On Reading Aloud

Reading is a solitary pleasure for me. I love to drop into a story so that my sense of self, my person, disappears, immersed in narrative. Yet one of my favorite parts of being a mother is reading aloud to my son.

I’ve always liked reading aloud, as well as being read to. Reading a text aloud requires performance. It’s slower, and it asks for a different sort of attention to the story, a weighing of every word, every sentence. It requires you to listen, to hear, and to take the story at its own pace instead of the pace of your own desire — your wish to know what will happen next, your need to skip the parts that aren’t as interesting, your yearning to control the story even as you soak it in.

I struggle with reading poetry, but I love to hear it read, I think because when poetry is read aloud, again, I don’t get to choose the pace at which I receive it. I’m forced to pause, to listen, to hear.

I like, too, to hear fiction read aloud. In October, I spent a few days at a rented cabin with Wonko writer friends, and one of my favorite moments was when Mary Ann Rivers got so excited telling us  about this book she liked that she said, “Hold on, I’m just going to read the first chapter,” and then she did — whipped out her Kindle and read the entire first chapter straight through, a little breathlessly, so that we could all hear exactly what she loved about it.

Of course I bought the book.

I was not the only one.

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity — due to arrangements made by Mary Ann, in fact, and by a wonderfully enterprising Beloit College intern — to visit Beloit. I gave a short talk about my New Adult novel Deeper, and then I read a scene from the story for thirty minutes.

I was a little nervous about that thirty minutes. Thirty minutes is a long time. Was it too long? Would they get bored? Would get bored? Sometimes my son wanders off after twenty minutes of reading. Sometimes he sits on my lap, and then I get sleepy, and I nod off until he pokes me awake.

I wasn’t sure. I was excited, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want anyone to nod off, you know?

It’s hard to describe what the reading itself was like — how interesting it was to do that. I don’t read my own material aloud as part of my drafting process, so this was the first time I’d ever performed my own text in that way. It was the first time I ever slowed down and listened to it. Doing that in concert with an audience of students and faculty who were also listening — some of them nodding at me, some of them smiling, some of them saying mmm-hmm or laughing or inching forward in their seats — it was wonderful and fulfilling in a way I can’t really describe.

It was affirming.

It was my voice.

It was my story, my message, my thoughts on the page, ringing through the room, and each of them was something I owned.

I found that I couldn’t read my work aloud, in fact, without claiming ownership of it, because there was simply no chance that I was going to miss the opportunity lean on the jokes in just the way I wanted them to be leaned on. No possibility I would resist slowing down over the phrases I liked, saying fuck with just the right kind of emphasis, letting the heroine’s sex-charged meandering thoughts come out of my mouth all breathless and fast and excited.

This book was mine. I read it like it was mine.

I read it with so much love, and it was so much fun.

Why is it that we don’t do more readings in the romance genre? When my friends who write literary fiction and poetry have new work published, they seek out venues to read it. At writers’ conferences like AWP, a lot of the panels are readings.

Writers, generally, understand reading as a way for an author to share her voice, perform her material, and connect with an audience in a way that we simply cannot when all we do is pass ebook files from device to device, or sit alone with words printed on paper.

As the audience, we know this. We know it from our fond memories of the way the school librarian read that Christmas story while the girl sitting behind us sifted her fingers through our hair. From never forgetting the way Mrs. Lambert sounded when she got to the end of that story of the boy and his sled dog — the tension and pain of it, and how the final pages made us sob, tore at our hearts right there at school, where we’d never allowed our hearts to be so vulnerable before.

There is a sense, I think, in romance that we are not supposed to read aloud. That it is not supposed to be performed, is not perhaps good enough to deserve this distinction.

There is a sense that our books are somehow … funny. That we would be embarrassed. That we would be ashamed of having written them.

But I’m not ashamed. I wasn’t, and when I got up in front of that audience at Beloit College, I couldn’t have been. I was only me. They were my words. I wanted to say them, to perform them, to give them to the audience as an experience, a gift.

I want to give more readings.

I want to attend more readings.

I want ALL the readings.


