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!

 

 

The Romance

gandyThat little spot in your heart that still believes in fairy tales, in the prince in shining armor who will swoop in and make everything right—that spot lives on in women no matter how life’s disappointments have crushed us down. That man who cheated on you, hurt you, left you with debt and children and heart-stopping pain? That man who never lived up to his promises, your expectations? Those men are out there. We know them.

But surely there’s one man, one perfect man, waiting just for you.

This is the lure of romance. This is the duty romance writers must fulfill. It’s a daunting task.

On one hand, the fictional hero must be suitably flawed—irascible, a little too proud, bullheaded. He’s impossibly unattainable, not our type, completely out of our league. Despite his supremely arrogant demeanor, deep inside he’s suffering. He needs our love even if he doesn’t yet know it.

We can’t turn our back on him even when we try.

On the other hand, our hero must be exquisitely capable of seeing through our defenses and, against his intent, is drawn to the task of making us happy. He’s ruggedly handsome, his body sculpted like a Greek god. He’s intelligent and sensitive, thoughtful and kind. Above all, his sexual prowess leaves us without recourse.

He is specially made just for us. The soul mate. The man who fits us inside and out.

Not all woman are alike. Thankfully neither are authors of romance. For every author who tends to write the strong silent type, there are others who create male leads with a talent for witty banter and intellectual pas de deux. There are heroes in hard hats and those who carry Viking swords. Rich men with tortured pasts, lost men clinging to the shambles of their lives.

For every story that follows a woman burdened by life’s tragedies and unable to continue, another story reveals a woman too hardened to give a man a chance. Stubborn women. Faltering women. Terrified women. We’re all in there.

The plot takes us through the journey, scenes of seduction that thrill us, scenes of rejection and conflict that remind us of what we’ve suffered. In these stories, we look for something to believe in, some revelation, some escape. The knight on the white horse may not be on our doorstep but maybe the heart and soul of such a man lingers inside the furnace repair man or the man staring at us across the McDonald’s parking lot.

It’s the possibility that tempts us, makes us believe enough to pick up yet another book and indulge in the fantasy. It’s a sacred task, this spinning of tales that revitalize us, inspire and comfort us. I for one am an author who cherishes the opportunity to participate in this world of magic.

Long live the dream!

Caerwin II – work in progress

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Dear Readers — I haven’t forgotten about you! Thanks for all the great reviews on Caerwin and the Roman Dog. Just to show my appreciation, here’s an excerpt from the second novel in the Caerwin series. Love, Liz

Her horse spun as she wheeled around trying to stay outside the reach of the attackers. By now Marcellus and the legionaries had dismounted to form into tight knots, fighting outwards with their backs together. As she watched, one after another of the thugs fell back clutching mortal wounds.

A man ran up to her and seized her horse’s bridle. A dense beard covered his lower face. He wore a dark cloak thrown over his shoulder. A knife glinted in his hand. She plunged her boot into his chest. He grabbed her foot, but she yanked away. She kicked the horse’s sides but the man’s grip didn’t relent.

Another man appeared on the other side of her horse. “Your gold,” he yelled in coarse Latin. “Give it.”

“Curses on you!” she shouted, trying again to pull her horse free.

The horse circled the man, rearing as she kicked its sides. Its front hooves nicked the man’s legs coming down and the man cursed as he lost his hold on the bridle. The second man grabbed her clothes as he tried to pull her from the horse.

Caerwin leaned forward to urge the horse to run, but the first man grabbed her leg and pulled her from the horse. She fell sideways, hitting the ground hard on her side. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe.

He stood over her with his knife held to her throat.

“We’ll take it then,” he said, crouching beside her.

She felt the knife blade press her skin. She watched him with a strange detachment. His breath stank. A scar marked his cheek. His hair hung around his face in oily strands. Yet there seemed to be some questioning in his stare. He hesitated.

“You’re of the tribes, are you not?” he said. As he spoke, the other man seized the familiar gold band. It yielded to his grasp, twisting off her neck. Visions of the salt man rose in her mind. This time she had no knife to defend herself.

The second man’s hands skimmed her breasts and down past her waist as he searched for more valuables.

“She’s got nothing,” he said.

“Go on then,” the first man said.

The second man ran away with her torque. Sounds of fighting continued. Dimly, she heard men shouting from the woods. Had all the legionaries died? Had Marcellus?

“Are you of the tribes?” the first man repeated.

“Cornovii,” she said hoarsely. “Of Britannia.”

His eyes flickered. She had thought he would mount her, but he stood up, holding the knife loosely as if he hadn’t decided what to do. She licked her lips.

He turned at the sound of a horse approaching at full gallop. Before she could speak, before she could even comprehend what was happening, a sword flashed through the air and the man’s head flew off his body. His torso bent slightly as he fell backwards.

The horse’s hooves skidded to a stop, throwing up dirt. In moments Marcellus knelt beside her, his eyes black as night.

“Are you harmed?” he said.

Stay tuned for more excerpts as this project rolls forward! So excited to see what happens next!

New Year, New Start

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And a new chance to win a fabulous Surprise Gift Box including my latest novel, Caerwin and the Roman DogSecond place wins a paperback copy of the novel.

How to enter —

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Entries close January 9. Winners chosen by random drawing and will be announced January 11. The contest is solely my responsibility.

Liz’s Hot News

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Just in time for the holidays!  Your own special gift! A winner will be chosen by random drawing from all subscribers to my new newsletter, Liz’s Hot News! Signup period ends at midnight December 13 for this drawing, so share the info with your friends today. Gift certificate, goodies, and more!

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New Release Giveaway!

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Three signed copies of Caerwin and the Roman Dog will be given away at the end of the Goodreads Giveaway Event! From now through December 1, you can sign up for your chance to win a copy at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27235437-caerwin-and-the-roman-dog

This is a completely free, no obligation event.