Today, We Write a Manifesto

A friend recently read the manuscript of one of my not-yet-published books and emailed, “This isn’t a romance, it’s a manifesto!”

I smiled when I read that — but then paused, wondering why I was smiling. Had she meant me to smile? The email was only one sentence. Praise or critique? Was it a good thing, in fact, to have written a not-a-romance manifesto?

Possibly not, right?

Possibly not.

But what I wrote back a few minutes later was that all my romances are manifestoes — it’s just that sometimes, when the books are funny and cute, no one much notices.

What is a manifesto, after all, but a declaration of the author’s views? A manifesto presents an argument, marshaling all the author’s power of logic and emotion behind it. It’s a declaration of her life stance — her global philosophy made manifest, clear, and conspicuous.

Manifestoes have a reputation for stridency. They insist upon themselves. This is the right way, the only way, they shout. Listen to me! Change your life along these lines, or else!

I can’t help but feel, at first blush, like this sort of thing has no business in romance. These are pleasure books! That we read for fun! Take your manifesto politicking elsewhere, madam.

Speaking generally, manifesto-making isn’t often an activity of women. We’re encouraged so often, when we’re young, to get along, collaborate, contribute, soothe. This is one way, one option, we learn to suggest. You can take it or leave it. There’s some evidence for my view, I think? Here are a few citations. But it’s complicated. I’m just saying. Whatever you think.

When I think of manifestoes, I think of men. I think of Luther nailing his theses on the church door. I think of Marx and Stalin — humans so loud, so strident, that they had -isms named after them. I have never wished for an -ism to be named after me, but I do have views. I have opinions, arguments, and as I get older I’m starting to discover, too, that I have a life stance, a global philosophy that is mine-all-mine, and it comes out in my novels.

Is that bad? Is that … a problem?

I don’t think so. I think a novel kind of has to be a manifesto, of some kind. It has to create a world, and within that world it has to establish stakes and define the terms of happiness. A happy ending isn’t a happy ending in a vacuum, after all. It’s a happy ending for these characters because the novelist has told us what these characters need, why their needs matter, and what their happiness looks like.

So it only makes sense, if I am writing books about life and love, that I have to develop not simply convincing characters and situations — credible stakes for those characters, credible problems for them to overcome — but also a credible argument for what love means. What needs it fills. And, implicitly, what life is for.

That’s a big project. A big argument to be making in a little love book.

That’s a manifesto.


And I’ve noticed, since I started thinking about this, that the parts of my own novels that I usually like best are the parts that are most obviously manifesto parts — the passages where I am defining happiness, speaking to what love is all about, talking directly to the question of what we should live for.

In the manuscript that prompted the email, my very favorite part is pretty clearly a manifesto:

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I like this. I want this. But shouldn’t we be talking?”

My hands are under his shirt. Sneaking up his back, his smooth tan skin, every bit of him familiar but different, broader, stronger, harder. “We are talking,” I say.

Because we are. What he means is that we’re not following a script.

Only, there is no script. There are no rules for this.

I don’t think we’re doing it wrong, because I don’t believe there’s any way to do it wrong or any way to do it right outside of how I feel, how he feels, how we feel between us.

All the songs are love songs. That’s what I’m learning.

All the songs are love songs, and this one is ours.

Here, the heroine is defining for herself what right and wrong mean in the context of her relationship. She’s defining the shape of her love, and in the process, her future. Her life.

But of course, she doesn’t exist.

I’m defining them. I’m defining them for you.

Which I think opens up some interesting questions, actually. First, the whole question of reader preference, reader desires, reader-to-author “fit.” Because we talk often about what readers want. Publishers spend a lot of time forecasting trends, trying to get the right contracts lined up so they’ll have the right books at the right times. But none of that activity, those contracts, addresses this deeper meaning, this core argument.

In romance, the author’s manifesto is, by and large, understood to be irrelevant to … well, kind of to everything.

