Aim for the Middle (Oh, and Also, There Is No Middle)

Sometimes I try to remember how and why exactly we started this group blog. It would have been very savvy for us to have said, one day, “We all write erotic romance with somewhat similar levels of heat and wit and strangeness! Also, we like reading each other. Perhaps we should engage in co-marketing in order to build our brand.”

Except that didn’t happen. Not even a little bit. Also, I think if I’d said the phrase “build our brand” in Cara McKenna’s direction, she would have barfed on me. And Serena really hates barf, references to barf, and books that contain or begin with barf, so she’d have been out, too.*

*My book-after-next begins with barf. She forgave me, but it took some doing.


In fact, Wonkomance grew out of a loosely curated thread of tweets. I think? It’s all kind of fuzzy. I remember that Cara coined the term, and that the website itself was a random impulse one day, possibly Serena Bell’s — There should be a blog! I’m going to buy the domain name. – and an email list of author friends that I put together off the top of my head.

We had no particular plan. The notion of our being some sort of an influential or admirable group, with some sort of a brand, was (and still is, sort of) laughable.

And yet here we are, more than a year later, posting these posts and talking with all you fine people.

To the extent that we’ve built something here that is coherent with Wonkomance, I think it’s because we were pushing back against a gestalt of online romance blogging, or possibly against a shared experience. We were,  in a mild, cheerful sort of way, collectively against the notion that there is a right way. That there is real romance, an ur text, a core story that all other stories must / should / do emulate, or don’t / oughtn’t / fail to emulate. That there are books that people want to read and then those other ones, over there, that are bad and wrong and doomed. Also, shame on you for liking that one with that thing in it that was SO abhorrent. You hoor.

Our manifesto took aim at this whole idea that there is a center, or ought to be, to the romance genre, and if we wanted to be properly successful writers, we needed to learn how to shoot our authorial arrows at it.

Start with the meet. Don’t make your heroine a bitch. Don’t make your hero weak. Don’t let them be ugly or short or fat. Also, please no body hair, puking, or condom disposal. No one can poop. Children shouldn’t be in the book, but if they are, they should be very quiet, and they should nap as though comatose. No cheating, ever. No gross words or gross sex acts or grossness, please, of any kind.

Make sure there’s tension! On every page! In every paragraph! Sentence by sentence, ideally! And also, don’t use exclamation points. But make it bigger! And everyone must have a goal, motivation, and conflict at all times. Think huge! But write what you know. And make it all seem real. Oh, and if you write historical, don’t get anything wrong, ever. The duke’s pantaloons must be historically accurate.

Also, I just remembered, there has to be a dark moment. It has to be awful. The conflict should be impossible to fix. But then you must fix it realistically, with no hail-mary nonsense. End with a grovel! Only don’t forget that everyone hates grovels. There should definitely be a proposal or a wedding, but no clichés. And an epilogue where everything is perfect and everyone is happy, but it shouldn’t be too saccharine.

So, yes. Just do that, fledgling writer. Make your book like that, as though that is something one just does, or would even want to do in one’s spare time. Because let’s face it, it’s not as though anyone’s going to pay you for that first one. Or the second one. Or probably the next four.

Oh, and I almost forgot — be sure to make your book different from everyone else’s books! Not too different, though. Exactly the right amount of different. Then you’ll hit the sweet spot, and an agent will pick you up, and your book will sell, and then . . . actually, you know what? Here’s another blog post. Now You Are a Published Author. Surprise! There are another four hundred things you must do.

I like to think we started this blog because all of that, up there, is a bunch of crap.

Write books. Read books. Love the book you’re writing, if you can manage it. Read things you love.

Those are the actual rules.

Recently, I was at the RT Conference in Kansas City, rooming with Del, Cara, and our beloved Christine d’Abo (who really should be on this blog, and is certainly here in spirit). I met a lot of readers and writers and had a whole big bunch of excellent conversations with people who like to talk about romance novels. It was great. There were so many awesome women (and a few awesome men) there. So much enthusiasm. So many outfits. There was a lot of hugging, and a dose of scandal, and a few tedious parts, and also I had too many gin and tonics that one time.

There were no rules. I think enthusiasm kind of crowds out rules, so there’s no room left for them. You’re too busy saying things like, That part was so fucking great! and Oh my god, Kellllllyyyyyy and But do you read Brenda? YOU MUST READ BRENDA OR I WILL DIE and Holy man, that part with the butt plug! I completely lost it and I haven’t been the same since.

Among a phalanx of enthusiastic romance readers, you’re too busy being alive and in love with the fact that you’re not at home in a quiet office that you haven’t left for days. Much too busy to worry if you’re important enough to be sitting at this particular table, sandwiched between Brenda Novak and Julie James. (Probably not. But whatever! You were invited. Your self-doubt can suck it.)

