I was fifteen, and I spent seven days of lunch periods, study halls and geometry class-times reading Gone With the Wind. I read it in bed at night, on the school bus and while the rest of the family watched Ed Sullivan and Bonanza. A teacher, the one who thought learning geometry might be a good idea, looked over my shoulder and said, “So. When are you going to read a real book?”
How insulting! At least I was reading, for heaven’s sake. I had classmates who hadn’t read a complete book since the first grade adventures of Dick and Jane, and I wasn’t sure they’d finished those.
In spite of insults and never mastering the world of theorems and angles and whatever else geometry had to offer, I grew up. I found out the “happily ever after” promised by the books of my choosing was, while not impossible to attain, difficult to keep. You don’t just get to sit around the fire and be happy; you have to chop the wood and stack it neatly and let it dry for a while before you toss it onto a little pile of kindling where the flame may or may not catch the first time. And even after it starts burning well, you have to continue puffing at it to keep it alive.
When I decided I needed to write a book, it didn’t require a lot of thought to know what kind of book I would write. It would have a heroine, a hero, and a happy ending complete with lust and fire—but the flame wouldn’t catch the first time. It would almost burn, then a gust of wind would come along, and then just when I thought it would take off for sure, rain would hit it by the bucketful. I knew I needed to write a romance. I’d read hundreds of them, after all. How hard could it be?
Several unsold manuscripts and two frustrated agents later, I was forced to concede that it could be pretty hard. I joined Romance Writers of America (RWA®) to learn what I was doing wrong and discovered there were at least 8000 of us trying to fill what seemed to be about four publisher slots per month. I also found out I was doing everything wrong. Did I mention that this business of writing a romance was really, really hard?
Finally, however, all the stars were evidently in the right place, or else I was just holding my mouth right that day, and I sold a book. Always Annie was released in June of 1999. Oh, my goodness, what fun it was. There were newspaper articles, reviews—all good but one—and even some fan mail. I had my 15 minutes of fame, and I loved every second.
Well, maybe not every second. There were book-signings, which I didn’t love at all. They were never the way they are on television, where the author wears a designer outfit that costs more than my advance, signs so many books her hand gets cramped, and “her people” are standing by to whisk her into a limousine when she gets tired.
I drove myself in my Chevy, wearing a little black dress I bought on sale (“little” being relative—it was smaller than the tent in the sporting goods department), and signed anywhere from six books (the people in the store kept walking around my table saying, “Liz Who?” and “Where’s the bathroom?”) to 65.
And at every book-signing, someone picked up my 174 pages of pride, sniffed, and said, “So. Why don’t you write a real book?”
I wanted to say, “As opposed to the artificial one in your hands?” though I never did. Writing romance means doing research. If your protagonist is a teacher without extraneous means of wealth, you probably shouldn’t have her driving a Mercedes and wearing cashmere. I remember reading a book in which the desperately poor heroine drove an old, rusty Corvette. Not only do old Corvettes not rust (they’re fiberglass), they’re never really old—just classic and something baby-boomer males yearn to own and brag about. If she’d sold it, she wouldn’t have been desperately poor anymore.
Writing romance means paying attention to trends but not becoming enslaved by them, because by the time your book’s finished so will be the trend. You must learn all the rules and play by some of them and you must know the difference.
Writing romance is like parenthood. You see all those pretty book covers, hear about all those six-figure advances, and go to one of those conferences where everyone’s thin and you think, Oh, this is what I want to do. It’s just like when your best friend has her first baby and you don’t and it is just so cute with the curls and the neat little outfits and the sweet little shoes with miniature swooshes on their sides.
When you get into romance writing, you find out the pretty covers are only as good as what’s between them, most writers don’t earn a living wage, and sitting at a computer eating candy bars because you can’t think of a thing to write won’t make you thin. It’s just exactly like when you have your own baby and he’s bald as an egg and wears a diaper and an undershirt everywhere except church (and maybe then if he kept you awake all night), and changes shoe sizes on the way home from the store. Yup, just like it.
Addictive as all get out.
My sister-in-law once said motherhood was the only job she ever had that she never wanted to quit. I said she was crazy, because I only had one more child than she did and I wanted to quit at least once every single day. But there was that benefit package that kept me punching the motherhood clock: sticky kisses, “I love you thiiiiiissss much,” and someone who always thinks you’re wonderful. I know romance writers who never want to quit writing. I, however, want to quit with each rejection letter that comes my way. But it’s those benefits again: my husband showing off my published book, my daughter keeping me company at book-signings, fan letters saying, “I loved your book. It made my day.”
So, for better or worse, with writer’s block or with the words flowing faster than my fingers can type them, I’m a romance writer. Over my shoulder, academics are saying scornfully, “So. When are you going to write a real book?”
I’m not. Bald babies in undershirts and diapers are as lovely as those in cute little outfits. You get to see their fat little feet, their dimpled knees, and the palm-fitting shape of their heads. You spend years and years researching them, lighting the fires of their souls and imaginations and puffing to keep the fires going, making sure their insides are full and healthy. Teaching them about rules and pain and joy. Crossing your fingers and praying and doing whatever else you can to get them a happy ending.
Just like writing romance. What could be better?