Like many English majors, I was brainwashed in college against reading any genre fiction. Growing up as a reader has involved letting go of that arbitrary prejudice and learning to enjoy a variety of genres: in the last year alone I've read a fantasy, a mystery, several YAs, and a thriller. Excellent writing exists across genres, and the tagline “literary” is no guarantee of artistic merit, much less reading enjoyment. This week, I’m delighted to introduce our readers to Gabi Stevens, author of the Time of Transition series, classified as “paranormal romance” and described by one Amazon reviewer as “a mix between contemporary romance and Harry Potter.” (Ms. Stevens has also kindly offered a book giveaway: see end for details.)
Q: When you tell people you write romance novels, what kind of reaction do you get?
A: Here are some of the actual quotes I’ve received and the answers I wish I could say in parentheses:
“When are you going to write a real book?” (As opposed to the fake one you’re holding right now?)
“When are you going to write something serious?” (You mean the ones that leave you feeling like you need Prozac?)
“How can you write such trash?” (I’m sorry you have such an opinion on novels celebrating love. How sad you’ve never experienced it.)
“Oh, I love trashy novels.” (Then you won’t like mine because it isn’t trash.)
“Did your husband pose for the cover?” (Sure, because a middle-aged engineer is just who readers want to see.)
“Is it based on real life?” (Yes, just like Agatha Christie’s many murders and Stephen King’s encounters with preternatural beings and events. What part of fiction don’t you understand?)
I have to say that those reactions come from non-romance readers. People who read and enjoy romance are excited to meet an author. I’ve never had anything but a truly wonderful experience with readers. And it’s a large community. Romance comprises the largest segment of the fiction market. With sales exceeding 1.3 billion dollars in 2010, romance beats the next largest segment (religious/inspirational) by nearly 600 hundred million dollars.
The word is getting out however. There are now academic conferences on the romance novel, books on romance (Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan), articles and web sites.These examples are only a small sampling of information on Romance. Romance Writers of America (RWA) is a national organization with over 10,000 members with local chapters across the US and online.
Q: For a genre that has such strong and enthusiastic support, romance seems awfully misunderstood. What would you say is the most common misperception about this genre?
A: I’d like to address three misperceptions actually. The first is that writing romance is easy. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Authors who have never attempted it seem to think that they can pop out a romance novel in a weekend. Sorry, folks. We study our craft. We worry about characterization, plot, theme (I’m giving a talk on theme this summer at the RWA national conference in Anaheim in July), story arc, turning points, wordsmithing, conflict, etc. What one discovers if one studies the market, editors, and agents is that romance authors, especially the members of RWA are better prepared than other authors. They understand the business and the craft side of writing. Be prepared to learn a lot before you write romance.
The second is that the books are formula. And here it is: a romance is the story of two individuals in a central love story with a satisfying ending. Okay, genre romance tends to have the HEA—happily ever after, and that’s what people object to: that all the books are the same. What non-romance readers don’t realize is that the novels aren’t about whether the two characters get together; they’re about how the two characters get together. Within the genre are such varied subgenres as historical, which has its own subgenres such as regency, British, Scottish, western, medieval, etc; contemporary; romantic suspense; paranormal, including vampires, werewolves, ghosts, time travel, sci fi, and my own, fantasy; inspirational; category; and single title. There are light romances and dark ones, humorous and serious, short and long. One last thing about formula: I defy you to name a genre that isn’t formulaic. When was the last time you read a mystery where the detective ends the book by saying, “Oh well, I couldn’t solve it. Better luck next time”? A better word for formula is reader expectation. All genres, including literary fiction, have reader expectations, and if those expectations aren’t fulfilled, the book fails.
The third misperception is that romance novels are all about the sex. Porn for women. In my last book, As You Wish, the story is told in 306 pages. Of those, ten pages describe sex. That’s approximately three percent of the novel. And the rest is describing the characters’ clothing. Just kidding. There is an actual story. (I know. You’re shocked.) Depending on what type of book you pick up, the level of sensuality and the amount of sex will vary from having events occur behind closed doors to explicit erotic romances. And besides, what’s wrong with sex?
Q: As a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s (quite sexy and wildly popular) Outlander series, I wholeheartedly agree! Next question: In researching sci-fi and fantasy, I discovered a number of rules, such as “each magical ability must come at a cost.” Each genre has such properties and peculiarities: what can you tell us about the romance genre?
A: If you are writing for the romance market, the book must have a couple and a happy ending. A book can be romantic but not be a romance (think Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele), or have a happy ending and not be a romance. Otherwise the parameters are wide open. I would contend that the best romance novels hold their own against the best novels in any genre. Yes, there are bad ones, but, really, every genre has bad ones. Great romance novels are sublime, just as any great novels are. Books one considers great comes down to taste (after grammar, sentence structure, etc.). We all have different tastes, which is as is should be. I would hate to have only one type of book to read. If you want to learn more about the genre, do check out rwanational.org. And if you’re planning on writing a romance novel, love them. It’ll show up in your writing if you don’t.
Q: When one of my manuscripts developed a strong romantic subplot, I went to the library and checked out a few books on writing romance. I think this is one thing that sets romance apart from the other genres: non-romance writers can turn to this genre for ideas on their own plots, because so many novels have a romantic element. This can't really be said for westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.
