Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than many folks writing about serial killers, elves or dinosaurs in spaceships (yes, this is a thing, try the googles) simply because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or moody, over-educated basket cases like the men you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting checking out romance novel covers. IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies. I’m not kidding here. Because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing, damn it. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

One man’s love letter to romance authors and readers

Listen: romance novels don’t get enough respect.

Not for the amazing army of authors. Not for the editors and literary agents.

And not for the millions of loyal readers.

That should change. Here’s why:

1) The world needs books more than ever

If you care about ideas and words, you should care about books.

Newspapers and magazines are below books on the food chain of ideas and insights. I say this as a former journalist who bleeds newsprint if you cut me.

Only books give a writer enough space and time to truly dive deep into a topic.

Every library is an arsenal of liberty and each book is a foot soldier in the war against ignorance, apathy and hate.

We need books more than ever, with propaganda, misinformation and tyrants—or wannabe tyrants—one the rise around the world.

Books matter. When it comes to ideas, they are irreplaceable.

Oh, television and movies make billions. Money isn’t the same as importance. TV, movies and the Series of Tubes can’t replace the role of books.

And the foundation of a healthy book industry? Romance novels.

It’s not even close.

Crime and mystery novels are No. 2, at $728 million a year in the U.S. book market. Sidenote: there are conflicting opinions of what genre is No. 2. I’m not getting into that fight.

Romance novels lap the field with a staggering $1.44 billion a year.

2) Romance is not a fad

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.

There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.

Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.

There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.

Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.

3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews

Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.

However: male authors and male critics dominate book reviews.

That’s upside down.

It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.

If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.

Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.

4) Romance is a story that needs to be told

Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.

The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?

Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.

Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?

That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.

Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?

5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak

If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.

Every. Single. Time.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.

The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.

Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.

RWA is an army, folks. Do not mess with them.

6) HFN and HEA are squad goals, people

Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.

This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.

Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.

Happy wife, happy life.

There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.

The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.

I like that message.

Strike that. I love it.

It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.

Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.

P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.

Vini sinks DEEP BLUE by Kat Martin

Guest post by Vini 

There is no surprising plot in a romance novel.  That is both their sin and secret. 

A romance novel offers the comfort of fantasy where love and life ends well.

So the success of a romance novel lies in its twists in plot, in the dialogue, in character development, in its writing. 

What it cannot be is boring and simplistic in its handling of the plot.

I have read 50 pages of Kat Martin‘s re-released book DEEP BLUE (2005) and I cannot read another page. 

It is agony. 

I am going to get my $7.99 back. Plus tax.

Kat Martin has written good books. This is not one of them.
Kat Martin has written good books. This is not one of them.

As an avid reader of romance novels, nothing tolls the death of a book faster than heated glances, a random emergency which sends the heroine to the Caribbean to hook up with an ex-seal treasure seeker who is attached to an archeologist?! 

If you dabble in implausibility, the characters better sing off the page.  But Martin’s Hope Sinclair is a heroine who is poorly developed and is a loser.  She is paperboard thin.

Hope is a reporter.  Her home is ransacked and it is her editor that thinks of the reason why:  a story that she is working on.  Ta-da! 

Her reaction to her home in shambles — or being pulled from a hot story — creates an equally vapid response.  This investigative reporter on the brink of a major corruption story has no instincts, no nose for the story and blissfully goes off to a happy piece in the Caribbean.

The journalist I know would sell their Granny to stay on the scent of a truly hot scoop.  I remember going on errands with my husband — a former reporter — who would follow the lights and sirens of any fire or police who crossed our path. Reporters have a calling, which makes them like crazy rabid dogs (but in a good way).

That is why Hope Sinclair is a wash-out.  And if you can’t love the heroine, there is nothing else to attach to and the story is lost. 

Kat Martin knows how to write a good book, and I own about five of her novels which are good, but she did not do so with the DEEP BLUE. 

