Thursday, 29 September 2016

Losing My Podcast Virginity

Me, Abby & Chantelle Shaw
So two fortuitous things happened recently:

Firstly, I was asked by the lovely peeps at the Professional Writing Academy if I would be interested in doing a podcast to help promo my new online writing course with them An Introduction to Writing Hot Romance - the course launches on October 4th so if you want to sign up and treat yourself to 7 weeks of intensive but I hope completely fabulous sessions on romance writing you still have time.

The other thing that happened was I went to an author lunch in Central London (an annual event which is always a top date in my writing calendar) with some of my favorite romance authors – which of course made me think, if I'm gonna lose my podcast virginity, I'm going to rope them in too!!

First thing to figure out was how to work my iPhone's Voice Memo app. Yup, this took a while, because it turns out my smart phone is a lot smarter than I am... But once Abby Green and I had done numerous tests, and then actually managed to find the recordings on the phone without accidentally deleting them (not as easy as it sounds), I was ready to roll.

Showing off my latest cover at the party
Next up was cornering some of my mates. First up was of course Abby, who had foolishly helped me with the app and was therefore a sitting duck for my first soundbite.

The question was a simple one, though, for someone who writes searingly sexy romances: Why do you love writing hot romance?

Then I turned to Fiona Harper - I asked her why she loved writing romance, as her books are less hot but still wonderfully fresh, funny, heartwarming romance novels for HQ.

My fellow Fairy Tales of New York author Lucy King, who had made the mistake of camping out with us after the lunch and who writes wonderfully sexy, sassy feel-good romances got hooked in next...

After the author lunch each year Mills and Boon invite all their current authors to a glamorous drinks party in the News Building - right next to the Shard with wonderful views over London – and there I managed to waylay the legendary Sharon Kendrick – author of a staggering 102 books for M&B all of them scorchingly hot and deeply emotional reads – for a quick chat.

The fabulous Ms Kendrick
The next day I made a trip to Sheffield to talk on a panel with Sue Stephens (darn it, I should have whipped out my phone out and interviewed her too!) and M&B editor Flo Nicholl about why Mills and Boon books are so cool hosted by academic Val Derbyshire during the University's Festival of the Mind event.

So it wasn't until Sunday that I had the delight of figuring out how to use Garageband to edit the sound recordings and add my own thoughts (and yes, there was sarcasm in that statement!). After a long day spent fumbling my way through the highly intuitive (but not that intuitive to me) application, I had my podcast. And I have to say, I am mighty pleased with the eventual result. The people at PWA prettied it up with some photos and stuck it on YouTube, so I need to say a big thanks to them, and to my mates, who each had insightful and interesting reasons as to why they love writing romance (hot or not).

I'd love to know what you think? So here it is...

Now I am no longer a podcast virgin, I may be doing more podcasts - I love to talk about romance, so why not share the joy, right? In fact, the PWA may have created a monster...

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

To Be Or Not to Be Feminist Literature… A Mills and Boon Author’s Perspective.

So summer is the silly season in the UK press calendar… And with that in mind there’s been a lot of noise in the last week or so, mostly from The Guardian, triggered by Val Derbyshire, a professor from Sheffield University, who is leading two events at the university’s Festival of the Mind espousing her theory that Mills and Boon books are FEMINIST LITERATURE!! 

Which to those who don’t read Mills and Boon books, seems like an outlandish claim, because the perceived wisdom goes something like this: Mills and Boon? Feminist Literature? WTH? Aren’t they bodice rippers? Full of arsehole heroes? Mealy mouthed heroines? Purple prose? ‘Forced seduction’ (otherwise known as rape)? And how can they possibly have any literary weight anyway if they’re written by computers? To a formula? By men writing under pseudonyms who are trying to earn a few bob by writing trash? 

Those of us who love reading M&B books can easily hit back at those commonly held myths. But I’ve done that already, and I’m not here to do it again, because it’s boring. But after reading Derbyshire’s argument and Julie Bindel’s strident rebuttal I wanted to stick my oar into this particular debate because: I’ve actually written a few M&B books in my time as a romance novelist and no one has ever accused me of being mealy mouthed (unlike all my M&B heroines, obviously).

Now, to be fair, I haven’t actually heard Derbyshire’s lecture but from the selective quotes carried in The Guardian article about her – during what was clearly a slow news week – it seems her thesis makes a couple of key assertions based on her extensive reading of M&B books over the years: that they deal with difficult subjects (such as rape) in a female-centric and often empowering way and that they are predominately written by women for women. Excellent, we’re off to a good start. She actually reads M&B books… And The Guardian reported on that original story with remarkable magnanimity. 

Over to vocal M&B hater, Julie Bindel, to slag off Derbyshire’s theory and M&B books as trash that supports the patriarchy and condones rape based on her possibly not-quite-as-wide-reading of the texts involved… Personally I didn’t think the two out of context lines quoted from a sex scene in a 2010 book depicted rape (unless the hero has a magical mind-reading penis). Bindel would disagree. But what I can say categorically is I don’t know a single M&B author/or editor working today who would want to write or publish a scene in which the hero is having sex with the heroine knowing she does not consent.

