Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Read Romance?

I'm cheating a little here, because this is actually a repeat of a post I ran on my own blog in February, but given that August is "Read a Romance Month" I thought it was a blog post worth repeating.

I originally wrote it on Valentine's Day, when there was a hashtag trending on Twitter and picking up speed#WhyReadRomance—wherein people shared all the reasons they read romance novels.

Here's what I wrote at the time, in response:

I love this, and yet I can't help but wish there was no need for that hashtag; no need for those readers to have to explain why they read what they read.

After all, you would never see hashtags for #WhyReadMysteries, or #WhyReadLiteraryFiction, would you? No one's ever going to be teased for reading modern poetry, or picking up a thriller. And no one's ever asked me, 'Why on earth would you read Vonnegut?'

Choose a romance novel, though, and eyes will roll, the implication being romance is a lesser form of fiction, not deserving of a place at the big table of 'real' writing.

When I disagreewhen I point out I write romantic fiction, and that I have friends who write for Harlequin, and that the genre is a broad and varied one, like any other genre, filled with writers who are brilliant at their craft—I only get the rolling eyes again. And if I name specific books as evidence, I'm often told, 'That book transcends the genre.'

(If you want to set my teeth on edge, just tell me that a book "transcends the genre". What that tells me, plain and simple, is you haven't read enough books in that genre).

Still, at that point, I just tend to bite my tongue, and end the argument. I do this because I remember my first year Philosophy course, at university, in which the professor explained to us why it was pointless to argue with someone who was starting from a fixed and different point of view. You'll almost never change that point of view, he warned us, and they won't change yours, and so the two of you will argue in a parallel dynamic with no end, that looks like this:

But I'm an optimist, you see. And I believe a lot of misconceptions can be changed, or challenged, by a little education.

So last weekend, in the middle of a day-long course that I was leading with a great, enthusiastic group of local writers who were wanting to explore how to use love stories within their work, I gave them all a sheet of excerpts taken from four books I owned, that I'd read and enjoyed. 

One book, I told them, was a Harlequin Romance. One was a literary novel. One was written by a man. And one I'd put in as a wildcard.

Here are the excerpts:

Lorenzo sat at his desk, idly toying with the orrery. It was a mechanical model of the solar system, showing everything in its relative position. There was something soothing about watching how the moons and planets followed their own unwavering path, each one taking its own specific place in a dance so intricate it was almost beyond human comprehension. Galileo had understood it, even though it went against everything he’d been brought up to believe.

The courage of that, the audacious brilliance never failed to impress Lorenzo. Galileo had had a vision, and he had been unswerving in his pursuit of it. But even he, with his towering intellect, had never fully got to grips with the complexities of women.

With a flick of his finger Lorenzo made the earth spin on its axis, and then slowed it right down again as he thought back to last night. That was how it had felt in the temple, in the candlelight and the silence. As if he had slowed down time. Stopped the world, for a little while.

He put his hand out to assist her on the last high step into the villa grounds. She looked at his hand in front of her and wondered if he meant to stop her.

Signorina. May I take your hand?’

She could feel her face reddening, warmth upon warmth encroaching. She placed her hand in his palm and took the last step, breathless. He smiled again and turned her hand over. Her open palm was warm from the climb. Dante stroked the skin, none too soft, that he held in his own fine hand, stirring the blood underneath to quickness. He kissed the white inside of her wrist, quick and light, and held her hand for a few minutes more as they walked through the shaded gardens.

He grabbed her to him and stood for long minutes kissing her and kissing her, dragging his hands over her, skating over her curves, enjoying her. Even through the thick cloth of her coat, the feel of her was something wonderful and the smell of her perfume was filling him. The kissing went on and on, his hands grew more and more insistent until she was pressed against him and moaning deep in her chest, rubbing herself on him, grinding against him with his hands on her as her coat rose up over her hips and her skirt followed it, sliding over her thighs.

As he said his goodbye, it occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, he meant something to her. Too bad he had so much to do. Too bad armies were on the march. Too bad Laura Brittle stood in the doorway, watching them.

He wanted to clasp Polly Brandon in his arms. He had watched over her on the Perseverance and he was uneasy about leaving her without his protection. Yes, I am proprietary, he wanted to shout to Laura Brittle. Why is it your business?

He did nothing of the sort. ‘Stay off the water, Brandon, and you should be all right,’ he said gruffly, then turned on his heel as smartly as any Marine on parade, and left her standing alone in the courtyard.

Nearly everyone guessed that the first excerpt was from a literary novel.
Nearly everyone guessed that the last excerpt was written by a man.
And nearly everyone thought that either the second or third excerpts were from the Harlequin Romance, with a large margin choosing the third excerpt over the second.

Want to know where they were really from? From the bottom up, then...

