attacking other tribes they considered a threat or who had resources they needed for themselves. Men had to be strong, wary, and focused.

Men don’t have much use for words. Successful hunting or preparing to attack another group of men meant not talking. When men sit on the deck with a beer or hang with the guys, they’re reliving the hunt mentality.

Men have built in alarm systems for other men checking out their women. Successful evolution meant keeping your woman because she took care of your children. When your man gives the stink-eye to your best buddy from high school, he’s reliving the need to protect the future of his gene pool.

Men think of faraway places they might explore, places where they might find more abundant game. It’s their duty to seek greener pastures where fewer people might mean less competition for scarce resources.

Who is responsible for teaching young people about the primitive past of our kind? About the reasons men are so different from women? What high school class delves into the basic natures of men and women?

Who teaches young men about women’s instinctive need to create a nest, a safe comfortable home where she might raise children? About the urge to talk and share information with other women, to express feelings as processes so essential to primal females as they kept the home fires burning in close company with other women and children.

Modern culture has moved so far from our early ancestry that many of us simply don’t know why we feel what we feel. But it’s important to know because these urges can end up putting us in places we really don’t want to go. Gangs, for example. Teenage pregnancies.

For males, athletics serve as an important replacement for the urge to hunt and wage warfare. For females, gathering with women friends to talk about men, about clothes, grooming, and a thousand other topics is simply a re-creation of the primitive conditions of survival. Knowledge of our evolutionary past gives us power over urges that need to be controlled but it also gives us important tools to enhance our daily lives.

Males need to find constructive outlets for all that machismo that no longer is directed toward stalking wild animals. Females need to understand that one of the reasons you tend to gravitate toward romantic fiction that feature alpha males is that deep inside, you haven’t changed much from the woman in the cave waiting for that big hairy muscle man to drag home an antelope.

Great books to help explore underlying primal motivations include “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff, and most anything by  Steven J. Gould.

 

 

Rainy Morning

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Rain spattered on the rock walkway around the outside garden. Rose turned in the bed, lifting her face to the narrow window opening to inhale the scent of wet grass. Misty gray dawn. She smiled.

With the covers tucked over her shoulder, she snuggled against the pillow. In another time, Jameson would have been behind her in the bed, awakening to her stirring. His big hand would settle on her waist, warm and reassuring. He would cuddle up behind her, bringing his hot silken skin against her back, her buttocks, and inevitably, his morning wood would press between her thighs.

Jameson. The one man she had loved without limit, without reason. She could see him now, suntanned, his chest wide as he stood with his fists on his hips wearing nothing but cutoffs and a straw cowboy hat that shadowed his face and its rugged features. His blue eyes penetrating the brim’s shadow in a heated gaze that spoke of his love, his promise.

His hand would slide up her side, inexorable as it traveled toward her breast. Already her nipples would have peaked, anticipating. The grip of his rough hand spoke of ownership but also affection, belonging, shared memories and a future yet to unfold. As he pressed her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, the gentle prod of his cock spoke of its need to find its natural home.

Rose turned, resting on her back to stare at the ceiling. Rain continued its drone on the roof, on the rock walk. Just yesterday the narcissus had bloomed, pale yellow blossoms releasing intoxicating scent. Over the last week, the yard had erupted in vibrant green. Dogwood and redbud dotted the woodland with their blossoms. Another spring.

Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as memories of prior springs flashed like a slideshow in her mind. Jameson walking naked across the yard, grinning ear to ear as she ran then let herself get caught. Jameson sitting beside her on the porch in fragile sunlight, not yet hot, not yet summer. But not winter. Not cold.

Jameson, the father of her children. Jameson, the only man who brought her repeatedly to the pinnacle of pleasure. Jameson, the man who shared her dream of life.

She’d always love Jameson.

Twenty years since she sent him away. Twenty years living alone, remembering, wondering. How could it have been different? How could she have helped him reach inside himself to gain the strength he needed? How could she have changed, somehow, to accept his anger, his disease, in a way that didn’t destroy her?