Bindel also goes on to make a derogatory comment about “fun feminists” (because we can call ourselves feminists, but some of us are more feminist than others, apparently) and some patronising comments supporting the right of women to read whatever trash they like as long as they don’t pretend it’s feminist. But fair play to her, at least she isn’t wheeling out that old anti-women sentiment that women who read romance don’t actually know it’s fiction or should be chastised for reading whatever the heck they want.

But here’s the thing, as an author I’d have to say I’m perplexed by both the It’s Feminist-It’s Not Feminist arguments for two reasons:

Firstly, as with any other fiction writer, Mills and Boon authors bring their own life experiences, their own sensibilities and their own unique voice to the stories they write. So when Val Derbyshire says the stories they write are all feminist or Julie Bindel says they’re all not feminist, they are both falling into a common misconception that says - unlike any other publisher in the market today - every book Mills and Boon publish can be lumped together and judged accordingly.

That said, it is true that M&B series books and specifically their best-selling line Modern (or Harlequin Presents in the US) which I believe are the books most people are thinking of when they refer to an M&B book (and certainly the ones always pictured in these articles) – sorry to all those authors that write for M&B’s many other lines, you don’t exist – do have certain key similarities because of M&B’s guidelines for each of their series lines… In the case of Modern: the heroes are alpha (aka 'overbearing macho men' in Bindel land), they’re irresistibly sexy, the settings are glamorous, jet-setting and aspirational. In short, these books are high-octane escapist romantic fantasy in a handy page-turning chunk… Rather inconveniently, though, even Modern books have individual authors with individual voices who create their own individual characters and conflicts for each story… Or we’d all be writing the same book. And it would be a whole lot easier! (yeah, sorry, that computer programme thingy is a myth too). Now, maybe people who don’t want to read books that hold a guaranteed promise within the narrative (which is what those M&B guidelines are there to deliver) or desire the comfort of a  guaranteed positive outcome (which is the promise of a romance novel in general) think these books are all the same. But people who do read romance, know and see the difference very clearly… It’s all in the eye of the beholder peeps…

But here’s the other thing that perplexes me about the Is It Or Is It Not Feminist argument… I think it completely fails to understand the creative process of writing. And yeah, I know - having made the fatal error of bothering to read The Guardian comments section on Bindel’s piece (sheesh, why didn’t someone stop me falling down that black hole for an hour?!)  – I’m well aware a lot of people think there is nothing remotely creative or challenging about writing an M&B novel. But as someone who has actually done it a few times and spent sleepless nights agonising about her hero’s conflict or re-writing an opening scene 50 times to get it right, just bear with me here…

I consider myself a feminist and not one of those trashy “fun feminists” either ( just ask my sons, who have to handle my impassioned rants about everything from women’s reproductive rights to The Bechtel Test on a regular basis). Even so, I’m sure Julie would make mincemeat of some of my books. A good example would be Pleasure, Pregnancy and a Proposition (ignore the daft title, it’s what’s called a marketing tool). 

This was my fourth book for M&B and opens with the hero striding into the heroine’s office in Camden and virtually kidnapping her in front of all her workmates so he can make her take a pregnancy test. I’m holding up my hand here to say that my hero Luke’s behaviour in that opening scene is not exactly enlightened. I might even be forced to admit my hero behaves like a prize jerk (even if he’s an extremely hot prize jerk). And my heroine Louisa (being a feminist like me and not a remotely fun feminist at this point in the book) is justifiably furious. And frankly she’s not particularly mollified when she discovers to her horror that she actually is pregnant and this hot overbearing prize jerk is the father!! 

But before we get all up ourselves freaking out about how patriarchal and prize jerky my hero is in that scene, let me explain how I came up with that opening sequence. It all started when I was looking with my two sons at their ultrasound pictures and telling them what an incredibly emotional moment it had been for me and their dad when those pictures were taken… And an intriguing question popped into my head… What would happen if you were sharing that intensely emotional ultrasound moment with a guy you couldn’t stand? Now obviously, I knew that guy was going to be the hero, and these two were going to end up together despite their differences in that scene because I write romance novels and romance novels are about relationships with a positive outcome (DUH). And because I like to write hot romance novels I also knew that while these two did not like each other they would still be extremely sexually attracted to one another (remember, he’s an exceptionally hot prize jerk, in my heroine’s defense)… But everything else was in the balance… How could these two ever work out their differences, make this relationship work after a start like that? And as a writer all I could think was… I absolutely LOVE IT. Because the harder their journey the more exciting, challenging, emotionally intense it will be for me and my readers. That’s what I’m looking for…  A great opening conflict. 