I’ve begun adding readings to my Wednesday what-to-read blog posts. Here’s one from Molly O’Keefe’s Wild Child:

And here’s another from Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Touch:

unnamed-10Sidebar: Reading Events, by Mary Ann Rivers

Authors reading from their work is the primary exhibition of an author’s accomplishment of a particular novel, or of their body of work. Authors have been invited to read in diverse venues, though there is a way that academic settings and sponsors have proprietarily assumed ownership of author readings.

I have a great deal of experience organizing author readings, mainly in the academic setting. I’ve attended a great many, as well, participated in them, read myself.

The excitement surrounding an author reading from her work, it seems to me, is voice. How the work is read, what kind of ineffable magic is made when the author is so exposed, vulnerable, and naked — nothing but her words and how she arranges them in the head of her listener. That’s exciting. Vulnerability thusly performed moves us and interests us and engages us.

Beloit College, who hosted the Robin York DEEPER reading has a nationally recognized undergraduate creative writing program and is a fiercely progressive campus. However, it is still very unusual for a commercial fiction writer, particularly a romance writer, to be brought to campus to read.

It was one of the most well-attended readings on campus in some time, and I think there were reasons for that. Namely, this vulnerability I mentioned. When I say that there is excitement surrounding the idea of voice, this also includes the kinds of choices an author makes. We expect to hear something beautiful, just as we expect to see something beautiful in an art museum or hear something beautiful in a symphony hall.

There is a belief that what commercial fiction writers write is not beautiful in this way, and that we do not make choices about how we write, but simply what we write.

In this way, the Robin York reading was deeply subversive, and the campus knew this, and so attended. The author was made even more vulnerable, then, by the audience’s expectation that the author and the genre had something to prove. 

The moment the audience became expectantly and thoughtfully silent, the moment their expectation that genre had anything to prove at all had been challenged, was when the author told a story about discovering genre as a reader, and her realization that genre writing was something, as humans, we needed.

From this moment, then, important intersections between sexism, art, women creators, the academy, and the publishing industry crossed and recrossed and were in every way palpable. This author, she was reminding us of something everyone in the audience knew — that they read genre, had read genre, had at many times in their lives needed it. She stood in front of them as a woman creator, writing in a woman-dominated genre, on a campus that attended to her from a position of subversive interest, and she read what she had written.

Her words, from her, into an audience.

Such a thing is an act of power, because to do that, to stand in front of an audience like that at this point in time, within this genre, and this industry, is to do nothing less than declare that you are here. That you belong. That your words were your choice, and your story is something which must be listened to.

More authors in romance and readers should be connected in this way. More tensions should be deliberately created, like they were created on the campus of Beloit College, to engender discussion, argument, and power.

Young women in the audience came to the author after — young women who read romance, or had and had stopped, young women who wanted to be writers, or had been and abandoned writing. They needed to talk to the author, they needed her, they needed the entire experience.

Writing the books readers need is the first part. Then we help the books take up space. Then we fill that space with more voices. All of us vulnerable and naked, our words in the air.

Please read your books aloud. Contact your local bookstore to organize a reading, the community events person at your local library. Go to open mic nights. Invite friends for reading and open mic parties at each other’s homes. Contact your local RWA chapter to organize or participate in a reading. Start a local branch of Ladyjanesalonnyc.com. Invite authors to read their work on your blog. Read your favorite authors on your blog.  If you have questions on how to contact local colleges, feel free to ask me how that works.

You’re needed. Your voice — we must have it.

Posted in Reading, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 5 Comments

They’re Really More Like Guidelines, Anyway (Or – Fuzzy Handcuffs, Chemistry, and How I Put a Date in the Hospital)

Hey, everyone! Audra here. I’m so excited to welcome a guest post from Cole McCade, a fellow romance author whom I met (not surprisingly) on Twitter. Also not surprisingly, I immediately adored him and was so thrilled when he agreed to write a piece for Wonkomance.

And so, today he’s here, talking about real-life romance! Or anti-romance. I’m still not sure, but I do know that I’d love to hear everyone else’s romantic mishaps after reading this post. So with that…Cole, take it away!

How often do you wake up and think, “Sigh. I wish my life was more like a romance novel?”

My guess: probably not often.