Verdict: The book deserves to be returned.

 

The Red Pen of Doom whips SWITCH by Camryn Rhys

SWITCH

by Camryn Rhys

Alexandra popped a steaming potsticker into her mouth and bit down. The crisp bottom skin gave way and thick, salty pork stuffing spilled (“thick, salty pork stuffing spilled” is a whole lotta modifiers and alliteration) salty pork spilled onto her tongue. She waited for the spicy heat of the sriracha to start burning up the back of her throat, but it didn’t come. Chewing, chewing, chewing, and no heat. Without a thought, she plucked the skillet from the heat and dumped the rest of the plump, white puffs into the trash. with a sliding sizzle (More alliteration brought to you by the letter S, which is too much for the same paragraph)

She snapped (snapped is bitchy) turned around, coming face to face with the new prep cook, Marcus, who waited on her response. His brown eyes round (I believe most eyes are round instead of square ), he stared back in unblinking silence. Lexi (Hold up: is this a new character, or the same one? Let’s pick a first name for the heroine and stick with it) slammed the skillet onto a cold burner and sucked in what she hoped was a menacing breath.

“How much hot sauce did you use? Precisely.”

Marcus stammered,. He picked up the wrinkled, hand-scribbled (Do people scribble with toes or put notecards in their laser printer?) notecard, and skimmed it. (Three commas in that little sentence is maybe three commas too many. Two short sentence with no commas is better.) “I followed the recipe.”

“You eyeballed it.” She drew closer to him, suddenly aware of how much she towered over his willowy frame. (Wait, is this a little kid, a student? I did not sign up to read LOLITA meets HELL’S KITCHEN) A quick twinge (Of what, chest pain?) almost made her back off, but Fiona’s words rang in her ears: hHow can you teach these kids if you don’t come down on them? How like Fiona (Who is Fiona?) to encourage beating someone into submission. Channel your inner Domme, honey. Easier said than done.

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

There’s a deep connection between food and sensuality, so even a giant Swede like me can understand where Camryn is going with the whole foodie-romance thing. While Camryn the Rhys is a great writer and a good friend, I will resist the urge to go easy on her. She’s the female version of Batman — she can take it.

It’s well done. Nice mix of action, description and dialogue. Emotions also come through clearly.

Camryn can clearly write.

I like the idea of food and romance. Great. And the setup of this heroine — Alexandra or Lexi, whichever name you want to go with — is fine for a romance.

Little things threw me off, especially the kid thing. Do I want to picture a towering teacher being all mean to a scared little student? No. Lexi doesn’t seem sympathetic.

We need to see her save the cat, as Blake Snyder says, before we see her be this snappy and unpleasant.

But forget the little things. Let’s think about the big things for a bit.

Page one is the beginning. How is this character going to change on the page that says THE END?

My wild guess is that she’ll still be tough, if not dominant. That she won’t change that core part of her personality.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she flips, and becomes kind in the kitchen and elsewhere after realizing that she put thousands of high school students and ex-lovers in therapy. Maybe she becomes a nun in Tibet after reading a biography of Mother Theresa.

I do know this: whatever genre the story may be, the best stories make characters take long, interesting journeys. Not as tourists snapping photos. As people.

For any romance, the ending is up, right? Two lovers get together.

So for a big journey, the hero or heroine should be alone and unloved on page 1.

And if we’re doing a foodie-romance, the end has the hero or heroine eating delicious food with a yummy love affair cooking on the front burner. Let’s think of the biggest possible journey: if the end is her being in control, in love and in touch with all her senses, then Page 1 should start with her being alone, afraid and out of touch with her senses.

So: I’d like to see this Lexi change and learn and grow. Is this a flat character that goes on a series of romps, or is there a real journey? Page one is where that journey starts.

What if the person on Page 1 lost their sense of smell and taste in an accident, and had to rediscover cooking and kissing and all of that? Hmm. That would be a big journey, wouldn’t it?