Of course, once I’d figured out that initial opening sequence of events, I had loads of questions to answer. Why was the heroine clueless about her own pregnancy? Was she in denial for some reason? And why was the hero so determined to find out if she was or was not pregnant? Why had he behaved like a domineering jerk? Did he have strong enough motivations for doing what he did? Did those motivations ultimately excuse his behaviour?… I thought so… Others didn’t… But it was still a great start to a romance novel (if I say so myself). Yes, some readers might say that opening is contrived, over the top, melodramatic. Those readers won’t read on and that’s their choice. Those readers also probably don’t read Mills and Boon Modern books. But the readers who find that conflict delicious, compelling, exciting, those readers who want to know what’s going to happen to these two people and the tiny life that now connects them, will read on, hopefully because I’ve set those characters up well enough to make their flaws and weaknesses (particularly my hero’s in that scene) as compelling as their strengths… 

What I was not thinking throughout that whole creative process or indeed while I was writing the rest of the book and trying to figure out how these two were going to deal with all the emotional baggage I’d dumped on them while still having lots of hot sexy times in a 50k word count was: is this feminist or is it reinforcing the patriarchy?

Were readers thinking that… ? Hmm.

I got some pretty furious reviews on Goodreads for that book, from women who were really pissed off about the hero’s behaviour, and the heroine’s. They didn’t think the hero’s motivations were good enough for him to be such a prize jerk at the beginning of the book. They also thought my heroine was TSTL because no smart woman in the history of the world ever got to three months gestation WITHOUT realising they were pregnant, apparently. Fair enough. Obviously for them I had not done my job well enough. But that’s their opinion. Other readers loved it. But do I think those differing opinions were because those readers were or were not feminists? Actually no, I think primarily it was because they either were or were not convinced by my characters’ behaviour. 

Christian Grey is a good example of a similarly Marmite hero. Not many people would argue that he is a feminist hero, or indeed that FSOG is a feminist book (although I would argue that Ana Steele is the one with the real power in that relationship, but that’s a conversation for another blog). But do any of us actually believe that there weren’t a lot of feminists reading that book and enjoying it (raises hand in the air), just like there were other women who probably wouldn’t consider themselves feminists who hated it and could not connect with the characters in any way? Of course, Julie Bindel would probably tell us that any feminist who says she likes FSOG must be one of those trashy “fun feminists”, but then I’d just have to sic Tina Fey on her who says ‘Girl-on-girl sabotage is the worst kind of female behaviour, right behind saying ‘like’ all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster”. ie: stop right there trying to out-feminist me, Julie! 

But here’s my point as an author - who never left any of her babies in a dumpster - even if she sometimes wanted to. (Yeah, sad to say, that initial intensely emotional moment wore off occasionally!)…

Should Mills and Boon authors, or any romance author, or indeed any author at all have to make their characters do one thing or another based on a set of principals, or beliefs, even if they are their own principals and beliefs? Or indeed can they? Doesn’t that ultimately fly in the face of an author’s creativity, their ability to create their own unique multi-layered characters within a fictional universe? And why should female writers, or romance writers, or indeed Mills and Boon authors be held to a different standard than everyone else? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the books aren’t feminist, or that they are. Or even that I don’t strive to push what I consider to be my own personal feminist agenda in my own books… Because yes, all my heroines and I would cheer Maya Angelou when she said: ‘I’m a feminist. I’ve been a woman for a long time now, I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.’

But my point is that Mills and Boon books, like all romance novels (even the tiny percentage written by men!) and any other type of fiction, are written by authors who have a creative vision. And whether you consider their work to have value or not, Mills and Boon authors like all other authors, have one primary purpose when they write a story – not to make it feminist or non-feminist – but to create something they themselves would want to read (yup, that thing about M&B authors being hacks happily writing stuff they know is trash for money… complete bollox, as well)… 

Of course, the hope is that a few other people will want to read it too - and in my case those people may be Val Derbyshire and probably won’t be Julie Bindel (unless she’s writing an article about what patriarchal tripe I write) - but as Ian McEwan put it in The Guardian magazine (oh, the irony!): ‘I don’t care about sales. The dopamine moment is finishing the novels.’ 

To be fair, Mills and Boon authors generally write a lot of novels, so you could totally accuse us of being dopamine junkies. But don’t get us started on whether or not our books are feminist… Or you’re liable to get yourself a 2000+ word blog on the subject.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

RWA, San Diego and all that jazz!

So I'm just back from the Romance Writers of America's conference in San Diego and as usual it was a vibrant, inspiring and completely exhausting trip. As well as attending workshops (not as many as I would have liked) I managed to stuff several power lunches, a couple of very productive brainstorming sessions with fellow authors on future projects, a meeting with my editor, the Harlequin party and the RITA/Golden Heart awards ceremony into my time there. Not to mention a whistle stop sightseeing tour of San Diego with the fabulous Susan Wilson! Sadly I didn't win the RITA award for Best Contemporary Romance: Short but I still managed to feel like the belle of the ball on RITA night and I'm now all fired up to get back to my writing and do the final finishing touches on my Introduction to Writing Hot Romance online course which will be launching in October!

Here's the evidence of what fun I had...

Massive crowd at the Literacy Autographing

Avon celebrates 75 years!

Pool that I didn't get to use!

Feeling like a star! Thanks to Tule Publishing

Important research on a night off at the movies....
Susan Wilson & I rock the RITA reception

Abby Green & I rock the Harlequin Party

Romy Sommer & I super glammed up at the Awards

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

If You Can Do, Teach!