You probably wish for those moments, here and there. Those moments that sweep you off your feet. That make your breaths catch in wonder and delight. That wrench at your heart so beautifully, until the pain is just another form of pleasure and you never knew a broken heart could feel so achingly good.

And the sex. Let’s not forget the intense, toe-curling sex that reaches metaphysical levels that would probably blow out your synapses and leave you a drooling vegetable if you ever actually found that dazzling peak.

But deep down, you probably know it’s not practical. It’s not realistic. I bet sometimes it’d get really annoying. It’s a nice thing to think about now and then, but living the drama would get frustrating. And messy. And ridiculous. And would likely result in multiple trips to the ER. If not from the stress-related aneurysms, then from multiple and varied sex-related accidents, with or without the badminton racket—you know what that’s for—that’ll ensure you’ll be the talk of the hospital break room for years to come.

Believe me. I speak from first-hand experience.

Oh yeah. This is one of those stories.

See, I’m a guy who writes romance novels. Which means I’m also a guy who reads romance novels, and have been for most of my life. It’s a thing. I grew up around nothing but women, and while everyone in my family had varied reading tastes—from science fiction to horror to legal texts to fucking encyclopedias (that would be me *hangs head*)—there was always a good smattering of romance throughout. I worked my way through our shelves systematically, before devouring my entire small-town library. There was a lot of The Millionaire’s Something Something and Her Sexy Insert Noun Here and Shite, Thy Maiden’s Chastity Be Straight Up Penetrated in between Oh Fuck, Aliens and Oh Fuck, Ghosts and Oh Fuck, the Biology of Marine Invertebrates is Fascinating and the ever popular fan favorite, Oh Fuck, Dragons and Wizards Be Trippin’, Now Goddammit Where’s the Magic Sword that Isn’t at All a Metaphor for Penis Issues?

I’m sure somewhere in my life I was supposed to pick up a healthy dose of bro-shame for my reading habits. I didn’t. I read what I read. I do what I do. (What I don’t do: bro. I have a deep and fixative loathing of that word.) I’ve never hidden my bodice-rippers inside my Darkness comic books; I’ve never wrapped a textbook around my contemporaries with their flower-strewn covers and quivering man-titties and unisex mullets. I’d read one after the other, then grab a shoujo manga, then read me the fuck out of some Tolkien or Asimov or Le Guin or Feist or L’Engle before going right back to Virginia Henley and Heather Graham. (Keep in mind this was the twentieth century.) Years later, that hasn’t changed. I’ll read Maya Banks on a public bus. I’ll whip out Nora Roberts at the airport. I will ignore my siblings at holiday reunions for Jennifer Probst. I’ll trade books with my girlfriends, and talk about our favorite scenes after.

That’s…what got me in trouble.

Big trouble.

Hospital trouble.

Because once an old college girlfriend said to me, “Draw me like one of your French girls.”

…okay, she didn’t actually say that. But she did say she’d love to be romanced just like in her favorite novels, and the idea of a guy who could pull off that kind of stuff just gave her chills. She said it with a pointed look that gave me chills. Chills of dread, and sheer ball-clenching terror over what would happen if I didn’t obey. I knew what I had to do. And I thought—just as she did—that since I’m an avid romance reader, I could pull it off.

I was wrong.

I was so, so spectacularly wrong, and you’re about to find out how.

When I should have been studying for inorganic chem finals, I planned every detail of the evening meticulously. Candlelit dinner—home-cooked, though I’ll spare you the loving descriptions of my recipe foodporn I normally subject Twitter to—and an evening of kinky lovemaking on a bed of silk sheets strewn with flower petals. Yeah. We were doing that. When you’re twenty and stupid, it sounds like the best idea ever, right? …okay, just shut up and listen to the story.

I can at least say dinner went well. If I could cruise through a relationship on my cooking skills alone, I’d be set for life. Unfortunately most people need me to actually be a decent human being outside the kitchen, so that leaves me a little fucked. Figuratively, not literally.

But since we’re talking literally, in this particular case: after dinner came the inevitable making out, teasing, coy pretense that we weren’t going to end up sweaty in the bedroom and making noises the suitemates would complain about later. I nibbled her throat just the way she liked. She ran her fingers through my hair in that way that turns me into a puddle of trembling manflesh. Clothing fell by the wayside in a trail that led toward that oh-so-sexy standard-issue twin bed, and as I teased the strap of her bra over her shoulder and grazed the soft texture of her skin with the very tips of my fingers, I growled, “Baby, I’m gonna fuck you so hard your Daddy’s gonna feel it.”

Then I stopped and realized what I’d just said.

And she started laughing so hard she nearly cried.

And I didn’t blame her, because I had no idea what the fuck I was saying and just blurted out whatever I could in a moment of numb panic where I knew I was supposed to sound sexy and commanding and like a dominant alpha male…and I completely blanked out.

But did I get my little feelings wounded? Nope. Well, yes. Okay. There was some butthurt. Manly butthurt. Deep down inside, I might have curled up and whimpered like a sad puppy. But I was determined to soldier on. This sad puppy was going to give his girl the night of her life.

This sad puppy gave his girl hives, but not until after he gave himself food poisoning.

handcuffs_by_Sarei_sxc.huSomehow we recovered from her gigglefit and my mortified laughter. Somehow we ended up with her naked on the bed in fuzzy handcuffs. Orange, by the way. The most godawful shade of mohair orange you could imagine. They were the only thing I could find on short notice. Just remember, this was the late 90s.

Do you want to hear the rest of this story, or not? Yes? Okay. Moving on then.

So since we were trying out for the Cliché Olympics, guess what I broke out? You got it. Whipped cream. I was going to lick every creamy, frothy bit off her until I went into a diabetic coma. Cue strategic application of whipped cream in the usual spots. Cue licking to varying effect.

Cue me making some really weird faces, because by the time I made it from shoulder-level down to the final destination, something wasn’t tasting quite right. Something, in fact, was tasting quite sour. And when I dipped in for another lick, I immediately withdrew and shook my head with my tongue hanging half-out because I didn’t want to pull it back in my mouth if I was in for another mouthful of that. Actually, I’m pretty sure I made the same face as that dog in that YouTube video with pets licking lemons.

She froze. “What is it?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice that said there was only one right answer to the next question. “Do I taste bad?”

I sensed death on the horizon. “No!” I’m pretty sure I took a trip down puberty lane with how badly my voice cracked. I’m also pretty sure I said dbtho because I was still trying not to pull my tongue back into my mouth. “It’s not you.” Ith nthoth oo. “I think the whipped cream’s gone off.”

“Are you sure?”

“Let me put more on and see.”

Because that’s always the answer. This is how people get their tongues stuck to flagpoles, you guys. I’m just saying. There’s a correlation.

So…setting aside the fact that we were playing with a potential yeast infection, one thing most people don’t consider is that skin can actually be pretty acidic. (Yes, you’re getting a chemistry lesson. Just nod and smile and humor me.) Different people have different skin pH levels, which is why changing climate, changing soap, changing whatever can completely screw up your skin pH and have an interesting effect on your complexion.

It can also wreak hell on melting dairy products.

Acid + whipped cream. You see where this is going, don’t you?

It didn’t get better. I was basically licking half-curdled cream off her skin, with the added benefit of sugar to make a nice little upset stomach cocktail. But I kept licking. And kept doing my thing. And eventually there was a lovely moment with fireworks and that sexy way a woman’s stomach tightens and tenses right before she’s about to finish. And while she’s laying there, beautiful as hell with that faint damp sheen on her skin and her eyes dilated and dark…

…all I’m thinking is I might need some Pepto Bismol.

But the sad puppy doesn’t quit, dammit. So there’s kissing. There’s foreplay, easing up to the dirty deed. Eventually we’re making the beast with two backs, and all is well despite the fact that she’d shaved two days before and the friction from the fresh stubble was making me wish I was a eunuch just so the scraping would stop. I still remember how she looked, with the lamplight making her body into planes of melting gold and liquid shadow, and the way her back arched when she strained against the cuffs. The way she panted as she wrapped her legs around my hips, her thighs taut and quivering.

And the way her skin broke out in red blotches as she closed her eyes and threw her head back and started to say something and ended up just coughing because oh, shite, her throat was closing.

lily_by_Roxanne727_sxc.huSo here’s the thing. My girlfriend loved lilies. So I’d thought, hey, instead of the clichéd bed covered in rose petals, I’d shred some lilies all over those sheets—which, by the way, were slippery and stuck to sweaty skin very uncomfortably—and be original like a fucking boss, because it’s really considerate to remember your girl’s favorite flower until it almost kills her.

Oh, what, you thought the chemistry lesson was over? No, no, now we’re moving on to plant biology. Did you know many species of lily can cause contact dermatitis? I’d thought they were only dangerous when cats eat them, but it turns out they can trigger contact allergies in people, too. For the most part it’s mild. Maybe a little irritation, sometimes so minor you don’t even notice it.

But throw in higher absorption from prolonged contact, sweat, and friction causing the leaves and petals to break and ooze and rub into the skin, and a little irritation turns into a full-on case of hives.

I had a feeling “Oh, darling, you’ve never been more beautiful than when your face is puffed up and covered in blotches” wasn’t the right thing to say at the time.

I stopped what I was doing, because it’s a dick move to keep having sex with your girlfriend when she’s possibly dying. I asked if she was okay. She said “Gg-gak.” I took that to mean “no,” freaked out, yanked on my pants and my watch and exactly one sock, nearly screamed when I tried to uncuff her and almost snapped off the key, bundled her into the car, and drove her to the ER.

We spent the rest of the night there. The doctor who saw us actually got her settled pretty quickly. It took more time to explain what happened than it took for him to get her breathing and to calm the swelling. The man’s face was turning red from trying not to laugh when we were clearly upset and scared, dumb college kids that we were. She checked in for the night so she could have a few more tests done and so the doctor could keep an eye on her in case her reaction got worse. I stayed there and held her hand and apologized so many times she finally begged me to please stop so she could get some sleep. I did. I was quiet as a mouse, and sat in that chair with her hand curled in mine, watching her sleep and thinking I was the biggest arsehole on the fucking planet and trying not to notice the nurses and orderlies who’d now and then stop outside the room, gesture inside, whisper to each other, and giggle. I thought I’d never do something this stupid again. I thought next time, instead of trying to please her by being someone I’m not, I’d try to give her the romance she wanted while still being myself.

She dumped me the next day.

But I learned some interesting things about science, about how to really fuck up a date, and how real romance never quite matches up to the stories – and sixteen years later, she and I are still friends.

She’s also a lesbian.

Totally unrelated to this story. Promise.


Since then I’ve had several relationships. Some long-term, some short-term. A lot of moments stand out, over the years. The way sunlight catches the fine hairs of her arms while she’s clinging to a few more moments of sleep before the alarm goes off. The way my heart clenches up when I, insomniac that I am, start to ease out of bed around 3am to work on a project, and her fingers clench against my chest and she snuggles just a little closer without ever waking up—letting me know with just one sweet touch that she doesn’t want me to leave. The startled burst of laughter when I say something she doesn’t expect, and that hot feeling suffusing my neck and the tips of my ears that only comes when her eyes light up just so.

And the way she reaches up and touches soft fingertips to my lips in the deepest heart of the moment, so I won’t say a word to ruin it and can just be there with her, silent save for the rush of our breaths.

Those moments have stayed with me more than any contrived attempt to be romantic. Those moments have been real. Have been beautiful. Maybe they’re not all passion and intense drama and heartfelt proclamations of love, but they’re mine. And as much as I love my romance novels, I’d never want to try to live them.

Those novels might be magic on the page, but I’d never trade them for the real magic I’ve found in those little moments, time and time again.

That, and I don’t even want to imagine the hospital bills.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 27 Comments

Busted: That IS You in My Book

Every writer has been asked the question, “How much of what you write comes from personal experience?” I’d be willing to wager that romance writers get asked this more often than, say, writers of spy thrillers. Further money gets laid on erotic romance or erotica writers getting asked this exponentially more frequently, especially by people who want to date them. Just saying…mention on your OKArmedCherub profile that you write romance or erotica and see how many “have u ever done a 3some?” emails you get.

Author interviews are full of people saying that very little or none of what they write about comes from their personal experience. That it’s all imagination or research or divinely inspired after sacrificing a pile of Doritos to the Cheese Product God in the Sky. And I believe them.

This is a good answer. Cool. I could roll with that. And did.

When asked “How much of this comes from your experience?”, I was happy to shout, “Nothing! It’s all made up!”

This is totally not true.

TONS of what I write comes from my personal experience. I may have chopped it up into such itty bitty pieces that no one who witnessed them would recognize the moments I’ve stolen, but it’s everywhere and I can see it, all the time.

Correction: I usually see it.

I worked in bars and restaurants for years and I use details from that industry all over the place. Whether it’s knowing how to pour a proper pint of Guinness or what a pain in the ass it is to get lipstick prints off martini glasses or what it’s like to make out on a co-worker’s lap in a dark, deserted bar an hour after close when your feet hurt and your back aches but you just can’t keep your hands off each other in a kind of survivor’s surge of energy, I’ve put all of that in books.

In my release from last week, CALLING HIS BLUFF, Sarah’s not-so-secret love of all things Vegas and poker comes directly from the time after my parents’ divorce. For several years, the weekends that my brother, sister, and I spent with my dad took place at his parents’ home. My Grandpa Ed taught us how to play blackjack and seven card stud, that roulette is a game for suckers, and to always wear a watch in Vegas because they don’t have any clocks. He drew a craps table on a piece of poster board and taught us how to shoot dice while telling us stories of high stakes poker games in the boxcar that transported the horses from his cavalry days. “Jacks or better to open” is still my favorite rule on poker night. Putting in even a little bit of my grandpa’s joy in card-playing into CALLING HIS BLUFF made me happy beyond words.

Sometimes I straight up grab events from stories I’ve been told. There’s a scene in that CALLING HIS BLUFF where Sarah and J.D. attempt to rescue kittens from a narrow flooding crack between two buildings during a thunderstorm that was stolen from the lives of my old bosses at a karaoke bar. As soon as I heard that story from them, years ago, I thought, “I am so putting that in a book.”

I’m putting the acrylic sweaters with animal faces that friends of mine bought over the holidays on a trio of dart throwers in the background of a lesbian bar in an upcoming novella and I hope they will read it and smile when they recognize that detail.

And yes, I do occasionally wonder if someone from my past will shoot me an email after reading one of my books and ask, “So, when she/he does that naked thing/makes that dirty move in bed/on the floor/in the car, did you get that from us?”

I think I’d be honest enough to say, Yes.

I mean, it was a helluva move in real life. Just the memory of it gets me all squirmy. How could I not put that in a book?

But occasionally I do catch myself off guard.

I was deep in edits on CALLING HIS BLUFF when I realized that the hero’s name, J.D., was the same as the nickname of one of my exes. I never actually called the ex J.D., although I knew people who did. But it still made me giggle when I spotted that.

I was more jaw-dropping WTF and less giggly when I realized, weeks later, that J.D. and my eponymous ex are both photographers.

I mean…c’mon.

The hero is both named after my ex and pursues the same vocation?

Apparently I had some issues I needed to work out. In print. For everyone to read.

And of course my ex was not a wildly successful Hollywood documentary photographer who I’d crushed on in my formative years because he was my brother’s best friend, BUT STILL…

Sometimes my brain decides to use these details without going through the trouble of alerting me in advance.

By far the largest portion of what I write does come from my imagination. Or research. Or that Dorito Deity. But enough of it comes from me, from my life, that I’m only beginning to realize how lucky I am that I didn’t really get going as a writer until I was thirty. Because if I’d spent my twenties sitting at a table in front of a laptop for twelve or sixteen hours a day like I do now, I would have missed out on many of these random details and fascinating characters. And the smexy stuff.

Let’s not forget the smexy.

*I lose track of time for a while…*


So tell me, writers. How much of what you write is made up? How much is borrowed from that thing you did with that guy behind the Amoco station when you were nineteen? Am I just an oddball? (This would not be unexpected.) Am I right to be worried that I am spending less time living my life these days than I am writing about someone else’s? Is my ex ever going to pick up CALLING HIS BLUFF and ask me why I never did that in the shower with him?

Or is this all just too embarrassing for words?

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 23 Comments