How to Become a Romance Novelist
Loretta Chekani, a slightly agoraphobic former meter maid, is under the gun this afternoon. Or rather, Loretta Chase is under the gun. There is a slight difference. Loretta Chekani is more Albanian, for one thing. Loretta Chase, writer of romances, has a buffed lack of ethnicity. Loretta Chekani, a resident of Worcester, doesn't drive, lives on the top of a hill, and sometimes doesn't leave her house for days. She wears sweatshirts to mid-thigh. Loretta Chase wrote this line: He raked her sweetness thirstily.And it is Loretta Chase, authoress, who is sitting before a list of names this afternoon. Next to the list of names is a framed photograph of the film star Rufus Sewell and a book called What Shall We Name the Baby? The book is not being used for babies. The list reads:Adam Adrian Alexander AnthonyBalthasarBlaiseDamianDarcy (d'Arcy)AlistairGervase (Gervaise)GuyHarryHugh IngramJulianJuliusJustinLucianMalcolmMarcellusMarcusMaximillianMiles Nigel Noel OctaviusRafeRoderick Roland Simon TrevorValentineValerianVincentVivienXavierHere, fiddling with her ball-point, trying to conjure up a 19th-century nobleman who is simultaneously tender and feral, sits one of New England's queens of series romance. Chekani demonstrates no overt glamour, but then neither do the others: Cambridge's Lisa Baumgartner, who is, but is not exactly, Alicia Scott; Providence's JoAnne Ferguson, who is, but is not exactly, Rebecca North; and Sudbury's Barbara Keiler, who is, but is not exactly, Judith Arnold or Ariel Berk. They are not, as a group, bouffant or backlit, and most actually have no legal rights to their pen names. Chiefly they give an impression of brutal efficiency. They write five pages a day, or they write 20; they circle the numbers in their daybooks.But to their thousands of unpublished acolytes, toiling in blind faith over their manuscripts, the women listed above walk in an aura of success. They are fellow travelers who have passed over into a world that is better, fairer, and infinitely more romantic. It should be assumed, to start with, that any human being who has read a category (such as Harlequin or Silhouette) romance has considered writing one. Romance novels make up almost half the yearly sales of mass-market books, and of those, the percentage by previously unpublished writers is higher than in virtually any other genre. Established writers, meanwhile, sometimes publish as many as 10 books a year for fees that hover between $10,000 and $15,000 per book. And there is a persistent impression that writing category romance is easy, perhaps owing to the fact that famous writer Janet Dailey typically completes them in eight days.The bad news is, you're not the first person to think of it. This point is brought home when you learn that 80 percent of the dues-paying members of the Romance Writers of America are to date unpublished. Barbara Keiler, who read her first category romance while standing in an unemployment line, has come to understand this problem during a 14-year, 60-book career. "There is," she says grimly, "a large supply of product." Baumgartner agrees. "It's not like writers get old and die off." Or not rapidly. But sooner or later, a spot will open up at the table, and while you're waiting, you'd be wise to study the attitudes appropriate to successful romance novelists.THE CLINCHYou revile it. The bosomy "clinch" cover is the b?te noir of choice for successful romance writers. The heroine's cleavage suggests lactation; the hero clutches her from an angle that could bring little pleasure to either party; they are coupling frantically on a bed of rhododendrons. When you get together with other successful romance writers, your complaints about the clinch mount into a communal frenzy. You suspect conspiracy."In my darker moments, I regard them as a form of sexual harassment," Chekani says. "It's the distributors who want the sexy covers on the books. These are guys. And these are the people who put the books on the shelves."You yearn for the kind of name recognition that would earn you a tasteful foil cover or a mature-looking floral. But behind the boardroom conspiracy you hear the dull roar of your public, particularly that section of your public that one successful romance writer described as "less sophisticated." There is the often-told parable of Bantam Loveswept, which became so refined two years ago -- removing any human image at from the cover -- that sales dropped precipitously for the first time in years. Bantam, panicked, slapped male models back onto every cover. Romance novelists' relationships with their covers range from bafflement to outrage, in part because the covers often have only a glancing relationship to the text. In the interest of efficiency, unused covers commissioned for other books are sometimes kept on file and pulled at the last minute. As a result, authors are sometimes called in late to bring their text into line with the cover. Keiler once saw the color of her heroine's gown change throughout the text because of a tint problem on the cover. And once, when her manuscript "Not Without Risk" had reached the galley stage, Cochituate writer Suzanne Brockmann learned that through some oversight the cover model had been not ash-blond but raven-haired, and went through her entire dot- matrix galley editing out "gleaming," "golden" and "flaxen." Just like that, gutsy art historian Annie Morrow went brunette.THE FORMULAYou deny its existence. Asked about the notorious page-95 loss of maidenhead, or the chapter-three bed deadline, or the rule that the hero and heroine can't be apart for more than 10 pages, you wonder aloud if Jane Austen was asked that. You quote Mark Twain, who said only three books had ever been written anyway. You look slightly wounded.But the fact is, if you're in the market for formulas, you can find them. In the How-to-Write-Romance-Novels business, which is a cottage industry in its own right, experts send a message of distinct hope for writers with no knack for thinking up plots. Marilyn Lowery sketched it out this way in her 1983 book How To Write Romance Novels That Sell: 1) A girl, our heroine, meets a man, our hero, who is above her socially and who is worldly and wealthy.2) The hero excites the heroine but frightens her sexually.3) She is usually alone in the world and vulnerable.4) The hero dominates the heroine, but she is fiery and sensual, needing this powerful male. 5) Though appearing to scorn her, the hero is intrigued by her and pursues her sexually.6) The heroine wants love, not merely sex, and sees his pursuit as self-gratification.7) The two clash in verbal sparring.8) In holding to her own standards, the heroine appears to lose the hero. She does not know he respects her.9) A moment of danger for either main character results in the realization on the part of the hero or heroine that the feeling between them is true love.10) A last minute plot twist threatens their relationship.11) The two finally communicate and admit their true love, which will last forever. "Why is the reader fascinated by this formula?" Lowery asks, rhetorically. "It tells her that she can have the romance she was brought up to believe in; that her life can be exciting and happy; that she is desirably sexually; that true love lasts forever."Contemporary romances have departed in large part from Lowery's withholding-sex scenario, as they have from the obligatory rape scene she sketches out ("We mustn't feel as we would while reading about an actual rape," she helpfully points out.) But there are still patterns. Less psychological but also serviceable is the chapter-by-chapter breakdown developed for use in short category romances. This was the version included in the Romance Writers of America newsletter this fall:1) The Meeting2) Attraction3) Denial of Attraction4) Admitting of It and First Kiss5) Attraction Grows6) Fever-Pitch Emotions7) Love Scene8) Plateau of Happiness9) Worries Begin to Creep In10) The "Black" Moment11) The Resolution12) Conclusion and Happy EndingPublished romance novelists tend to view these schemes, with some pity, as cut-rate snake oil. "Someone is always peddling the formula to susceptible people," says Gail Eastwood Stokes, who publishes under the name Gail Eastwood. "Everyone is looking for an easy way to write a book."LOVE SCENEThere are words you do not use, although you write about the things they refer to. ("There have got to be sex scenes," says Chekani. "The genre wants it.") To wit: The "c words" are out, as are the clinical names for parts that you call, variously, "his swollen length," "her feminine channel," and that most fatigued of all euphemisms, "her slick femininity." If you are asked, you explain that the reason for this is that (unlike, say, pornography) your writing emphasizes the emotional rather than the physical side of sex. When Brockmann first set about writing romances, she made what she calls a "commando raid" on a local bookstore to read all the available sex scenes, and stopped short at one novel whose consummation peaked with the statement, "Their love was a red-orange thing." At that moment, Brockmann came to terms with one of the trickiest aspects of her genre: an erotic vocabulary that relies less on metaphor than on bizarre circumvention. Years of avoiding clinical terms can fray the nerves, as in the well-traveled anecdote of one successful romance writer who woke up in the middle of the night screaming "It's a penis!" Chekani knows how that is: after 14 books, she finds she is running out of phrases. "We'd talk about her nest of curls," she says. "We're trying to say that she's hot, that she's ready. Obviously she's lubricated. But you don't want to say that she's lubricated. You can say