Sure we've all heard that old adage - if you can't do, teach. Say what now? Are you nuts!

Not only is that remark an extremely derogatory thing to say about one of life's most essential jobs... After all, along with being a doctor, I can't think of a more important profession than teaching  (on present evidence in the UK, it certainly isn't being a politician!)... But I've also discovered that silly little adage simply is not true. I should know, because I've just spent the past month devising an online course to teach new, newish or new to this genre writers how to do something I've been doing myself for the last ten years - namely writing hot romance.

With three RITA finals, a USA Today bestseller tag and 2 million copies of my books sold worldwide, I think I can comprehensively say I know how to write a romance novel. Well, except when I get a six-page revision letter from my editor, then I usually have several moments when I am absolutely convinced every one of those achievements was a total and utter fluke. But panic attacks aside, the stats speak for themselves, I genuinely love what I do and I'm good at it. I thrive on creating multi-layered, emotionally complex characters. I adore hypothesising about their kinetic first meeting until I've found the perfect opening hook to kick their romance off right. I get giddy figuring out the twists and turns in their story until I've plotted a course to their Happy Ever After (or Happy For Now) packed with humour, insight, conflict and emotional integrity. I get goosebumps while crafting the parry and thrust of great dialogue, loaded with subtext to ramp up the tension. And writing sex scenes that excite and challenge my characters both physically and emotionally? Hell, yeah, bring it on.

And I absolutely adore talking about that process to anyone who will listen, so I've done numerous library workshops and blogs to analysis and interpret all the different aspects of how to write – and how not to write – a great romance story with lashings of heat.

So when the Professional Writing Academy approached me to tutor an online course titled An Introduction to Writing Hot Romance I was all for it. This would be fun, challenging, it would improve my own understanding of the dynamics of romance writing, while also helping others to begin to discover all the elements involved. An insight into the secrets I've learned over the last ten years, but also the chance to discuss with other writers how they develop their characters, their voice, their craft in the PWA's innovative online classroom. I couldn't wait to jump in and get started.

That said, until I started working with the PWA's brilliant creative writing experts on  my session documents, devising reading and thinking exercises using extracts from some of the top authors in romance's many varied subgenres, figuring out how all the different elements I love could be taught in a supportive and  informative way, using examples of my own writing (including the stuff that ending up on the cutting room floor), I had no idea exactly how much work would be involved... Or exactly how genuinely fascinating it would be to put this course together. Having said that, I have also discovered, while making videos for the course on the different session topics, exactly how hard it is not to look like a demented robot who doesn't have a clue what she's waffling on about when you have your son who is an actor and filmmaker pointing his video camera at you... The video inserts are still a work in progress after an aborted session last weekend, when having fluffed my lines about 30 times, he pointed out (very patiently)  that if I wanted to not look like a rabbit in the headlights every time he turned on the camera, I needed to learn my lines before we started filming. Oops.

But here's one we made earlier!

Anyway, once I've finally aced all the videos, we've still got tweaks to do and then runthroughs etc before we launch on the 4th October and I can start working with a bunch of new writers at which point I expect this process to get even more challenging and exciting.

But don't ever tell me those who can't do, teach... Or frankly, you'll get a slap. Because getting stuck into my current book again - and the six page revision letter that just landed on my desk from my editor (sheesh, cue panic attack) - after a month off to work on this course, feels positively pedestrian in comparison!

If you're interested in learning more or signing up for An Introduction to Writing Hot Romance you can check out the details here.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why romance fiction isn't a naughty secret to anyone but the British media...

I'm so sick of reading lazy articles in the British press about romance fiction and romance readers.... And yesterday I read another one in The Economist titled Erotic and Romantic Fiction: Book-publishing's naughty secret. Here is my heartfelt (and ever so slightly ranty) reply. Be warned, though, it's long... And well, ranty.

Why romance fiction isn’t a naughty secret to anyone but the British media

Once again, a survey shows that romance is one of the most read, and most profitable genres in the fiction market today, but when The Economist decides to publish an article on the results of the survey, it uses the opportunity to wheel out many of those hoary old clichés about readers of the genre. What is it about romance fiction that brings out the same lazy arguments in so many British journalists?

As a longtime reader of romance fiction, and a published author of 24 novels, novellas and short stories (many of them for Harlequin UK aka Mills and Boon), I happen to know a lot of actual romance readers and writers, so I’d like to take this opportunity to dispute a few of the misconceptions about romance readers and the romance genre in this article.

Firstly, let's consider the headline: Erotic and Romantic Fiction: Book-publishing’s naughty secret

What exactly is the naughty secret here? That romance is hugely successful and widely read particularly among women? Is this really still a secret, given that romance has been one of the biggest selling genres in fiction for many years, long before the publication of a certain book which we shall mention later. And what’s naughty about this secret? That grown women read books about relationships that have actual sex in them? Seriously? What is so surprising or shocking about having adult sexual content in books which are primarily about adult relationships? Or maybe the naughty secret is that most people embarking on a relationship have sex? Now, there’s a shocker.