You’re too preoccupied swapping marital sex horror stories with your friends to consider whether you are, in fact, doing any of this author stuff right.

Writing is a weird job. Like, every single thing about it? Weird. The way you work (alone). The way you get paid (late, and usually not all that well, and also the amount on your check will be a surprise! every time! whee! why are you not saying ‘whee’?).

The way your performance is reviewed by anyone who feels like it, at any time, in whatever mood they’re in, and sometimes in GIF form, is weird. The way your worth is judged by six hundred different metrics, most of which don’t make sense, is weird. The way publishing itself is either transforming or not transforming or perhaps exploding? quickly? or maybe slowly? is weird.

The way you acquire a sense of belonging to a coherent professional group is — ha! Good luck with that! And also, the public is going to mock you for your job. So there’s that.

Other weird jobs: Editing fiction. Marketing fiction. Agenting fiction. Reviewing fiction.

Maybe it makes sense that there is so much urgency to the impulse to find the center and write our way toward it. Maybe we feel like when we get there, we’ll know what we’re doing. Properly know. And we’ll feel safe and understood, and also everyone will like us and all of our books will be universally beloved. We’re human, after all, and most of us are women and thus culturally conditioned to avoid disagreement. Approval feels good. Approval feels like warm oil massaged into our feet by our preferred masseuse in our exact preferred locations.

Ahhh. Approval. We love you.

But that feeling I described up there? The one we’d like to get from writing?

This is not a thing.

It’s terrible, but it’s true. There is no middle. There’s no arrival, no moment when you feel that you properly know, and no writer whose books are universally loved with equal enthusiasm by everyone, everywhere, ever.

On the other hand, there is here. This blog. Conferences like RT, where fourteen people who are loosely connected via Wonkomance can get together for dinner and drink wine and flirt with our lesbian waitress and think to themselves, Damn, this is a pretty great group of people around this table. I would like to put this moment in my pocket and keep it for always. Also, some of this cheese, for later.

There is knowing who you are, what you’re good at, what you love, what you want to do better — and writing in that direction. Writing toward the love instead of toward the middle.

Because, oops, there is no middle.

But it’s good out here, too. And I have to say, the company is fantastic.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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46 Responses to Aim for the Middle (Oh, and Also, There Is No Middle)

  1. Serena Bell says:

    Sometimes I feel guilty because so often I just say “love” to stuff you’ve written and have nothing more articulate to say. But it is so often just the whole truth and nothing else I add would really say any more anyway.


    • It’s so much harder to be articulate about things you love. This is just true. We find ourselves being repetitive, and making generalities, and oozing effusively without really saying anything substantive. In person this comes off much better because we can make eye contact and express physical signs of warmth and enthusiastic. On the internet “loving it” makes us seem uninteresting.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        I think this is true, Cherri, and also sometimes that criticism/hate seems so much more powerful than love in comment streams. Which is why I usually have to avoid them.

  2. I took an art class once, and the teacher said, “Even Picasso had to learn to draw realistic figures before he could start breaking the rules.” Which was her way of telling us that we weren’t allowed to put penises in place of noses on our drawings, I think.
    But I got better at drawing, and she started accepting my more distorted renderings after a while…Now, if I can just get there with my writing!
    Here’s hoping we can all find a way to learn the rules soon enough to change them to suit ourselves…and find enough other addle-pated individuals to hang with…

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I might point out, sage-like, that Picasso could’ve learned to draw by drawing whatever he saw around him and copying drawings he loved, rather than sitting through an art class. But that might make me tedious, and I appreciate the spirit of your comment!

  3. Cara McKenna says:

    I want to make slow—then violent—then slow again—then a bit quicker and with more moaning but not quite as rough as before—love to this post, then sop up the spoils with an embroidered hankie and put that in my pocket and keep it for always. And never wash it. Then present it to you in July when we’re next sharing a room, draping it over the back of the wheelie desk chair at the foot of our hotel bed, to watch over us as we dream of impossible notions, like unicorns and universal health care and an easy, tangible, contented sense of authorial worth.


  4. Shari Slade says:

    Never Ending Math Equation by Modest Mouse is one of my favorite songs. When I listen to it, I feel simultaneously uncertain and uplifted. Despite the jangle-y discord, I am soothed. It is an existential lullaby.

    The universe works on a math equation
    that never even ever really even ends in the end

    Reading this post inspired a similar feeling. There is no middle! I can’t solve for X because there IS NO X.

    Infinity spirals out creation.


    “Writing toward the love” is just perfect. I need that on a bumper sticker. Or tattooed on the back of my hand.

    Thanks, Ruthie.

  5. Katy Cooper says:

    Another gob-smackingly brilliant Wonkomance post. I want to hug it til it says, “Enough already.”

  6. Hah! Yeah, why, why, why is everything so weird and messed up? Yet so, so lovely.

    What a wonderful post. So glad you started this blog!!

  7. Alexandra Haughton says:

    Honestly? I’m a great lurker of this blog. Y’all are the bee’s knees, and, if I were a hugger, I’d hug you all. But I’m not. So I won’t. And, I’m fairly certain that when I see you at RWA, I’ll be weird and lurky there, too.


    • Ruthie Knox says:

      You will weirdly lurk up to me at RWA, and I’ll look at your badge, go blank, say something awkward, THEN figure out that you’re Alexandra of the pointy gold shoes on Twitter, and THEN hug you. Which you will hate. It’s all good.

  8. Sarah Wynde says:

    This was really, really nice. Being a writer is a weird job. Weird and isolating and discouraging and lonely. But writing toward the love is such a lovely concept.

  9. So many ideas that aren’t at all connected. I read this first at one am and couldn’t properly respond on my ipad with my fat fingers in my bed in the dark so I’m sitting here now as my students watch High Fidelity as their “final.” The teacher next door has already asked us to keep it down, so it’s super fun.

    There is so much tension in our post-ironic world between enthusiasm and rules, the main rule being, don’t show too much enthusiasm for non-ironic things. This idea explains such much of the shame people feel. I’ve been thinking about the connection between shame and enthusiasm for a while. I’m not sure I’ve worked anything out yet.

    On a different note, I understand that part of what people want in a good genre novel is escape, fantasy. However, I can’t escape into the story unless it feels real.
    A very real part of sex is the aftermath—the condom disposal and/or the cleanup takes a lot of emotional and sometimes physical energy. Whenever there is no mention of it in a novel, I’m thinking about its absence, so it’s there anyway.

    Also, no puking? no poop? Where is the fun in that? A good friend and I want to start a blog that’s all grown people’s poop stories, something like ‘tales from the crapper.’ Fun, but I can see how it may interfere with the romance and fantasy in a book as it does in real life.

    • Sarah Wynde says:

      Ooh, shame and enthusiasm. That’s a great subject for conversation. I wrote a blog post about it, but actually wound up never posting it because it had to do with reviews and I couldn’t decide whether I was being rude. But it fascinates me that people point out breaking the rules as if it’s something of which to be ashamed. “You broke a rule therefore you did it wrong” implies you should feel bad, implies shame. And really, I broke the rules because I wanted to break the rules, because I didn’t like being constrained by the rules, because the rules are arbitrary and artificial, not innate. So I’m not actually ashamed, but I do resent the implication that I ought to be. I’m being sort of vague, but shame and enthusiasm are a great subject!

      Have you seen Wil Wheaton’s speech on being a nerd? It’s absolutely charming ( but when he says “… it’s not about what you love. It’s about how you love it.” it made me say, ‘oh, yes, oh, yes.’ The world needs more nerds, people who aren’t ashamed to love what they love and love it well.

  10. “It’s terrible, but it’s true. There is no middle. There’s no arrival, no moment when you feel that you properly know, and no writer whose books are universally loved with equal enthusiasm by everyone, everywhere, ever.”

    This, right here.

    I’ve used this metaphor before, but it continues to apply–when we look at what the mythical General Reader is reading, right now, according to clunky units sold measures like bestseller lists, we are looking at starlight. We’re looking at an artifact from a moment that burned already.

    Starlight is beautiful in its own way, and in this way, it’s a story about our community and how it is received by readers. I can’t suggest that it isn’t a story to think about, but I also can’t suggest that it should be received by a writer as a navigational chart for their ship. First scribbles to a book in a reader’s hand means that book is so distant from the galaxy it was written in that it won’t be received in the same way those mythical “middle books,” selling books, were.

    I can’t suggest that a writer, then, do their best to write *against* the starlight either; the book will enter the world without that tension pushing against it.

    I teach a highly theoretical statistics course, one of the things I do when I’m not writing about kissing. This is work very much beyond mean/median/mode and advances into discussions on how numbers are arrived at, how we select raw data, what formulas to apply, and how to represent results. Students in this course understand the *math,* but can struggle with the idea that they’ve arrived at a level where they are asked to think about the maths they are doing, what numbers mean, what data means, what it means when we decide that the results are “best represented” by a scatter graph or an ordinal chart or even a theoretical value. All along the way, it is the mathematician making *decisions* bringing to bear their own interpretations and history with the data, *on* the data. When I receive statistical model projects back from these students, they give them to me in despair–those final numbers are *theirs* and belong to *them* in a way that is intimate and uncomfortable. They created, essentially, the audience who will pay attention to them.

    Who is the audience for bestseller lists? How were their results derived? Who was their intimate partner? What is the history?

    Of course, units sold are units sold, but it’s worth examining why we believe this is representative of a) what we want and b) what we will continue to want and finally/or c) what our *goals* as writers should be.