The Verdict: Good writer, good writing. I worry about the head fake toward LOLITA meets HELL’S KITCHEN, and I want to see Alexandra/Lexi/Fiona or whoever actually change and grow from Page 1 to THE END.

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

THE NOTEBOOK

(The title makes sense, since the story turns on an actual notebook.)

by Nicholas Sparks

Chapter One: Miracles

Who am I? And how,I wonder, will this story end?

The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. (Melodramatic and clunky.) I’m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me, clicking and groaning and spewing hot air like a fairytale dragon — and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making. Eighty years. , I think sometimes, and dDespite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this iIs this how it is for everyone my age?

My life? It isn’t easy to explain. It has Not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it would be, but neither have I burrowed around with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock:

(end of page 1)

the notebook by nicholas sparks
THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks. A book that belongs next to Hemingway. A movie that should have won many, many more Oscars, yes? Nicholas Sparks was ROBBED.

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

The biggest problem isn’t the line editing, though it’s clunky. While clearly first-person P.O.V., he keeps inserting needless attributions like “I wonder” and “I think.” Here’s the monster problem: 90 percent of page one is spent telling the reader — repeatedly — that the first-person narrator is (a) 80 years old and (b) seriously obsessed with talking about how cold it is.

Space on page one is precious. It’s for raising narrative questions that won’t be answered for 400 pages. Compelling questions.

Life or death. Together or alone. Freedom or slavery.

I can imagine a story where being 80 years old and cold is the problem. Maybe a doctor is headed to a remote Alaskan village when his snowmobile breaks down. He’s  the only doctor within 200 miles, the only hope for a mother who’s in the middle of a labor gone wrong. Now you’ve got public stakes and private stakes. If he doesn’t strap on snowshoes and get past hungry wolves and polar bears, he’ll die, and the mom in labor might die, and her baby might die — and they’ll be no doctor out in the bush for a lot of people.

So: a cold old man becoming warm can matter a lot in a story.

Not in this story. On this page one, it’s boring.

Having an 80-year-old hero can make this hard. Go back to the first line: “And, I wonder, how will this story end?” Not a lot of suspense there. It’s hard having high stakes when the protag is already looking back on his life, as if it’s already over.

This is why most novels and movies feature younger protags. The more you have to lose, the higher the stakes.

It’s why you have movies like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, not INDIANA JONES AND THE CONTENTIOUS BINGO GAME.

You certainly can have great stories with older heroes. They just have to DO something.

Anthony Hopkins did a great job with Hannibal Lecter, an active and charming killer. Old, yes, but he didn’t act like Sparks’ old man. There is no book called HANNIBAL LECTER AND THE SPACE HEATER.

So, back to THE NOTEBOOK: the beginning should set up the ending. Does the climax hinge on whether our 80-year-old hero puts on another ugly Christmas sweater and finally stops kvetching about being cold? No.

It’s about whether or not he’s alone or together. Whether his wife remembers him or not.

So the first line is on track. Almost. Not “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” And that question should come out of the mouth of the wife.

Or, if Sparks wanted some misdirection, have that question come from somebody else. But since the end is about togetherness, about love and romance and faithfulness, the first chapter should be full of loneliness. Not cold. Not sweaters and scarves and space heaters.

Talk about how friends move, how coworkers get different jobs, kids grow up and stop calling.  Spend the first page on loneliness, if you want the ending to be about togetherness.

Had I not read the back cover, and didn’t know the climax of this story, reading page one would not motivate me to read more.

If the narrator complains a lot, and doesn’t think his own life is exciting, why the hell would I keep reading about him? I will now praise the One Known as the Spork: the ending of this book, as a plot, isn’t bad. Page one doesn’t do it justice.

Verdict: Take out the Nine and shoot it full of holes, then burn whatever’s left and start over with a fresh sheet of paper.