My work isn’t contracted as manifesto. I don’t talk about manifesto in my synopses. Reviews rarely get into the arguments my novels make. But what does happen is that when readers aren’t convinced by my arguments, they don’t like my books. There is no way, perhaps, to like a book whose argument doesn’t work for you. And probably the essence of fit between readers and authors is a sort of receptiveness to argument, a match in love-politics, a compatibility in life-politics, broadly understood.

Second, I wonder about manifesto — about argument — in the context of conversations about romance and feminism, which sometimes get bogged down in questions of whether the genre as a whole can be understood as feminist, or if individual books can be feminist if they depend on an ending in which the heroine’s happiness is defined in terms of her being situated in a permanent, monogamous heterosexual relationship, and so on. Might it help to look more closely at how individual romance novels define love, life, happiness, self-worth?

Or possibly I have no idea what I’m talking about.


What do you guys think?

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 20 Comments

Digital Wonk

Hi, my name’s Alexis Hall, and I’m a giant nerd. The truth is, I’ve been into video games since I was about eleven years old, and-in a way-he games I’ve played have had as much effect on me as the books I’ve read. And when I’m not writing, I still spend a lot of my free time pretending to be an electronic wizard. These days, though, I do it with my partner, so I’ve definitely grown as a person.

As well as big flashy games full of explosions and zombies, I’ve also always been interested in digital storytelling and interactive fiction. I’m not going to lie: the vast majority of games tend to be about burly dudes shooting other burly dudes, but with the rise of Indie publishing and increasingly accessible development tools, I’ve started to see games or game-like entities that draw-upon and feed-into most fictional genres. There’s Lovecraftian horror out of there, there’s classic mysteries, there’s physical comedy and, of course, there’s romance.

And, obviously, games are as different from books as books are from movies, but–like books and like movies–they have their own unique ways of presenting stories which do not replicate, and cannot be replicated in, other media. Interactivity creates a sense of personal, narrative engagement which is specific to digital media, and which shapes both the stories being told and our reactions to them.

So, I thought I’d put together a list of games or game-like entities that touch on romance or romantic motifs, and which might be interesting to the Wonko audience. I’ve tried for the most part to choose games that are free, and freely available, and relatively easy to get into, so – um, check ‘em out if you fancy it.

Oh, and not all of these games are SFW, but I’ve indicated that where relevant.

In no particular order:

The Kiss by Dan Weber (SFW)

If this is anything, it’s multi-linear poetry-a moment that unfurls endlessly into the past, the present and the future. It’s… beautiful. That is all.

Also, it looks like this, which is also beautiful.

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 10 minutes, but could be longer

First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short & Liza Daley (SFW)

This isn’t romantic per se, but you can certainly read romance into it and out of it if you want. And also have an affaire. Ooh la la.

It’s set in an alt-history, pre-revolutionary France with magic. You “play” Juliette, who has been exiled from Paris by her husband, for reasons as yet unclear. She writes to him daily, planning the letters in advance and then inscribing them onto enchanted paper, which he then receives instantly in Paris.

The game mechanics are simple. You select what Juliette chooses to tell her husband about her sojourn in the country. The outcome doesn’t change-but you shape the context and, consequently, meaning as well. I think one of the many fascinating things about First Draft is that most games situate their interactivity in choice and outcome. Here, the interactivity is the act of creation itself. It’s an absolutely exquisite exploration of interpretative space – not only between perception, reality, and the written word, but between people.

Wonderfully written, delicately characterised, and endlessly intriguing, you’ll want to play this if you’re a sucker for epistolary novels, you enjoy Georgette Heyer and/or Dangerous Liaisons, and because it’s just gosh-darned brilliant.

Available: on-line here.
Playtime: About 30 minutes

Benthic Love (SFW) by Mike Joffe & Sonya Hallett

benthic love

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The only queer-friendly anglerfish dating sim currently available!

I genuinely adore this. The art, the music, and the words come together beautifully, and… I learned a lot of about anglerfish mating. But it has a strange and haunting resonance, despite – or perhaps because – of the mingling of the unfamiliar (anglerfish) and the familiar (love, fear, identity).