Let me digress here to explain for the uninitiated the significance of scenes of intimacy (whatever the heat level) in romance novels. They are essentially action scenes within the context of the story of that relationship and as such they are important. If that is hard to understand or makes you titter uncontrollably, let’s use a little analogy: when Jack Reacher walks into a bar and ends up bashing some guy over the head, there is always a purpose to his actions. Maybe we’re going to discover something new about Reacher, about the other characters in the scene, or something important about the case he is investigating (if he bashes that head hard enough). Yet, even though there may be violent action, or even, perish the thought, sex in a Reacher novel, it doesn’t make Lee Child’s excellent writing lose validity. And yet, because a lot of romance novels include scenes of a sexual nature while exploring a couple’s relationship, this is often used as an excuse to ridicule the reader, the writer, the characters, the genre or often all of the above, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Moving swiftly on, next let’s consider the decision to use vintage Mills and Boon covers to illustrate this article… The Jellybooks survey being quoted doesn’t appear to be about Mills and Boon, even though the company gets the obligatory name check near the end of the article. So now I have to ask, would an editor think it appropriate to illustrate an article about any other genre of fiction using covers from over half a century ago? Probably not, so what is the hidden agenda here? Could it be that using lurid Mills and Boon covers with unintentional double entendres in the titles is a great way to illustrate the perceived wisdom that this genre is melodramatic, regressive and perennially out of date? Something that couldn’t actually be further from the truth if you’re a regular romance reader like I am... But, oh well.

After giving us a rundown of the facts – that romance is one of the biggest selling genres in the US according to Romance Writers of America, has sold a staggering 38.9m physical books in the UK alone from 2010-2015 and is in the forefront of the indie publishing revolution – the article then comes to this staggering conclusion: [The romance publishing industry] was one of the first to capitalize on the anonymity of ebooks…

Okay, stop right there. I read romance, some of it erotic romance, primarily on an ereader. I have a lot of friends who do the same… Here are the reasons why, so listen up.

 • Digital books are cheaper (usually a lot cheaper).
 • You can get them instantly, and (as the Jellybooks survey points out) romance readers and women generally tend to read faster and more frequently than men so they get through a lot of books.
 • As romance is at the forefront of the self publishing and independent publishing revolution (something also mentioned in this article), a lot of romance stories are only available in digital format.
• Digital books also take up a lot less space and, given that I’m reading a lot of them and housing in London is becoming increasingly expensive… Well, you do the math.

Just to be clear, I do not read on an ereader because I’m ashamed of what I read and I crave anonymity. My reading choices are not a ‘guilty pleasure’ or a ‘naughty secret’. So here’s an alternative suggestion: is it at all possible that the romance publishing industry’s success with ebooks might actually be because the digital revolution has provided a more efficient way to get a wider variety of books to eager buyers, and the people who read romance are early adopters?

Now let’s deal with that old chestnut: the Fifty Shades of Grey defense for making broad, sweeping and frequently derogatory judgments about the whole romance genre – a defense which seems to have appeared in every article about romance fiction ever printed in the UK since EL James’s trilogy became a runaway bestseller in 2012. Yes, the FSOG trilogy was phenomenally successful. Yes, the books were erotic romances. Yes, not many people would argue they were the best books ever written, although some people who have actually read them might and a huge number of people obviously enjoyed reading them. After all, 125million people bought these books and with 58% five-star reviews on and only 15% one-star ones, it seems most of them were not unhappy with their purchase. Yes, FSOG probably introduced some new readers to romance, but equally it wasn’t doing anything that hadn’t already been done before in the erotic romance genre. Most importantly of all though, FSOG was published over four years ago, and in romance that’s a very long time because romance (contrary to the image suggested by those retro M&B covers) is a fresh, vibrant, constantly evolving genre. So perhaps journalists could please stop basing everything they know about romance on FSOG now, because those of us who work in the industry and enjoy reading romance stopped talking about it years ago…

The FSOG defence finishes with this comment: The public attitude has rarely been anything other than scathing.

Are we talking about FSOG here? I suppose we’ll just assume that doesn’t include the 125million members of the public who bought the books and the even greater number who read them then?

But wait, the next paragraph makes it clear we’re not talking about just FSOG anymore, we’ve leapfrogged right to the public’s scathing attitude to the whole genre.

The hostility towards romance, we are then told, is apparently mostly due to old-fashioned sexism because romance is read primarily by women. I’d like to suggest that this sort of sexism isn’t actually that old fashioned, in fact it’s bang up to date because the article then goes on to make some interesting assumptions about the title ‘mommy porn’. Hmm, was that phrase really coined as a result of the fact that 41% of romance is read by women between the ages of 30-54, because I can assure you they’re not all reading erotic romance, and what about the other 59%? Perhaps it has more to do with the media’s obsession with constantly expecting romance readers of a certain age to justify what they enjoy reading for pleasure, unlike readers of say, crime thrillers, for example. Given that 84% of romance readers are women, is this yet more evidence of that not-so-old-fashioned sexist double standard?