damp."Some series are more emotional than others. Silhouette Romance sanctions zero intercourse before marriage, while Silhouette Desire sanctions intercourse and even, occasionally, oral sex, as long as it is deeply felt. The average Silhouette Desire contains three full sex scenes of about five pages apiece, and a few dozen of these can take their toll on a writer. In the most extreme cases, writers have been known to skip the sex scenes in the first draft and insert them later. The tingle goes out of it. Baumgartner, who is 25 and wrote her first successful romance novel at 18, says that after 12 books, her sex scenes have become "mostly aerobic." Unlike most of the genre, and unlike the lord-and-governess prototype, Baumgartner's novels now include husky references to "foil wrappers" and a fair amount of breathless rummaging through wallets. She says the safe-sex debate will continue to cleave category for a long time yet. "It is kind of a generational thing," Baumgartner says. Upon first integrating condoms into a sex scene: "I wasn't even aware of it as a debate. I just had [a condom] because in my mind it would have been weird not to."Suzanne Brockmann, who feels a social responsibility to promote safe sex, says prophylactics simply supply the writer with another narrative variable."You can have them mess up and try again, or you can describe the sound of the paper ripping open or the foil, or you can just say, ÔHe expertly covered himself,'Ê" Brockmann says. "The options are incredibly open."BLACK MOMENTIt comes sooner or later. In your mind, an insidious little voice suggests that you may not be able to write romance novels. One intriguing statistic about the Romance Writers of America is that of roughly 8000 dues-paying members, only 1600 have been published at all, by anyone. A full 98 percent of the membership will not have anything published this year, according to one former official. And they haven't not published one novel; they have not published five or six or seven, as in the case of Lori Lotti, president of the New England chapter. The split between RWA's "published" set and its "unpublished" set is a deep one, and one that opens up delicate emotional territory. For an "unpublished" member to slip her draft into the hands of a "published" member for criticism is a profound breach of decorum, among other reasons because it opens the "published" member up to future intellectual-property litigation. Instead, RWA provides a $25 critiquing service, which gets you a written assessment from a published author. Certain members of the published group look with mute wonder at the tenacity of the unpublished."Nothing is scarier to me than people who give up their day jobs to write full-time," says Baumgartner. "Frankly, some of them would be better off buying a lottery ticket."The unpublished, meanwhile, cultivate a combination of blind faith and superhuman industry, as in the case of the Georgia wunderkind Iris Johansen, who, while she was working full-time as an airline ticket agent, wrote eight books before any of them got published. (She has now written, and published, 60.) But by the time a writer has half a dozen unpublished novels under her desk, she has already traveled too far on her journey toward the big lavender."I've invested so much in it already," says Lotti, an insurance broker who estimates that she spends up to 20 hours a week on her "other career."She has completed seven novels. "I do sometimes wonder if there is a point to going on," she says. Then she cheers up visibly. "When I finally sat down and started writing, I definitely found something. A way to express myself," she says. "I wouldn't give it up."But even while her rubber-banded manuscripts age, she is contributing to the romance movement. It is the unpublished who are the most impassioned defenders of the form, battling a persistent stereotype of romance novels as fluff, says Harold Lowry, who has written 20 historical romances under the gender-neutral pseudonym Leigh Greenwood. "People who are unpublished tend to be more idealistic about what the image is in the media," says Lowry. "People who are published are more concerned with getting out the next book."HAPPY ENDINGYou live happily ever after. You write only on contract. You get along with your editor. One example of determined amicability belongs to Brockmann, whose first difficult experience with the romance editor/romance writer dynamic came when Bantam requested that her Vlad the Impaler subplot be massaged into a Native American subplot. "It was an interesting phone call," Brockmann says, philosophically. "But that's what it's all about -- keeping the publisher happy. I was like, it's not going to kill me. This is my business."Then there was the time she wrote a book about a Vietnam veteran haunted by the slaughter he had seen, struggling to his feet after years in an alcoholic haze. "Vietnam was very important to me," says Brockmann. But not, apparently, to Avon, which enjoyed the basic plot elements but requested, politely, if it wasn't too much trouble, that her hero be a touch younger and, say, a firefighter. Or something. Brockmann refused."Look," says Lowry. "If you want to make a career out of it, you face a whole bunch of reality. Men have female pen names. If you're in the genre, you're working within certain stylistic parameters. There's a real pecking order for people who get the clinch covers and people who get the jewel boxes.""I have an image of the fat lady in Franny & Zooey, " says Isabelle Swift, editorial director of Silhouette Romance. "Josephine Reader is out there, and she's putting down her limited income, and she's buying a Silhouette Desire. She's saying, ÔI want what this can give me, and it's basically a branded product and that brand means something to me.' "And for you, the writer," Swift continues, "I want you to meet that reader's expectation. All I care about is that when she closes that book, she says, ÔI bought a Silhouette Desire, and that's how I spent the last three hours, and I'm glad I did.'Ê"The romance dies, maybe. The sex turns aerobic. When your book gets accepted, you stop -- as Brockmann stopped -- "dancing around the room." But in her third year of publishing, with 12 titles under her belt, Brockmann has ratcheted up her yearly income since 1994 (when it was $5000) and 1995 (when it was $15,000). She is contracted into mid 1997 for half a dozen category jobs -- a brooding Navy SEAL; a comic marriage of convenience; a pretty but cash-strapped software executive. If she finishes three new novels by December 1, as per her contracts, she will net $60,000 this year. Which, less taxes, will add up to almost a living wage.SIDEBAR ONETALL, DARK, AND GENDER-NEUTRAL: THE MEN OF CATEGORY ROMANCE"Women think there must be something I don't do as well as another woman," says Harold Lowry. He catches himself. "I mean, as a woman." He pauses. "You know what I mean."Harold Lowry's gender is beyond debate, but the same cannot be said of Leigh Greenwood, successful writer of romance novels, who is the same person as Harold Lowry. It is a dilemma shared by Vince Brach, who is the same person as Fran Vincent, and by Mike Hinkemeyer, who is also Vanessa Royall. They feel secure with their manhood. They just don't want to broadcast it. Male writers of romance novels have a tough row to hoe, as Tom E. Huff (Jennifer Wilde, Edwinna Marlowe) was the first to discover. Huff was in the vanguard of historical romance in the 1970s, when the romance industry boiled down to "eight women known as 'the Avon ladies' and a guy from Texas named Jennifer," says Bertrice Smalls, who was one of those eight ladies.Huff, whose novel Love's Tender Fury heads the canon of old-style bodice-rippers, left this advice for those who would come after: keep it quiet. Female readers feel uncomfortable having men write their fantasies.Few men have come forward to take Huff's place since his death in 1989, though some have attempted it. One romance publisher recently launched a whole series written by men, but its first wave of readers immediately picked up on tonal discrepancies, says Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times magazine. "The readers nailed it," says Stacy. "It's not that men aren't talented writers. It's just that what a man considers romantic is not what a woman considers romantic. Women don't trust that a man knows what romance is."One of the few who has broken this barrier is Lowry, a 55-year-old father of three who has published 17 historical romances. In the feminine world of romance, men -- both as characters and colleagues -- have an ambiguous status: sometimes brutal, often benighted, and always in dire need of female assistance. "It's funny. The man is the adored object, but he is also the enemy," says the former schoolteacher. Walk into a room of romance enthusiasts and "you are basically a foreign item."The numbers tell the story. At a romance-writers convention last year, Vince Brach was one of three men in a crowd of 2000. Brach, a Texan, read his first romance novel by accident, and developed an anomalous enthusiasm for the form. One day in a bookstore, a member of the Romance Writers of America was so impressed by his ardor that she approached him and invited him to a meeting. That's when he became Fran Vincent. But the rationale for the charade occasionally wears on his patience. "They think men don't know what women want in love, which is absurd, because men marry women all the time," he says. When all is said and done, though, Brach will remain Fran, at least for the time being. "It's not a serious prejudice, but it's enough to make their hand hesitate when they're reaching for a title," he says. "Why put a hobble around your leg?"