Available: on-line here.
(You can also download and install – it’s teeny tiny, so I’d recommend doing this for the most stable anglerfish love experience)
Playtime: About 5 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Positive Space by Merritt Kopas (NSFW)

This is a powerfully honest, beautifully written and deeply tender piece that describes itself as a “love note/sex edutainment piece” about muffing (includes images from, and links to, Mira Bellwether’s Fucking Trans Women #0.

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 5 minutes

Jurassic Heart (SFW)

So, since I understand dinoerotica is a thing now, I naturally thought of this charming love/friendship story about going to buy a ukulele with your dinosaur friend.

Available: on-line here:
(You can also download and install – it’s teeny tiny, so I’d recommend doing this for the most stable dinosaur love experience)
Playtime: About 10 minutes (though there are two endings, so you might want to replay)

Sacrilege by Cara Ellison (NSFW, potentially triggering)


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This isn’t remotely romantic – I’d go so far as to say anti-romantic– but it’s viscerally effective on the subject of desire – specifically female desire and its contexts and compromises. The author calls it a game about the “heart-stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing.” It’s cynical and heart-breaking at the same time, and depicts perfectly those splintering moments when you’re alone at a club and when all you’ve got is a fuckplan, endless, unarticulated longing, and no choices at all:

A guy who you are going to hurt is better
A guy who is going to hurt you would be better

(These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices)

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 10 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Fuck that Guy by Benji Bight (seriously, seriously NSFW)

As a counterpoint to Sacrilege, Fuck That Guy is… well. Yes. It’s also set in a club, and it’s altogether more hopeful (for the most part) as you wander around trying to pull. Which you usually will, unless you actively say no, in various interesting ways – ending the game with the message: “Awesome! You got laid!” It’s very simple, unabashedly sex-focused, and cheerfully accepting of a wide variety of sexual choices, expressions and behaviours. It’s cleanly and effectively written, and manages to blend the generic (club setting, particular types of menz) with enough detail to make the encounters feel authentic and individual.

Available: online here
Playtime: about 10 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Choice Of Romance by Heather Albano & Adam Strong-Morse (SFW)

Choice Of games are sort of like those old Choose Your Own Adventure games I hope we all remember from our childhood, except better-written, thematically much cooler, and you don’t have to keep track of your own character stats or roll any dice. I’m kind of addicted to them, because ever since they began making games, they’ve been committed to writing stories that allow you complete control over your character’s gender, sexuality and sexual choices, as well… y’know… whether they like fighting or intriguing, or if they prefer to save puppies, or eat them with nice chianti. Choice Of games are essentially games built around the idea that a successful interactive narrative is a series of interesting choices. And when you find yourself gleefully playing a lesbian Ann Boleyn, I think it’s fair to say they’ve succeeded.

You can play most of their games for freez on line or download them to various Devices™ for a pittance.

My personal favourite is Affairs of the Court (which is actually a trilogy comprising Choice of Romance, Choice of Intrigues, and Til Death Do us Part), which is set in the court of Henry VIII – except with magic (which is the rather clever device it employs to side-step the issue of gender being kind of relevant to who marries whom when there’s succession involved). You can play the first part for free.

There’s also Choice of Broadsides, if you ever fancied being a gay and/or female Hornblower.

Available: on line here
Playtime: an hour, depending on reading speed (supports multiple, indeed even obsessive, playthroughs *cough*)

Diving Deeper by Christine Love (NSFW!)

This is completely non-interactive.  It’s basically a short, visual novel about the sort of things that The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife are about. But it’s actually weirdly adorable – joyous, even – and exists in subversive opposition to… uh… typical images of tentacle-themed erotica, which – not that I am an expert on the subject – tend to pretty violent. Whereas this is tender, consensual, and mutually enthusiastic.

Available: for download here.
Playtime: 20 minutes, depending on reading speed

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle by Saint Bomber (NSFW)

EoWC is an RPG Maker roleplaying game. The premise behind RPG Maker was simply that any human should be able to make a game with it, and any other human should be able play that game.