Next up, we are neatly led into that other old chestnut that appears in so many articles about romance fiction: the ‘some feminists’ hate it argument.

Here’s another shock for you, a lot of romance readers and writers are also feminists, I certainly consider myself to be one. And funnily enough, feminists not unlike romance readers, don’t all think and believe the same thing. Just as not all romance readers loved FSOG, not all feminists hated it. While one feminist might criticize romance as being retrograde and/or abusive on the basis of their reading of one book, there are equally a lot of feminists who find the genre’s overwhelmingly positive, diverse and empowering characterization of female protagonists surprisingly refreshing. Oddly though, feminists that enjoy reading and writing romance are rarely if ever quoted in magazine articles about the genre. Why is that? I wonder. Has it perhaps got very little to do with the actual feminist opinion of romance – which is far too broad and diverse to be explained in a single sentence – and more to do with what the media perceives a feminist to be? Namely someone who is marginalised and judgmental and who can be easily stereotyped as being anti-romance fiction and, more importantly, anti-women reading whatever the heck they want for their own pleasure.

Ultimately, the article in The Economist, like so many articles I have read about romance fiction before it – almost always written by journalists who have no understanding of the genre’s appeal because they do not read it themselves – has the whiff of articles dating right back to ones in Victorian England which suggested women’s brains would rot if they read romance, because their sensibilities were just too delicate to withstand all that raw emotion.

So let’s talk about that old-fashioned sexist elephant in the room which underlies a lot of the arguments about why romance as a genre should not be taken seriously by anyone, especially not the British media, and why the people who read it should be ashamed of doing so. The essence of this argument states that books about relationships with a positive outcome are damaging because they give their sad, lonely, deluded readers unrealistic or unhealthy expectations about relationships.

To explain how offensive that argument is – quite apart from the fact that all the romance readers I know are intelligent, well-adjusted, sociable women – I’m going to return to my trusty Jack Reacher analogy. Does anyone assume that male readers of Lee Child's novels plan to go to their nearest bar and start cracking heads? So why then would anyone assume that a woman who enjoys reading Fifty Shades of Grey would want to be whipped by an emotionally scarred billionaire in real life? These are fictional characters, doing fictional things and people reading these novels whatever their gender know the difference between fantasy and reality, they get vicarious pleasure from these stories precisely because they know they are fiction. I should add to that, that as a writer I don’t want to be bound by some arbitrary code of conduct when I create my characters. My male characters, just like my female characters, are flawed because they have to be, to be human and relateable and unique. I don’t write misogynist heroes because, surprisingly, they wouldn’t be all that appealing to me or my readers, but nor do I write male characters who view life and gender politics from a female perspective, because um, they’re not women. This can sometimes make them insensitive and arrogant – but similarly my female characters don’t view their life and relationships from a male perspective so they can be equally insensitive to the male point of view.

Way back in the Seventies, rape fantasies or ‘forced seduction’ scenes abounded in a lot of historical romances. Why did those books stop being published? The simple answer is, because readers stopped buying them. Tastes changed and evolved, as they continue to change and evolve today, and what had once seemed exciting and forbidden became distasteful and appalling. Readers moved on. But here’s the thing, does anyone actually believe that the preponderance of those books at that time meant the women reading them wanted to be raped? Anymore than someone enjoying a James Bond novel in the Fifties wanted to become an assassin? No, because even way back in the Seventies, most people figured out that romance readers knew the difference between fantasy and reality. It would be nice if those who don’t read romance today could extend modern romance readers the same courtesy.

Now let’s consider the argument about ‘literary snobbery’ against romance, which apparently has more weight because ‘the median reader spends a paltry three to six days devouring a romance book.’ This rises to three weeks for literary novels. I’m not entirely sure what the argument here is supposed to be. Is it that light reading is bad? Surely people read a variety of books (even romance readers often read across genres which might explain why romance fiction has so many rich and varied subgenres) and for all sorts of reasons. Escapist easy-to-read genre books, whether they be romance, horror or crime fiction, lift the spirits by allowing the reader to break away from the stresses and strains of their own life. In the case of romance novels, it often gives readers a positive outlook on life too. How can that possibly be a bad thing?That said,  surely the fact readers take less time to read a romance novel might be for a number of reasons other than that the reading is light and easy and, in the context of the literary snobbery argument, therefore has no value. Might romance novels be read quickly because their readers are more engrossed in the story? More invested in finishing it? Less bored than they are by that literary tome which has sat on the nightstand for three-to-six days while they ‘devour’ their latest romance book? Whatever the reasons, all of these arguments are ludicrously crass, because they assume that literary snobbery is not only widespread but defensible. Whatever people read and for whatever reason, their reading choices are personal and subjective, have nothing to do with anyone else and no one should be judged for those choices, or shamed for them, particularly by someone who has no idea what they find so compelling in their choice in the first place.

The article, not unsurprisingly, finishes with the same bankrupt assumption that it began on.

Although shame is perceived to be a significant factor for the romance genre’s success in ebook format, this could be changing.