    These lists, lists that create for the publisher the great “middle” are starlight, too, in that the more they are distant in time, the less powerful the light is. They are produced weekly, and weekly, *there are books on them that have never been there before.* Often, there is at least one book, often more than one book, that is nothing like any of the books that has ever been there before. Even the very first book in these ordinal lists, a book that might stay in that first or first ten position for weeks, was at one time, nothing. Not even a twinkle.

    If the middle exists at all it is because *you* make the middle. You write towards love, and love only, and when you arrive you will find hands to put your book into. That’s the middle, the space that exists between you and a pinpoint of starlight. The reader that reads your book is the middle.

    The rest is numbers, interpretable. Maddening. Rife, as my students have found, with despair.

    • This explains SO MUCH, Mary Ann. Because I am that weirdo who never cared much for math until I took a text-based class about number systems, and who ADORED my statistics/measurement class in grad school. All the other Ed Psych people were moaning, and I was like MOAR PLZ. Clearly, I adore you because you are that sweet, sweet junction of statistics and mind-blowingly apt metaphors.

    • Book reviews, too, are so this:

      “We are looking at starlight. We’re looking at an artifact from a moment that burned already.”

      The book has already been read, the words spent, even if they are spent again and again on another at the moment the review is posted. The review may give shape to a brief moment of light, but it doesn’t . . . I’m not sure. I’m trying to write a review that’s more than a paragraph long, but at this point the endeavor seems so beside the point because the book has become part of me, that starlight spent. It will take a new moment to do the same for someone else.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I love all the parts of this equally.

      But I have to get back to making the middle, so I can’t write a long comment.

      This also explains one reason why reading reviews is painful for so many authors, even when they’re positive.

  11. That was an awesome dinner party to be sure. The waitress was adorable and I may have flirted WAY too hard with Sarah Frantz (I regret nothing but my woeful lack of adventurous spirit, Sarah. Hope you’re gonna be at RWA this year).

    But yes, Ruthie, yes to all this a thousand times. And may I just say? This totally explains why so many of my books have barf in them. Sorry, Serena. But seriously, at least one of my BDSM books and so far two of my three-book steampunk series have scenes involving barf. But you know…totally in a romantic way.

    Ruthie, you worked in gestalt AND urtext, which…I just can’t even.

    Also: I think at some point while I was floating on the high, rare air of euphoria generated by all the RT awesomeness…I made Christine d’Abo our official Wonkomance mascot and asked her to guest post. I meant to ask everybody but I totally forgot, as is my wont. There may have been alcohol involved. Okay, yeah, there was totally alcohol involved. Anyway. Mascot.

    • Kelly Maher says:

      I’m only sorry I couldn’t be in two places at the same time and been there for the whole dinner! Also, I should have just gotten out from between you and Sarah and let you get it on ;)

      Ruthie, *fabulous* post! Thanks, ladies, for letting me hang out in the Wonkomance room during RT!!

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      She is the best possible mascot! I hope she doesn’t mind getting macked on.

  12. Katy Cooper says:

    You know, there should be stickers or something that those of us who adore Wonkomance could put on our RWA badges to identify ourselves. Come for the romance, stay for the wonk. Or even the banner…

  13. willaful says:

    Wonderful post! You make me wish I wrote, bizarrely enough. :-)

  14. Jessi Gage says:

    My favorite FAVORITE thing about this blog is how I’m always going, “yeah, preach!” and “Wow, I never thought of it that way before but now that the wonk crew has explained it, it’s perfectly obvious.”

    Thanks for the insights, Ruthie. They are encouraging. They are honest. They explain the wonk and why we love it.

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  16. Serena Bell says:

    I lied. I have another thing to say. I love this post because it captures both the bitter feelings of flailing around, trying to find your place in the market, and the sublime feeling of returning to the work (buoyed by the people) and remembering why the hell you’re doing it. It manages to be about both without taking away from either, which is exactly like the experience of being a writer. You live in the effed-up balance between them.

  17. I love how this post makes me feel like maybe, just perhaps, I’m not getting it totally and completely wrong every day as I grope my way through this book.

  18. Lynn Rae says:

    I’ve read this post twice and feel compelled to comment and thank you for distilling my unspoken guiding principle so well. I’ve only been in this game a few years and have already heard criticism of my work based on those metrics you mentioned. My response, unless the criticism is based on something quantifyable, is ‘I don’t care’. I don’t care if my hero isn’t enough of an asshole. I don’t care if my heroine worries about her job or her parents more than she does about how she’s feeling about the hero. I don’t care if my ‘pace’ is off or if my main characters don’t act like immature idiots. I’m writing what I want to read; nice people finding each other and having great sex. That’s it. And if they have some drama along the way, that’s great too.
    Maybe I’m a little sensitive because I got a rejection today, but I don’t care…