Writing Reality

Recently, Team Wonkomance had an email thread going about condoms. It began with a comment about edits requested from a publishing house regarding the hero’s condom habits, and it ran on for quite a while, through humor, outrage, sympathy, and silliness.

We talked about condom-related things we had written and what we’d been asked to do or not asked to do with them. We joked around about what flies under the radar in Romanceland and what doesn’t.

Conversations like this can be so revealing of where the boundaries lie in this genre. Of how we establish what’s “normal” and what isn’t.

In my serial novel Roman Holiday, there’s a scene where the hero is masturbating next to a sink while overhearing the athletic sex noises of his host couple, a man and woman in their sixties. He’s aroused against his will, so full of shame and so angry with himself and the world that he puts his hand under the burning-hot tap as a kind of punishment.

Roman makes himself orgasm by thinking of a series of things that he won’t normally let himself think about under any circumstances, including losing his virginity in college in a drunk fling with a girl whose face reminded him of his sister.

I did not get a single note on that part of the scene. You know what got queried, and what readers ask me about, repeatedly? Armpit hair. Roman hasn’t even seen the heroine’s armpits, but he imagines her with armpit hair, and god, it’s too much. Spare us this offensive armpit hair, Ruthie.

I don’t know, guys. I honestly don’t know.

The email thread about condoms made me smile for a few minutes, but then it made me angry and sad, which is how I feel a lot of the time when it comes to this kind of policing.

We romance writers, and possibly particularly we Wonkomance writers, get these edits that say, “No, this isn’t the fantasy, that is.” Edits that say, “Readers don’t want this. They want that.”

We get edits that say women don’t fall in love with men who cry.

Edits that say women don’t masturbate.

We get edits that say heroes don’t have to go out and buy condoms, ever, because the fantasy is that the men we want to fuck are so sexually active already, they have condoms on hand at all times. They have them in their wallets. They carry them in their back pockets, for Pete’s sake, even though, dude, that is not a good idea.

We get edits that say women with unapologetic sexual agency are sluts, so can you make it so she’s been in love with him forever, maybe? Or else have her thinking about how she doesn’t usually get horny like this, but this guy is special?

We get edits that say people who have been sexually assaulted aren’t okay. They can’t be portrayed as okay, because they have to be broken, and then they have to be redeemed by the love of their partner, who is the only person who thinks they are okay.

We get edits that say penises must be very very large, and vaginas must be very very tight, and very very wet, but not in a gross way. Never in a gross way. Here is the list of things that are gross. Note the placement of armpit hair (female).

I am tired of it.

And look, lest you think this is sour grapes, let me just say that I’m not venting about my editor here, or my experiences, or how hard my life is. What I’m talking about — what concerns me deeply — is the policing that pretty much all editors do in romance, the policing they have to do it because it is their job to make sure readers get what they want.

Editors police for readers.

It is the readers, we are told, who don’t want small penises or capacious vaginas or expired condoms or crying heroes or functional humans who have been sexually assaulted and are not healed by magical sex. But I am a reader, too, and I want all of these things. I want everything. I want, as a baseline, fiction that is about humans.

Also, and more to the point, there is a way in which we tell ourselves — we, as romance readers and writers and editors, pretend among ourselves — that this kind of policing is not harmful, when it is, actually. It’s harmful to our culture, our social fabric, to perpetuate a narrow idea of who is and isn’t allowed to be sexy, what is and is not sexually okay, what can and cannot be permitted romantically.

Furthermore, it isn’t true. In the world, there aren’t, in fact, rules around sexual and romantic love except for the rules we create, and there aren’t any rules around what fiction — even genre fiction — can and cannot do except the rules we allow, the rules we enforce, the rules we live with and ignore because they are invisible walls right up until we smack into them.

When I was twenty-three, I lived in London. I went to a concert one night to see Dar Williams in a dodgy neighborhood out at the end of the Northern Line. While I was there, I had some wine, and I don’t know if the glasses of wine were bigger than I thought or if it was stronger than I thought or what, but I got completely wasted off my ass on two glasses of wine. Like, the kind of wasted where you go to the bathroom to pee and kind of sit on the toilet, reeling, and have to rest your forehead against the cold metal stall wall.

The kind of wasted where the cute and friendly (female) stranger you’ve been talking to at the concert asks if you’re okay, because even though you’ve been trying to appear okay, it’s just obvious that you are not.

I got home fine. In case you’re worrying about that. I did not get home with my dignity intact, though. Or clean shoes.

It was an experience that I learned things from, and one of the things I learned was how to make fiction from my life. The first draft of About Last Night took that story and used it as a baseline to introduce Cath. In the second draft, I changed some of the details but kept the gist of it. The third draft changed it a bit more. That was the draft I submitted, that I loved.

The feedback I was given was that my drunk, humiliated heroine wasn’t likable in that scene, because no one gets drunk on two glasses of wine.

Except that I had.

The feedback I got was that I had to start somewhere else, some other way, because what the heroine did — the choice she made to go out alone, attend a concert alone, get on the train alone, drunk — was too dangerous, too risky, and it made her too stupid to live.

Except that I am alive, and I am not stupid, and I’ve never met anyone who is perfect, not even once, and I am thirty-six, so I’m starting to think it’s not likely that I ever will.

I wrote myself out of my story, because my story is not close enough to the fantasy.

I am tired of writing myself out of my stories.

I’m not doing it anymore.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 93 Comments

Love, Failure & Scarves

musicandlyricsI recently knitted a scarf for my partner. I chose really lovely wool for it, so soft it feels like its melting between your fingers, and the colour brings out the hazy grey-blue horizon of his eyes.

It’s also awful.

Like … really bad.

And that’s not just English self-deprecation. That is fair and open acknowledgement that what I created – after hours of incompetent labour – is a pile of arse.

But he wears it. Doggedly, valiantly, unremittingly he wears it. I watch his long fingers moving against the wool as he tenderly wraps it round his neck each morning.

This thing that looks like somebody has painfully vomited up some strings of yarn.

At first, I was ashamed. I would actually beg him not to put it on in public. Because I would imagine people in the street staring at this handsome man as he strides about his business, and thinking “HOLY SHIT WHAT’S THAT DEAD THING DOING ROUND HIS NECK!?”

But then I realised that what was going on here was a disconnect we would never reconcile. Because what I see when I look at the scarf is my own utter failure at knitting.  And what he sees is something his adoring, occasionally incompetent partner made for him. And consequently is fundamentally unable to recognise it sucks.

And now when I imagine people in the street staring at him, swathed about in a home-made monstrosity, I hope what they think is: “He must really love someone.”

My favourite romcom is Music & Lyrics, which is a rather overlooked (and, in my opinion, rather underrated) little film, but it wasn’t until Scarfgate that I really got to thinking about why it resonated so deeply with me. I just assumed I had weird taste. The movie stars Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore: he’s Alex, an 80s pop icon, fallen into obscurity, and she’s Sophie, a quirky romcom heroine. Okay, that’s not entirely fair but I feel the main reason Music & Lyrics isn’t better loved is its incredibly disengaging opening, in which Drew Barrymore turns up to water Hugh Grant’s plants, is adorably eccentric for no reason and then runs away. We later learn that she’s kind of in emotional hiding after an affair with her creative writing teacher went horribly wrong, and he wrote a bestselling book in which he portrayed her as some kind of talentless sex vixen.

But once the film settles down, and lets us actually get to know the characters, it becomes pretty clear that what they have in common is that they’ve both been terribly hurt, and they perceive themselves as having failed pretty hard at the thing they thought they were supposed to be doing. Following the breakup of his band, Pop, Alex released one disastrous solo album:

It sold only 50,000 copies, most of those to my mother. To cut a long story short, I gave up trying to write, lost an incredible amount of money and then my apartment. Chris stuck by me, booked me an ’80s reunion night, and suddenly, they liked me again. It was weird. It was like I’d never been away. The audience was a tad older, as was I, but we were very, very profoundly happy to see each other again.

Meanwhile, Sophie is working at her sister’s weight reduction company, writing only the occasional slogan, taking odd jobs (like watering plants, apparently) and haunted by every cruel thing her teacher wrote about her.

At the point they meet, Alex has been hired by Cora Corman – a Britney-esque teenage pop idol and fan of Alex’s old group – to write a song called Way Back into Love, which is exactly the sort of comeback he needs to be relevant again. He and Sophie ended up collaborating. There is love, conflict, and a happy ending. Also songs, most of them homages to the trashiest, most gleeful sort of pop music, whatever the era. And Hayley Bennett as Cora, who has lines like: “I want to show you the roof. It’s upstairs!” To be absolutely honest, Grant and Barrymore don’t have much natural chemistry, but they’re good enough at this acting thing that is their job, that the film romps along regardless. It’s sweet and funny and basically harmless.

But it’s also rather melancholy, and touched by a surprising sort of rueful gentleness when it comes to dealing with the way life just sometimes kicks you hard in the bollocks. Interestingly, neither Sophie or Alex have changed much by the end of the film. They’re the same people, their dreams aren’t suddenly fulfilled. He doesn’t get an artistic comeback.  She doesn’t become a bestselling novelist. They do embark on a satisfying, joint career as moderately successful songwriters but it’s a noticeably different ending to anything they might have imagined, or chosen, for themselves. All that’s really happened over the course of the film is that they’ve taught each other self-acceptance.

Happiness is, after all, basically learning to live with yourself. And love is perhaps the kindest mirror of all: one that only ever reflects the best of you. Not because it doesn’t see the worst, but because it doesn’t care.

And what I find most interesting about Music & Lyrics is the way it consistently rejects the expectation of triumph that is a staple of most romantic comedies. The moment in Pretty Woman where Vivian, radiant and stunningly dressed, weighed down with bags, walks into the shop that wouldn’t serve her and tells them: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” And the assistants look suitably devastated as she glides out of there. I think this is a fairly common fantasy for anyone, even outside of the world of romantic comedies.  I know I’ve daydreamed about laying some sort of epic smackdown on people who have been horrid to me. But the problem with this sort of fantasy – perfectly understandable and acceptable though it is – is the locus of power never really shifts: you don’t really reclaim power, you just validate that it was taken. It’s still as much about the person who hurt you, as it is about you.

And Music & Lyrics understands that. It explores not only how difficult it would be to actually fulfil such a fantasy, but how meaningless it would be. My favourite scene in the whole movie comes just after Alex and Sophie have successfully sold their version of A Way Back Into Love to Cora, and have gone out with two old friends of Alex’s to celebrate. They’re exhausted and scruffy, but happy. And then, of course, Sophie’s old teacher – Sloan Cates – comes into the restaurant. Sophie is completely underdone and runs to hide in the bathroom. Alex, eventually, goes after her and Sophie tells him how she’s been dreaming about confronting Sloan for a year. She’s got a speech prepared and everything:

Sloan, even though Sally Michaels only lives on paper, I live in the world. And I can never forgive you for using me as raw material to create a fictional monster. Sally Michaels is my own personal ghost, a shadow hanging over each phone call and cup of iced tea. And one cold day, when age has robbed your mind of its fertile phrases and your hand of its dexterity, all the success won’t be able to shield you from the pain you’ve caused and the shame you deserve.

But, of course, she also recognises that she can’t actually say it to him, because, well, you couldn’t, and she’s suddenly left dealing with the very hard truth that one of our major defence mechanisms against pain and humiliation (getting revenge later) is actually an illusion. Of course, Alex encourages her to confront Sloan anyway because that’s the story we’re all led to expect and hope for when someone we care about has been hurt or ill-treated. So they end up cleaning Sophie up and borrowing a red dress from Alex’s friend, so that she looks absolutely stunning – just as a heroine on the brink of a moment of triumph should – when she finally exits the bathroom.

She approaches Sloan and he greets her as if she was any other old acquaintance which renders her completely speechless. The conversation lurches on agonisingly with Sloan utterly in control, and effortlessly urbane, Sophie stammering and Alex ineptly trying to boast on her behalf about the song she’s just written. Eventually Alex tries to deliver Sophie’s speech for her but, barely a line in, a waiter comes over to tell Sloan his table is ready, and he excuses himself by saying: “It’s great seeing you. Let’s get together, okay?” Leaving Sophie devastated, not just at her own failure to actually confront the man who destroyed her, but at his utter carelessness of the fact he did.

She just wants to go home, but Alex won’t let it rest. He chases after Sloan and tries to convince him to let Sophie say what she needs to say to him. But Sloan is utterly unrepentant: “I know what she came here to say, okay. Some sad little story about how I ruined her life.” Which leads Alex to get into a short-lived physical confrontation with the guy which ends in an absolutely mortifying, face in the butter defeat. It’s hilarious and tragically bathetic at the same time.

So, Sophie and Alex go home. Laugh a little, comfort each other, and end up having sex.

What I love about this little scene is the way it punctures every single genre expectation we have. Sophie does everything right: she’s got the dress, and the speech, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. And Sloan isn’t even particularly evil, he just doesn’t give a toss. Which, I guess, is its own evil. Meanwhile Alex completely fails to live up to the designated romantic hero role: he fails to empower Sophie and then to defend her honour. He even loses a fight with another man.

But here’s the important thing: none of it matters.  Sophie doesn’t need a moment of triumph, any more than Alex needs to give her one. Because they’re already falling in love, and their shared present is becoming more important to them than their individual pasts.  The thing is, failure is just something that happens to us sometimes. Love can’t fix that or redeem it. But it can change the way we look at it. The film ends with Alex performing a song he’s written for Sophie called Don’t Write Me Off. It’s not a very good song, but the whole point is that it doesn’t have to be because failures and setbacks and not being very good at something are only insurmountable if people give up on you.

And on that note, I’m off to knit poor old H a jumper.

Posted in Movies, Talking Wonkomance | 20 Comments

A Wonkomance Interview with Solace Ames and Heloise Belleau

Amber: The Dom Project is a friends-to-lovers story between Robin, a librarian, and John, an A/V guy, who work at the same university. The catalyst for their sexual relationship is a collection of racy photographs from fictional 1930s model Irena Mareau. There’s pearl rope bondage and a silver napkin ring used as an O-ring. What was the inspiration for this, and more importantly, where can I actually find such a collection?

TheDomProject-HeloiseBelleau-SolaceAmesSolace: We made it up entirely! Our main inspiration was Bettie Page. We wanted the same sense of vintage glamor but located in a slightly earlier era. We did end up doing a lot of research at a site called Retro Porn Archive, which has a truly banging search engine. They have quite a bit of material from the 1930s.

Heloise: I’ve been a fan of vintage pornography since college. I actually wrote a paper on Victorian pornography and erotica and what it tells us about masculinity in Victorian England! I used to follow the awesome (but sadly now defunct) blog Vintage Sex on Livejournal, which had pornography from the 1800s right up to the seventies. Vintage porn was a great escape for me from our current trend for tanned, hairless skinny bodies with big boobs. Not that it doesn’t have its own standard of beauty, but when you don’t have the same tools to alter the human body, there’s naturally more diversity on display. Irina Mareau was made up, but I really drew on that dreamy sepia aesthetic when it came to writing The Dom Project.

Amber: Our heroine Robin has a blog chronicling her kinky dating misadventures which she calls The Picky Submissive. I have to give a shout out to Omega and mouse whose blog I’ve been reading for years and totally love. Did you read real life BDSM blogs in preparation for this book or did your previous reading of them inspire that aspect of Robin’s character? Are there are any blogs you would recommend for readers, especially if they enjoyed the snippets from The Picky Submissive?

Solace: I enjoy reading really theoretical, wonky blogs about BDSM and sex. I think my favorite sex blog is probably Girl on the Net—she puts out an incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking mix of personal sex stories and political stuff. I’ve also read through It’s Just a Hobby, which is password protected now, but here’s an interesting interview with the couple who ran it.

Heloise: I don’t really read blogs of any sort, so a lot of my experience I drew from my friends who are real life submissives, and their various terrible tales of encounters on Fetlife. Fetlife, of course, being the real-life version of our fake bondage dating site “Kinklife” (see what we did there?). For those not in the know, it’s basically a social media site for people into BDSM and fetish. You can host a profile and a blog, read free fiction, browse photos uploaded by users, and of course, look for love and/or sex. And like any other website used for dating/sex, some men are charming and worth connecting with, and others are . . . well, complete creeps without boundaries or social skills.

Amber: The hero John is Asian, has a full sleeve of colorful tattoos and is a bisexual Dom. I know from Heidi’s previous appearance on Wonkomance that you’ve written other multicultural romances. How do you approach writing characters that are a different race than yourself? Or a different sexual orientation? How do stereotypes figure in to the characterization—do you try to ignore stereotypes or try to subvert them?

Solace: I’m Japanese-American, and I almost always write characters of a different ethnicity and usually of a different race. I just don’t have much of a choice—I’d be pigeonholed otherwise (and that’s not fun). I think it’s important to take stereotypes into account, but reacting against stereotypes in a kneejerk way can be just as bad as accepting them fully. The idea is to create well-rounded characters who develop through the course of the story. When writers get obsessed with fighting stereotypes, the characters suffer. For example, there’s a racist stereotype that Asian men have small penises. I’m not going to fight against that by giving all my Asian heroes monster-sized wangs! That would be a counterproductive tactic, as well as horribly irritating to the reader. My ideal is to subvert stereotypes by presenting complicated people living complicated lives and letting readers draw their own conclusions. That’s what I like the most as a reader, after all.

I write a lot of characters of different genders and sexual orientations, too, and I try to keep in mind the same balancing act when it comes to stereotypes. There are certain stereotypes attached to bisexual men that all writers need to be aware of, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid writing them altogether. There’s always going to be risk, reward and responsibility.

Heidi: Right. As a bisexual woman myself, I know all about the stereotypes directed at us: that we’re promiscuous, that we’re really straight or gay and just pretending otherwise, that we cheat, that we can never be happy in a monogamous relationship, etc. etc. etc. So when it comes to Solace’s whole kneejerk anti-stereotype response, it’s actually kind of hard, because some of those stereotypes are conflicting! Secretly monosexual vs. never happy in a monogamous relationship, for example. It was never my intention to write a bisexual character who is anti-stereotype, just one who is well-rounded and human and flawed and sensitively portrayed. Because ultimately, that’s what stereotypes are: they’re FLAT, allowing for no diversity or individuality. That doesn’t mean nobody ever resembles them, only that they’re not a universal truth, and that ultimately we’re all–as groups and as individuals–so much more.

So with John, who’s out and bisexual himself, we portrayed him as having several play partners, but being respectful, courteous, and honest with them. Then he ultimately finds a monogamous HEA with Robin, but he’s still the same bisexual John, and he’s never going to stop being attracted to men (or other people in general!) Robin’s the love of his life, though, and he’ll never cheat on her, and she’ll always be “enough” for him. That doesn’t mean she cured him of his “slutty bisexual ways”–he never renounces his former lifestyle or apologizes for it, because why should he?–only that being with her and loving her has changed his priorities. That’s his individual journey, though, not the one bisexuals are destined for by their nature or Must Follow to Avoid Stereotypes. There’s room for all sorts, just so long as every character’s individual humanity is respected.

Amber: One of the things I particularly enjoyed was John’s irreverent sense of humor. What’s interesting is that he’s playful and laid back, which is in contrast to his dominant sexual self. Here’s a snippet from The Dom Project:

“He grinned. More satisfaction, and some hunger too. A strange balancing act, as if he were standing on the border of his ordinary slacker self and the dominant man she’d glimpsed at Miss Kitty’s.”

Can you talk about the juxtaposition of John’s “slacker self” and his sexual desires?

Solace: People with a good sense of humor are always attractive. And if you think about why, there are interesting parallels with D/s. Humor, especially wordplay, represents a kind of power over language itself. People with a great sense of humor and strong comic timing have the power to create an explosion of positive emotions! You can also use humor to defend yourself against attack or even go on the attack and rip other people apart.

John has a really high confidence level. He knows he’s charming, he knows he’s fun to be around. He’s not particularly ambitious because he doesn’t want what he doesn’t have, in terms of status and material possessions (love is another matter). So when other people think, “oh, he could be doing more with his life,” he doesn’t give a damn about their opinion, and I think that in itself shows his strength of personality.