There was no going back to a time when she might have taken a different path. When the dark side of Jameson would have told her to run and never look back. By the time the realization came to her, it was nineteen years on with three children and lives so intertwined that separation inevitably tore parts off of everyone.

Rose threw back the covers and stood up, shivering in the rainy morning air. Outside, fog had crept into the woodland, strangely luminous in the reflection of green from the nascent grasses.

Another spring. Another morning. Alone.

Jameson could never again be part of her life, but she could still admit she loved him. Nostalgia could sweep her away, make her sad about what no longer existed. Nostalgia crowded out the ugly truth, that Jameson hardly ever woke to touch her or murmur words of love. He bolted out of bed already angry—at the crying child who woke him, at the rooster crowing outside, at a job he hated.

That was the real Jameson. Young, eager to make her dreams come true, she had seen what she wanted to see, what she needed to see. As long as she could cling to her fantasy, she could avoid the truth and ignore the inexorable drip of poison slowly eroding her ability to live one more day with a man who hated himself.

Rose turned on the shower and waited for the water to steam warmth into the small bathroom. This was her life now, not a fantasy. Not misty memories that mostly weren’t true. She stared in the mirror. Aging, yes, no youthful beauty there. But strong, an experienced, determined woman. Weathered by storm, by life, by Jameson. But not beaten.

She grabbed the shower door and stepped into the hot spray. Behind her, Jameson waited.

The Escape

escape-cover-smallSometimes when I write a story, it keeps on living after I quit. I consider that a success as far as writing goes, but it can become quite the nag. After nearly two years, the nagging that surfaced after I finished writing “The Captive” became deafening. So I’ve written a second installment, “The Escape,” in what seems destined to become an even lengthier tale.

“The Captive” is a short story set in the late 9th century England when the Saxons and Danes were fighting over control of the land. Seeking a brief time of secret pleasure with a captured Danish warrior, Elspeth Lady of Hystead hides away in a remote cabin on her estate and has the man delivered to her. Her aging invalid husband will be none the wiser. Yet an unexpected problem arises and it has nothing to do with her husband. It has to do with this stunning man standing before her, tied and injured, his long blond hair partially hiding the disdain in his intense stare. This was not what she expected.captive-new-cover-small

Not at all.

Book 2, “The Escape,” is a novelette, available at your favorite bookseller.

Buy links for “The Captive” — Amazon, Smashwords

Buy links for “The Escape” — Amazon, Smashwords

The Lowly Romance

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The female writer, pensive as she looks over her scribbles, probably a heartfelt journal entry or love letter. Note the ribbon typifying her work as romantic and ephemeral.

Plenty of women who read and/or write romance novels are fully aware of the stigma attached to the genre. Gallons of ink have been spilled in the discussion of how romance gets no respect. If you’re a new writer hopeful of making your way in the world of romance stories, you should start off knowing what you’re up against. And if you’re a jaded veteran of the romance genre, you should know that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

Romances suffer derogatory terms such as ‘bodice rippers,’ ‘literary porn,’ and ‘trash,’ to name a few.  These fictional stories have endured a lousy reputation since they first appeared in literary history. Oh dear, these stories deal with private matters. No one goes around talking about the intimate details of their emotional relationships or their sex lives—not now, and especially not in the 18th century when the first romance hit bookshelves in the story of Pamela. Nevertheless, in 1740 no less than now, the novel and its sequels were huge hits and spawned countless clones.

Multiple reasons have been put forth for the failure of romance stories to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the publishing industry and its coterie of learned critics. One might hear that romances lack literary merit, or that the stories follow a formula, or that the cover images are hopelessly sleazy. But then, much of fiction lacks literary merit, mysteries and most other genre fiction follow formulas, and what is more visually disturbing than covers depicting murder and death?

One might even argue that the noble ‘literary fiction’ features its share of formulaic content, lack of literary merit, and sordid covers.