The article then goes on to mention the opening of a bricks and mortar romance store in LA funded by Kickstarter. Okay, so shame is perceived as a significant factor in the success of romance in the ebook market by whom exactly? Romance readers? The people who are actually supposed to be ashamed of reading romance, or the lazy journalist who seized on this argument and all his colleagues who have been repeating it ever since? And how exactly does the opening of a store selling print books dispute that claim? Or is that just a convenient way to end the article after doing a Google search for ‘romance fiction’ and coming up with lots of recent stories about the opening of Bea and Leah Koch’s new store The Ripped Bodice?

Last but not least, I ask you this: if some romance readers – even though I’ve never met one of these romance readers and I’ve met a lot of romance readers – are actually ashamed of what they read, why might that be? Could it possibly be because whenever the genre they enjoy reading is mentioned in the media, they are almost invariably subjected to the same old romance-shaming clichés that have been recycled in one guise or another since Victorian times? Just a thought.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The London Book Fair... And An Exciting Announcement

Fiona and Heidi go mad at #LBF16
When my very good writing mate and fellow Harlequin author Fiona Harper suggested heading to the London Book Fair I have to admit I was unsure... Wasn't this an event strictly for publishers and agents? Apparently not, as I discovered when Fi and I crashed the event this Tuesday.

Have to admit, if I had done this as an unpublished author I would have been totally intimidated, in fact even as a multi-published author I was a bit intimidated (oh, okay, a lot intimidated). Based in Kensington Olympia's imposing Victorian halls, the event is HUGE, with stands representing pretty much every publisher you've ever heard of vying for space on the ground floor and mezzanine level. After a shot of much needed coffee, Fiona and I headed for Author HQ (Fiona having downloaded the app and knowing how to use it!). This is a fairly new addition to the fair but is the perfect base for authors attending the event., providing career-orientated seminars in a cordoned off area tucked away behind the Children's Publishers section.

We nabbed a ringside seat for the first talk of the day... An Introduction to Publishing with agent Piers Blofeld of Shiel Land Associates and Macmillan Adult Books publisher Jeremy Trevathan... Which turned out to be illuminating. I have an agent and a publisher and even I was astonished at how little I knew not just about the relationship between the two, but also how massive this industry actually is... I particularly liked Piers advice to authors thinking of sidelining their agent to go straight to the source! 'Don't get a dog and bark yourself'.

Dinosaurs anyone??
The next seminar was equally riveting but for different reasons: The Independent Authors Journey featured a panel of three top indie authors – Mark Dawson, Mel Sherratt and Keith Houghton – who each gave us an insight into how they became successful indie-published authors after a disappointing response from the traditional publishing industry to their work... I've always shied away from the prospect of indie publishing on the grounds that I know nothing about marketing or PR and have no real interest in it. How wrong was I, these three made the whole indie publishing route seem both accessible and exciting. The top benefits, apart from getting a larger share of the profits obviously, included the control they have over their own careers and the interaction they get with readers. I love interaction with readers so this totally intrigued me. I also liked Dawson's assertion that the writing still comes first but he finds the business side a good counterpoint to the writing... And a lot of what they do, traditionally published authors are also required to do in terms of social media, etc. I wish I'd had a chance to pop over to the Independent Authors Stand afterwards. While I'm still happy where I am, it's nice to know that the other options out there aren't as scary as you thought and I was hugely impressed with these three whose drive and ambition and talent was massively inspiring.

Jennifer, Tory and the
Super Fab Marian Keyes
Fiona and I were also impressed with the seminar given by Jennifer Krebs, marketing campaign manager for our own publisher Harlequin, and Tory Lyne Pirkis of Midas PR, about successful PR and marketing strategies... Again this was ostensibly for authors thinking of going it alone, but it had a lot of good advice for traditional and hybrid authors. Who knew that Nora Roberts had spent ten percent of her advance money on marketing her books to complement her publisher's input in the early stages of her career, for example... Made me realize I've been pretty naive about the business side of my own career... And there was a lovely intro from the fabulous Marian Keyes – the Author of the Day – who we'd listened to earlier chatting about her career, make-up obsessions, Mammy Keyes's storytelling abilities and a lot more besides...

My favorite quote of the day definitely came from Keyes: "Be honest, be authentic, work hard." A brilliant writer and a pretty sensational woman too IMHO!

Now for my exciting announcement....  Drum roll, pur-lease!

During the lunch break I met three wonderful women – Christina Bunce, Susannah Marriott and Helen Shipman – who are the founders and directors of The Professional Writing Academy – an innovative online platform dedicated to delivering top-notch creative writing courses, and who have even developed their own bespoke online classroom specifically for writers. After a fabulous meeting, I'm super excited to announce that I'm going to be working with them to develop an online course entitled An Introduction to Writing Hot Romance this Autumn... Hopefully with a view to doing longer more in-depth courses in the future... After nearly ten years as a published romance author, with 24 books under my belt, several major award nominations and a USA Today Bestseller tag, I feel I've got the expertise to give new writers the tools they need to help and support them on this fabulous journey...  And joining forces with experts in the field of teaching online creative writing courses will make it an amazing experience for all concerned (me included!).. So watch this space if you're an aspiring romance writer ... More details to come.

Marian Keyes: Author of the Day.. Any Day Frankly
Bringing wit, wisdom and wonderful nails to #LBF16!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Getting the RITA finalist call for Tempting the Knight (there will be exclamation marks)

So I was busy eating my lunch on Friday afternoon, contemplating whether to drive to our local multiplex in the Angel Islington to see Zootopia with my sons and my husband or be a good girl and walk when the phone rang.

'Hi, is that Heidi Rice?' Said a voice in a warm American accent.

'Yes, speaking,' I replied round a mouthful of cheese sandwich, thinking is this what I think it is? No it can't be? Surely they're not doing RITA calls on Good Friday? What's the date again? And anyway I got a RITA call last year I can't possibly have gotten another one!

'Hi Heidi, this is Alyssa Day...' At that point it all becomes a little fuzzy, because I was screaming OMG OMG OMG ALYSSA DAY!! inside my head while trying to swallow down my cheese sandwich and also remember to breathe ...

She mentioned my book Tempting the Knight, part of the Fairy Tales of New York quartet I wrote with Kelly Hunter, Amy Andrews and Lucy King, and said RITA finalist and Contemporary Romance Short at some point too, I'm almost certain... But I was hyperventilating far too hard to actually hear anything , except my babbling about how excited I was (as if she couldn't tell that from the hyperventilating) and how I was eating my lunch (like she needed to know that *facepalms*)... We then proceeded to have a half-way coherent chat (coherent on her end, anyway) about the conference in San Diego, would I be coming, how excited I was (again, sooo not necessary)... And then I put down the phone, and just stood in my kitchen waiting for the news to actually sink in – and hoping I'd remembered to thank her (still not sure about that).

Then I rushed out the door to tell my husband, who was busy cutting  the front hedge with his strimmer. He said something like 'Oh that's cool, maybe it'll be third time lucky... ' And then carried on cutting the hedge. So then I had to shout at him the full import of what had just happened over the sound of the strimmer to the whole  neighbourhood. For goodness sake this was a SUPER BIG DEAL. I'd just been nominated for an Oscar. He nodded, looking a bit puzzled, congratulated me again, said something about Leo DiCaprio and if it was his year, maybe it would be mine and carried on strimming....

I then ran into the front room to tell my two sons - who congratulated me without looking up from the TV then asked if we could take the car to the Angel!!

So far so NOT NEARLY EXCITED ENOUGH... Bloody men! They just didn't GET IT... So then I did what I should have done to start with and texted my best writing mate Abby Green - I cannot repeat the text here as it was a little profane (I swear when I'm excited, a lot, I'm a Londoner, this is how we roll). She congratulated me (properly) and then promised to break my legs if I ever moaned about my writing career again (fair enough). Then I hit Twitter and Facebook, as you do... In the middle of lots of lovely congrats from so many of my writing mates and readers, I got a call from my good mate Scarlet Wilson who sounded as flummoxed as me but more so, because she had just found out she had finaled TWICE in the same category!! .... Go Scarlet!!

By the time I'd calmed down enough to think coherently, we had to make a mad dash to the Angel, and nearly missed the start of the movie. (Zootopia's rather good btw, or at least I think it is, I wasn't exactly capable of being objective, I would probably have been entertained by having the phone book recited to me).

Needless to say, four days later, I am still on a high. And don't plan to come down any time soon. I'm all signed up for the conference in San Diego, I have my flights booked and I am quite simply thrilled to bits to be able to go to RWA16 sporting my RITA FINALIST ribbon and pin.

I have a huge debt of thanks to give romance-writing goddess Jane Porter and the fabulous team at Tule Publishing for letting us write these stories the way we wanted to (and giving me my best cover ever), but most of all I want to thank Kelly, Amy and Lucy.

Amy came up with the original idea of doing sexy modern makeovers of classic Fairy Tales (and then explained to me in words of one syllable what oblique meant when I instantly pooh-poohed the idea! Duh!),  Kelly edited my book brilliantly and Lucy helped me come up with a great family history for my heroine (who was the sister of her Beast of a hero)... But more than that, we wrote The Fairy Tales of New York together, after spending months and two thousand plus emails brain-storming the plots, the characters, their connections, their hopes and dreams and conflicts and their backstories, and liaising on everything from the floor plan of the Irish American pub in Brooklyn where our heroines connect to the design of the uniform they wore at the convent school in Upstate New York where they all met as teenagers... The standard of their stories was so high, they challenged me to make my story the best it could be, they let me use their remarkable characters in my book, and they gave my story added depth and complexity by helping to build a whole wonderful world around all four of our heroines and their heroes. But best of all, they made the whole process an absolute hoot! I wrote all about it on The Pink Heart Society if you want to know more...

TBH it almost feels a little bit greedy to get the pleasure of a RITA nod on top of all that Fairy Tale goodness... But hey, I'm all for being the princess in my own modern day fairy tale, especially if it means I can now go shop for a new posh frock to wear at the Awards do!