A: The point you bring up is why I find the critics’ and (snobby) readers’ reaction to romance so baffling. Love is such a central and deeply ingrained human emotion. So many, many stories focus on love of all kinds. So many great books have strong romantic subplots—look at Stephen King’s latest book, 11/22/63. Suzanne Brockmann gave a keynote speech that I was privileged to hear. She left us in tears. In the speech she said, when the towers were falling on 9/11, people didn’t call their banks, or their businesses. They called their loved ones to say that they love them. JK Rowling’s great villain (Voldemort for those of you living under rocks) is defeated because he cannot understand love.
Q: The process of deciding which genre to write in is rather mysterious to me. I am still genre-hopping, myself, trying to find the best fit. I've toyed with YA, fantasy, historical fiction, and that vague category known as "women's fiction." Paranormal romance is such a specific subcategory: what led you there? Is it because that's what you enjoy reading, or was it something else?
A: I loved reading since I was tiny, and romances specifically since I was 16 (I can still distinctly recall the first romance I read. My mother gave it to me—Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride. The second one I read was Kathleen Woddiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower. Woddiwiss’s book is widely acknowledged as the birth of the modern romance novel and changed women’s fiction forever). I also have a degree—two actually—in literature. I’ve always preferred genre fiction or 19th century fiction, and, well, one can’t write 19th century fiction in the 21st century, can one? Paranormal romance is a logical choice for me because I’ve studied the Grimm fairytales extensively, and many of the books I loved as a kid were paranormal—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Borrowers, The Phantom Tollbooth, the E. Nesbit and Edward Eager books, etc. (Just stop me now.) I’ve always loved mysteries as well, and went through a long period of reading horror, and still love science fiction. But romance remains my favorite and I have written historical romance as well under a different name.
Q: One thing my writer friends sometimes say is that they won't, or can't, consider themselves Real Writers™ until they get published. When did you first self-identify as a writer?
A: I finished my first manuscript after five years of picking it up and putting it down. It was a hobby, nothing more. I was still so far from being published, but having finished a manuscript was such a thrill, I immediately started on a second. Only after finishing my third did I really consider that writing was something I could see myself doing as a career. At that point I started a fourth manuscript, actively sought an agent, and joined writers’ groups.
While getting published is certainly one of a series of steps with different goals, I believe you must identify yourself as a writer before that event. Why? Because if you aren’t taking yourself seriously, taking your craft seriously, making goals for yourself, then you won’t get to the step of publication. Even before I was published, my kids knew that when I was writing, I was working. My husband respected my need to spend money I hadn’t earned from writing on writing. Because I was a writer. After publication, you’re just a published writer.
Q: What was the process of getting your first novel published? For example, was it the first novel you'd actually written, or did you have abandoned projects? How many queries did you send out before you got a bite, and how did you decide which agents to contact?
A: The first novel I sold was in fact my first manuscript, but it’s not that simple. I went back to my first manuscript and rewrote it after my fourth manuscript. And revised it more times than you can count. So really, it no longer resembled my first manuscript by the time I sold. I definitely have unsold manuscripts (three complete, four partials). They aren’t abandoned—due to changes in editors, the market, different stages in my career, they remain unsold or unfinished, but definitely not abandoned.
Once you’ve decided what type of novels you write, the agent search can begin. There are all sorts of databases to explore—on line and off. Make sure to do research. You don’t want to send a children’s book to someone who doesn’t represent that genre or fiction to a non-fiction agent. Look at the acknowledgments and dedications of books you love. Very often the authors will mention their agents. And join a writers’ group. Talk to other writers and find out their agent stories.
As for the queries themselves. . .I always laugh when an article appears about a best selling book and the writer drags out the number of times the author was rejected. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was rejected sixty times and people are shocked by that number. I’ll tell you right here, that number is common and higher numbers are just as common. The opportunities for rejection abound. In one of my outings in this business, I was rejected closer to eighty times. What I give Ms. Stockett credit for is perseverance. My first agent gave me the following words of wisdom: There are three elements in a successful writing career—luck, talent, and perseverance. Of the three you need only two, but one of them must be perseverance.
Q: Regarding famous rejections, like Kathyrn Stockett’s and JK Rowling’s: I, too, have marveled that so many agents could turn down such obviously well-written manuscripts. Is there really such a glut of fabulous fiction out there that agents can afford to be so choosy? Then someone pointed out that these manuscripts may not have been nearly so polished when the authors first began pitching them. Perhaps the rejections came with feedback that helped the authors slowly revamp their stories into the current bestseller incarnations. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Frankly, editors and agents don’t have the time to give much feedback these days. Your manuscript has to be almost publishable when it comes across their desk because they don’t have the time to teach you. There are exceptions of course, but really you have to know the craft before you think of submitting. Learn, learn, learn. Write, write, write. This doesn’t mean that my agent or my editors haven’t helped me, but I do know the craft.
A large number of competent manuscripts cross editors’ and agents’ desk these days, and I can’t think of a worse adjective than “competent.” They want a manuscript that sings. And a manuscript that sings to one editor won’t to another. So much is subjective. So editors and agents choose what they like. I’ve heard enough editors and agents say exactly those words—they choose what they like—that I absolutely believe it. I also believe most of the stuff that hits their desks is terrible and not ready for publication. Not to sound mean or superior, but a lot of writers have an unrealistic opinion of their abilities. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn; it just means they aren’t ready.
You can find Gabi at www.GabiStevens.com, www.GabiStevens.blogspot.com, or on Facebook or Twitter.