Heidi: Honestly, when I write romance characters, I try to write them with qualities I admire or am attracted to. Having dabbled in the BDSM world myself, I know all about male Doms who never turn that off, who are domineering and controlling and super serious, (or just downright abusive) and I’m sure some people go for that (well, not the abusive part), but for me I always found it a little threatening emotionally and sexually. So to write a male dom that I was still attracted to, I needed him to be someone safe and approachable, but also dominant when he needed to be. John’s definitely a Dom, but he’s not going to read Robin’s emails or control her relationships or speak down to her in front of her friends. He’s funny and kind and has non-sexual hobbies and likes to hang out and watch movies. His sexual proclivities don’t form the whole of him. Of course, he doesn’t have to be a slacker for that: he could easily be a doctor, or volunteer who puts in 60 hours a week at a shelter for homeless teens, or hell, have two jobs in the service industry. But it is fun to match a slacker up with a very driven A-type personality, isn’t it? And it’s a fun turnaround on a lot of BDSM novels where the Dom character is dominant in every aspect of his life: big and imposing and an authority figure and rich and powerful. Which of course is a valid fantasy, but it sure is fun to try something a little different!

Amber: You two co-wrote The Dom Project. Is this your first collaborative project and how did you guys get together on it? How did you split up the writing? Were there any areas where your ideas diverged and how did you handle that?

Solace: This is our first m/f erotic romance as cowriters. I think we brought different things to the table, but we’re both really into psychological complexity and we were absolutely on the same page when it came to the aesthetics and the journey to the HEA. The next installment in LA Doms is an MMF that I wrote on my own—it’s a little angstier than The Dom Project but has some of the same qualities, and we run into John and Robin again at a BDSM play party.

Heidi: We’ve collaborated on several projects before. This is our first M/F, but also our first straight-up contemporary, so that was a little different too, because conflict is so very different when there’s nobody getting stabbed or kidnapped by evil faeries. We both wanted to write an M/F, and I wanted to try my hand at writing maledom M/F in a way that didn’t trigger some of my weird anxieties around men, and we both just wanted to write a BDSM erotica that we’d actually want to read, so we started spitballing concepts we liked (and what we preferred to avoid) and eventually the plot and characters started to form!

I can’t think of any particular areas where we disagreed about the narrative or characterization, at least not for this project, but in the past when we’ve had disagreements, we’ve talked it out, argued our separate points, and ultimately came to a consensus. I find having a cowriter to butt heads with actually really strengthens the narrative, because there’s someone built in to poke at your plot holes or ask tough questions about motivation and scene placement and the rest of it. You really don’t let each other get away with anything!

So The Dom Project is definitely both of our baby. The Submission Gift is all Solace, but I’ll happily give it my seal of approval. It’s a fantastic, twisty love story with two very different but very attractive heroes, and a fantastic, sympathetic and strong heroine who faces real challenges. And a sexworker plotline that isn’t horribly depressing, but doesn’t go skipping into Pretty Woman territory either! I’m not a menage reader, but Solace definitely sells it!


By day, Robin Lessing has a successful career as a university archivist. By night, she blogs about her less-than-successful search for Mr. Tall, Dark and Dominant. Living up to her handle “The Picky Submissive,” she’s on the verge of giving up and settling for vanilla with a side of fuzzy handcuffs when she discovers her best friend and colleague has a kinky side, too.

Sexy, tattooed techie John Sun is an experienced Dom who never lacks for playmates, male or female. If he can’t satisfy Robin’s cravings, maybe no one can—after all, he knows her better than anyone. So he offers to help her master the art of submission for one month.

Robin eagerly agrees to John’s terms, even the pesky little rule forbidding any friendship-ruining sex. But rules are made to be broken, and once they begin their stimulating sessions, it’s not long before she’s ready to beg him for more—much more…

Order: [Amazon] [Kobo] [Carina] [AllRomanceEbooks] [B&N]

Author Websites: [Solace Ames] [Heloise Belleau]


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Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 10 Comments