The fourth excerpt is from Marrying the Royal Marine, a Harlequin Historical Romance, by Carla Kelly.

The third excerpt is from The Good Mayor, a literary novel by Andrew Nicoll.

The second excerpt is from Dante's War, a literary novel by Sandra Sabatini.

And the first excerpt, the one most of the writers in that group felt sure was from a literary novel, is from Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper, a Harlequin Presents Romance, by India Grey. It's a beautiful excerpt, a lovely piece of writing, and the hero is remembering a night that he spent talking to the heroine. Just that, and nothing more. 

Surprised? If you already read romance, I'm sure you're not. Most romance readers judge a book by what's inside it, not what's printed on the cover, and they know the titles of these books aren't chosen by the authors—they're a construct of the marketing department of the publisher, and often have no actual connection to the story.

And the story, in the end, is why I read a novel. Any novel. Literary, Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance. Good writing is good writing, and no genre, in my optimistic world view, is a lesser form of fiction.

That's why India Grey's novel sits alongside Andrew Nicoll's, on my bookshelves. And that's why I read romance. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Shhh... don't tell


I have a confession but it is just between us. It could get me into a bit of trouble… come a bit closer so no one can overhear.

So here it is… sometimes I’m thinking about writing when I should be thinking about something else. Shhh… don’t tell anyone.

I know it is bad. I feel guilty, really I do. But when my mind wants to think about stories I can’t stop it.

Here is an example. Yesterday I was in a meeting and I was paying attention. Honest, guv. When suddenly I realised that I’d spaced out for a small amount of time and was thinking about why my heroine was acting like such a brat. Shocking. I told myself off and concentrated hard on the meeting but ten minutes later I had a brainwave about her actions which came into my brain on the back of a thought about risk management.

Bad brain!

You see my issue. It isn’t my fault. It is my brain. It isn’t wired quite the same way.

Remember it is on the QT. Shhh… don’t tell anyone.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Swag - What Works for You?

Swag – or promotional items given away at events – is a topic we’ve been discussing recently on an email loop I belong to, and when I attended the RT Convention in Kansas City earlier this year I was amazed at the all the different things on offer.  The creativity of some authors was astounding and I came home inspired, wanting to try out some ideas of my own!

There was, of course, the usual array of postcards, bookmarks, pens and key chains, but it was fun to see how varied you can make them so that they stand out in the crowd.  It also quickly became clear to me that badges (the metal variety with printed logos etc) were extremely popular with US fans.  I hadn’t thought to bring any because they’re not big in the UK, but if I go to the States again I most definitely will!

It was an eye-opener to see what else could be done to promote one’s book – bags (really nice shoulder ones as well as the usual little carrier bag types), plastic glasses, T-shirts, mugs, rulers, tape measures and little booklets, to name but a few.  Collector’s cards were intriguing and then there were the sweets and chocolates – always a favourite with me :-)  I particularly liked little chocolate bars printed with the author’s book cover.

But do swag items really work when it comes to selling books?  After a recent conference I attended here in the UK, I talked to some of the other attendees and they said they would just go through their ‘goody bags’ and throw away most of the promo stuff unless something caught their eye specifically.  That means a lot of it is for nothing, but you might just be lucky and be the one who has designed something that catches a reader’s interest.  So can you afford NOT to do it?  I don’t think so.  And at some conferences, like RT, the readers get to help themselves from promo tables so presumably they only take home things that appeal to them?

For my new novel (a young adult contemporary romance which makes a change from historicals) I’ve had fun creating some promo material with the help of one of my daughters.  We’ve experimented with various things and I’m considering some other ideas as well, but it all takes time and money so even if it’s fun, I guess it’s best to think carefully before jumping into something.

What are your favourite types of ‘swag’?  What would you definitely keep and what would you throw away?  And does any of it make you actually buy the book?  I’d love to know!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Finishing... At Last

In the corporate world they like to do psychometric tests, one in particular is the Belbin Team Test. This is meant to help you understand what types of people you have in a team so you can understand if you have a good balance.

One of the personality types is that of a completer/finisher. Every time I have taken this test I score very low in the completer/finisher role. I think once I even scored zero. Supposedly I’m a great Resource Investigator (i.e. networker) but give me something to finish? Not so much.

Of course, one of the biggest pieces of advice you can be given about writing is finishing what you start. This obviously gives me a few problems. I launch into new stories in giddy excitement only to splutter to a stop halfway through. Then begins the hard slog to reach the end. And as finishing things is obviously against my nature it is hell.

But this week I did actually finish something. It has only been five years since that initial giddy start but I never gave up hope that somehow, if I just had the time and motivation, I would finish that story. And I have. Admittedly it is a rambling pile of nonsense but it is a finished rambling pile of nonsense which can be fixed. Hopefully before another five years pass.

Do you have problems finishing things? What techniques get you through?