In EoWC, you play the Duchesse of Elstwhere, who is shipped off to Wulfhammer Castle in order to marry the great warrior, Embric. Except he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, you pootle around, getting to know the denizens of the castle, collecting pretty dresses and occasionally losing them in a goofy kind of way. Oh, and being a lesbian.

It’s a very light-hearted and – honestly – raunchy little game and, even though there’s clearly a strong element of parody here, there’s also a surprising amount of depth behind it. There’s a kind of exuberance to the Duchesse herself, and lots of sexual silliness as she bounces into the bed of pretty much every principle (female) character. Nevertheless, I found myself oddly moved a lot of the time, and the various relationships (including, of all things, being playfully molested by a mermaid) genuinely romantic.

Also it might just be me but the Duchesse looks a bit like Delphine Dryden, you know, if she was an inch tall and made of pixels.

Available: for download here.
Playtime: Ages, honestly, ages.

BONUS: Plundered Hearts by Amy Briggs / Infocom (SFW)


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This isn’t actually available any more, as it was released by Infocom in the late 80s (buuuuut I think it’s “technically” abandonware, so if you were to Google it – not that I would advocate such a thing – you could probably acquire a copy), and was a genuine and good-faith attempt to create a piece of interactive fiction (of the old “go east/examine table/take lemon/curse the goddamned parser” style of text adventure) that felt like a romance novel. A romance novel of the 80s. So, should you play this, expect to suffer a “fate worse than death” a lot.

Though not at the hands of the hero, thankfully.

Allow me to share the blurb, which is, in itself, a piece of perfection:

In the 17th century, the seas are as wild as the untamed heart of a young woman. But when you set out on the schooner Lafond Deux, bound for the West Indies, your thoughts are only of your ailing father who awaits your care. Little do you know that your innocent journey will soon turn to dangerous adventure.

You barely survive an encounter with pirates, whose plans for you include a fate worse than death [emphasis mine]. The explosives, the rocky reefs, the vicious crocodile – all these are obstacles which you must overcome with cunning and agility. True, it’s not easy; but at least you can control your fate. What you cannot control is much more dangerous: your passion for Nicholas Jamison, the handsome pirate captain.

Tall and lean, with azure eyes that penetrate deep into your soul, he makes your blood quicken despite his unsavory past. When you’re in his arms, swirling around the dance floor or secluded in the flowered depths of the gazebo, you are apt to forget your mission.

But don’t dally too long with Nick. For your father is waiting, and on his rescue lies the fate of more than one man. Prepare for adventure on the high seas, lass. You’ll need every bit of pluck you can muster.

In Plundered Hearts, Infocom brings your wildest fantasies to life. You’ll thrill to spine-tingling peril, heart-pounding romance, and challenging predicaments. To create this exotic adventure, author Amy Briggs read hundreds of romance novels, researched 17th century costumes and ships, and was wooed by a dashing pirate.

It’s… fun, honestly, although, like any old fashioned adventure game, fucking frustrating without a walkthrough. But the heroine is plucky and resourceful, and the hero is… tall, and doesn’t rape her. It’s not hugely interactive/responsive in terms of character and relationships (interactivity is all about world, exploration and puzzle-solving) – so you fall for Jamison and there’s nothing you can do about it. This often reads a little bit strangely, because it means the narrative  has to try and tempt you into feeling some degree of interest in the guy, without forcing it upon you, but all it really does is remind you that Romance Is Not Your Choice today.

Also, at one point the villain offered to run off with me and I was totally up for it because who wouldn’t be. But it wasn’t possible.


But regardless, Plundered Hearts is written with real vim, and while it doesn’t offer much romantic interactivity, it does feel a little bit like playing The Windflower which I, personally, call a win.

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Thinky | 15 Comments

The Myth of Selling Out

I remember when I first got involved in the writing communities online, some of them romance, some of them not. And in the non-romance communities, like where people wrote literary and science fiction and whatever, it was pretty well established that writing romance or erotica was selling out. Okay, so, I had to stop hanging out there…

But I still see it sometimes, the idea that at least we’re romance authors, not erotic romance authors. At least we’re published authors, not self-published authors. At least we’re writing about vampire sex, not dinosaur sex. At least we write about what we love and not BDSM Billionaire Cowboy Cagefighters like those other sellouts.