Yet all other genres aside from romance routinely enjoy critical review, even if some reviewers eviscerate the work in question. All other genres gain public notice and appear in lists of best-selling fiction. Romance, on the other hand, rarely captures a mainstream review and appears on lists only if those lists are specifically dedicated to romances, one assumes in order to allow readers to cleanly avoid wasting their time looking at titles that are beneath their dignity.

The Romance Writers of America define romance as stories that have a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. If that wasn’t shameful enough to earn the scorn of the publishing industry, its authors and readers are almost universally female.

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Note the serious legitimate male writer, glasses on, intent on his work in a book-lined space. Google ‘writer’ images and you’ll see that males outnumber females five to one.

One observer remarked that “Romance is seen as unserious and frivolous because women are seen as unserious and frivolous, and romance is written largely by women, for women, about concerns traditionally seen as feminine …”

Psst! Don’t tell anyone that without the massive annual revenues generated by romance books, the publishing industry would be unable to put out those fabulous literary works.

Without sounding sexist, I’m at a loss how else to say this. The universal denigration of romance writers, readers, and the genre in general is, well, sexist.

One might argue that criticism of romance is not necessarily sexist. Indeed, feminist Germaine Greer’s 1970 tome The Female Eunuch eviscerates romance novels as exploitative reinforcement of women’s submissive role in human culture. But as some of Greer’s critics have pointed out, she herself is stereotyping women by assuming that women who write/read romance are submissive little waifs clinging to their hero Alpha males.

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Here we have the whimsical female writer, flowers on her desk, few books in sight, as she toys with an out of date typewriter in a position blocking her access to serious work.

Okay, some may be. But for the very real percentage of women who enjoy and thrive in such a role, why denigrate their choice of reading material?

Increasingly, the liberation of women from cultural stereotypes has spawned writers and readers of romance novels who are strong independent women with careers in fields including law, medicine, and political office. Romance stories often include protagonist women with meaningful goals and intelligent life choices as well as relationships where the male and female see themselves as equal partners. How sexist is that?

One might even say that the two go hand in hand. Women reading about women grappling with the difficulties and rewards of careers and relationships, among other things tackled in romance novels, are the same women struggling for workplace equality and partnership marriages.

Most stories including literary fiction involve characters struggling with emotional conflict, love, loss, and sexual encounters just like they do in romance novels. With two differences: romances have happy endings and sex is more often described in specific detail.

This hints at the real issue many book snobs hold against romance novels. Life doesn’t have happy endings, not in the literary world. In literary fiction, people die in terrible ways and reading about these deaths and losses is supposed to inform and entertain readers. And sex? Well, let’s not hear the details, shall we? It’s titillating. It’s gross.

Yet each of us hope for happy endings and find great pleasure in hearing that our neighbor or beloved family member has survived cancer or some other brush with death. We hunger for the satisfaction of healthy sexual relationships and the pleasure we gain in orgasm. The fact that some people find these too disturbing to read about says more about their psychological and emotional problems than about any shortcomings of romance stories.

Does it take a psychologist to caution women that what they read in romance novels should not form the basis of decisions about their lives? A British psychologist says that romance novels can be a bad influence on women and lead them to make poor health and relationship decisions. “The novels give women unrealistic views about what to expect out of a relationship because they, well, romanticize love,” said Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist based in Cambridge.

Please. Talk about sexist.

Does this mean that novels about war cause readers to rush out and murder someone? After all, they romanticize the glory of war.

Fortunately, with self-publishing and the continuing elevation of women to positions of power and wealth have earned romance a bit higher standing, at least in some venues. Prominent institutions of higher learning have begun offering classes that discuss romance as a legitimate art form. In the January 13, 2016, issue of the Princeton Alumni newsletter, Jennifer Altman wrote about classes that focus on this genre:

Women always are center stage in romance novels, and those women are guaranteed to find a satisfying relationship by the book’s end, whether it’s with a Viking or a vampire or another woman. “Romance fiction is about hope, and about the possibility of finding a relationship in which you’re appreciated for who you really are,” [Laurie]Kahn says. And if critics find the stories unrealistic, well, that’s what they’re meant to be. “Romances are fantasies,” [Nancy] Herkness says. “We try and make them as authentic as we can, but it’s still a fantasy.”

It’s the uplifting final pages, say many, that draw readers to romance. “I need a happy ending,” [Anna] Muzzy says. “The world is a dark and grim-enough place. I don’t need to read dark stories.” No matter how difficult the complications of the plot are for the protagonist, the story always ends on an optimistic note. “You know it will be emotionally satisfying,” [Mindy] Klasky says. “There’s a comfort in knowing that, despite everything, there will be a happy ending.”

Similarly, the Yale Herald surveyed the world of romance writing in a thorough discussion of the pros and cons from an academic viewpoint. No less than the Smithsonian Magazine recently published an overview of criticism and opinion about romance and how there are winds of change in academia.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the Princeton ladies with their praise of fantasy and uplift. Nothing is more fundamental or relevant to human life than loving relationships and satisfying sex. These are the emotional nests from which our children spring and the context in which we go forth each day to wage our battles for security and meaning. It’s been an ongoing failure to recognize this primal need and stand up for its literary importance to all detractors.

As women’s fortunes rise in society, romance will continue to gain a stronger position in literary circles. Emotion and relationships have always been the realm where women reigned supreme just as war and conquest have been the arena where men ruled. Until recent decades, arguably until the arrival of self-publishing where women have been able to break past the publishing stranglehold, men controlled the industry and formed the predominant ranks of literary criticism; books about emotions and relationships failed to interest them.

So make it good, ladies. Put out stories that make us proud. Entertain us with inventive plot lines and unique characters. Enlist beta readers and work hard to be professional. The future is ours.

Stealing Your Words

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Periodically, my Facebook news feed erupts with the latest update on works ‘stolen’ from authors and re-published by someone else. In the early days, I hurried to track down such lists. Mostly I found links to links and then no access unless I signed up for something.

But there is a thriving industry of thieves who make a few changes in what a self-published author wrote then release it under a new title. This was extensively discussed in an excellent article in June 2016.

It seems romance writers are the primary target of such scoundrels for two reasons: many romance authors are self-published and romance sells. As noted in an Atlantic Monthly article, “In 2013, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) estimated that sales of romantic novels amounted to $1.08 billion, and accounted for 13% of adult fiction consumed that year, outselling science-fiction, mystery and literary novels.”

Self-publishing is like walking home alone at night. There’s no big–or even small–publisher to back you up. Yes, Amazon has software that supposedly scans new manuscripts for duplication in an effort to prevent such horrors, but a cunning thief can substitute a few words and character names in your text and easily fool that software.

Even worse are the occasional outright thefts of authors’ work by small e-book presses and/or agencies which promise to format, publish, promote, and/or sell your work. This kind of wraparound service appeals to new authors, many of whom jump into writing with the specific idea of self-publishing a romance story. Most recently, romance writers are outraged to hear about the theft of fourth quarter proceeds (among other things) by All-Romance Ebooks, LLC.

So between thievery by outsiders and by insiders, what’s a hopeful writer to do? Is the answer only to wait until you can get a toe in the door with an agent who, if you’re wildly lucky and a damn good writer, can get you in with a mainstream publisher, both of whom will shave off a healthy 80-85% of your book’s proceeds? The reality of that world is pretty dim, as discussed in a recent article about book sales in that arena.

Fact is, romance is still looked down on in the elevated sphere of mainstream publishing. Never mind its sales numbers. Never mind that romance stories deal with important fundamentals of human existence like courtship, love, sex, and–sometimes–having babies. That’s just beneath the thin air world of Literary Fiction.

Besides, most of the readers of romance are women, an easily dismissed demographic in the still-patriarchal world of mainstream publishing.

Put it all together and romance gets no respect.

If that’s not enough to depress you, how’s this? Even if you find an agent who thinks your work is great and you get a contract for that agent to shop your manuscript around town, there’s no guarantee that your work won’t get stolen. This has happen to me, actually. Twice.

First time the problem arose from me submitting to a publisher directly. This was a non-fiction project, but the lesson applies across the board. I sent my outline of chapter summaries and overall concept to all the big publishers like Random House. Each query letter solicited a form letter response. No.

Before I embarked on that quest, I had checked the most recent list of ‘books in print’ as well as ‘forthcoming books’ where publishers list everything they’ve got in the works. Nothing in the realm of my project was listed.

Despite all the rejections, I started contacting agents. Three said yes, we’re interested. I contracted with one of them and after making edits he suggested, I sat back and waited for the good news.

Four months later, the agent notified me that Random House was coming out with a book very similar to mine. Very Similar. Topics grouped in each chapter almost identical to my proposal–check. Overall concept exactly like mine–check.

The difference between this book and mine? The author. She had previously been published by Random House, already in their stable, plus she held professional credentials in the subject of this book which I did not.

Time frame: My proposal had been sent to Random House in March. The ‘new’ book would be released in the following January.

No reason this wouldn’t have been listed in forthcoming books at the time I searched if indeed they already had the project underway.

The agent questioned whether such a work could be completed in such a short time frame…until he learned the author also taught at the college level and could have easily accessed a small army of graduate students to do the research.

I consulted an intellectual rights attorney and provided him with the materials I had sent to Random House and the fresh-off-the-press copy of the other author’s book. He agreed the similarities were too striking to ignore. Then he told me the truth about copyright infringement.

First, until I could discover what profits had been earned, I had no grounds to sue. That’s because lost profits were my ‘damages’ and lawsuits were about damages. Second, Random House was in New York City and in order to sue them, I would have to retain an attorney who was licensed to practice law in New York City.

There were other reasons I walked out of his office in the depths of despair but mostly it was the fact that I had no money for a NYC attorney. I had lost my idea and all my hard work.

There’s a nasty sequel to this story. With the agent’s encouragement, I rewrote the proposal. Jazzed it up, made it more about fun than scholarly. Added cute quotations at the beginning of each chapter. Etc. He started making the rounds with the new version. A year later as the manuscript sat in so many publishing houses’ ‘maybe’ piles, a new book came out.

Yes, you guessed it. Same concept down to the exact same quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Two young women ‘authored’ the book. Not coincidentally, they both worked in the NYC publishing industry giving them easy and quick access to proposals they thought might be successful, evidently.

I have a file drawer full of all my research, proposals, agent contract and other random bits of worthless paper that grew from that bitter lesson. Including both the books that were stolen from me.

The point is–nothing is safe. But as the agent remarked at the conclusion of this relationship, fiction is harder to steal. Non-fiction is usually subject matter that anyone can research but fictional stories are yours alone.

Unfortunately there are many ways to steal fiction as the unfortunate authors tangled up with the All-Romance Ebook LLC scandal are finding out, not to mention the countless authors whose works have been pirated. It’s an ugly world.

My advice to myself–and to anyone reading this post–is to write because you can’t avoid it. Write because the story keeps you awake at night with words flowing through your head like water through a river in flood. Write because you love to write, because you have something important to say.

Even if very few people ever read the work and especially if you never get rich from it, writing is what some of us have to do no matter what.

That doesn’t mean you have to be stupid about it. I still self pub, fiction and non-fiction. If I ever decided to engage a third party to help me market or publish my work, I would research them thoroughly–how long they’ve been in business being a primary concern. And if you’re going to seek advice on writing or publishing, try to not fall into the quicksand of buying such advice. Plenty of good input is available at no cost, not the least of which is your local author group (if you can find one you like).

For example, check out this excellent blog post about self-publishing and e-book sales.

Yes, acceptance into the lofty world of mainstream publishing provides stunning validation and what author doesn’t want that? But if that’s what you want and need, contemplate a long period of learning to write well and then write something beside romance.

Write on!