And I just… I don’t know where this hierarchy came from. I don’t know why it’s here.

How do we know they didn’t always love writing BDSM Billionaire Cowboy Cagefighters and the money is just gravy?? And how do I know that those authors of dino-erotica aren’t genuinely turned on by their subject and happy to be writing it? Why is that supposed to be shameful?

Most of the writers I interact with now are romance authors. I assume it’s because they want to be and not (only) because of money. Because… frankly… if you’re that focused on money, there are probably better ways to make it.

When you chat about day jobs, or old jobs, with writers you find out there are a lot of techie folks (like me), lawyers, corporate-types. It takes a LOT of books to match a six figure salary. I have definitely not sold that many books and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. So, I mean, everyone’s situation is different, but I’m just always going to assume that people are writing for the love of it. That is not only an idealistic view—it’s a logical one.

That said, I do want to make money.  I want to make money so that I can pay my bills. And I want to make money so that I can continue to spend most of my time writing instead of going back to that tech job. It’s for the love of writing that I want to make money. It’s for the love of living too. Why is that supposed to be shameful?

Even if you knew that I started writing [insert trend here] after it became a trend, as opposed to before, would that be wrong? Even if you knew I wrote it with the express goal of making as much money as possible, would that be wrong?

I don’t think so.

To me, if you sold out, you’d have to betray your principles. Selling out a friend, for example, would be a betrayal. But how can I sell out my writing? To know that, I have to know what my writing principles are…

For sure, I can tell you what they aren’t. I have no desire to put down an entire genre. I’m sorry but that’s just silly. Yes, there are genres I don’t care to read. In no way can I make the logical jump from “I don’t want to read this genre” to “this genre objectively sucks.”

As to what my writing principles are

I try to write the best book I can, from a technical standpoint. Ideally my writing would be lyrical and compelling. I study story structure, etc, so that I can get better at that larger scale too. Also, just the way that I write, characters come to me first. So I try to find their voice and then remain as loyal to it as I can.

Another writing principle relates to the wonkomance stuff, like I want to write the characters that are a little off-beat, a little quirky, and maybe not that well represented in the romance canon.

And I follow these principles—because I don’t really know any other way to write. If I sat down to write something else, there’d be no passion. I’d be bored as hell. Readers would be bored as hell.

Maybe someone else can disdain a genre and still write a bestselling book in it—but that isn’t me. Because I wouldn’t have enough passion to even finish the damn thing, for one. And because there’s not a single genre I disdain, for another.

Selling out is literally not an option. There’s really no way I can break my writing principles and sell more books.

Here’s the thing. I’m still a relatively new writer. I keep writing, one book and then another. At some point, if one of my books breaks out, that would be awesome, right? Yay!

But if it did, are people really going to point to the wonky aspects of my book and say, see? Clearly people want more wonk! Well, we at Wonkomance might say that :) But mostly, no. They’re going to find the parts that are similar to popular books or trends, and say it’s for those reasons.

I have a book coming out next week, How to Say Goodbye. If it flops, is it because the heroine is repressed and the hero is homeless? Because those are pretty wonky things… But if, in some alternative universe, it broke out and did super well, people would assume it’s because it’s new adult and new adult is popular.

There was a book that made the rounds with a lizard hero, and hey, I didn’t read it but that sounds a bit unique. And then I saw people saying it wasn’t new at all, because the lizard was basically the same old alpha hole. The point is that no matter how wonky you go, there are always recognizable aspects to a story. Which parts are responsible for its success? Which ones for its failure? I’m not sure it can be deconstructed like that, at least for my books and the way I make them.

I write what I write. The characters come to me, and I try to stay true to them.

As for sales, they come or don’t come. I don’t feel like I have much control over that, but if I could choose either, I would definitely vote for making money. And there shouldn’t be any shame in that.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments