In Cecilia Grant’s book A WOMAN ENTANGLED, Kate Westerbrook, of the disgraced branch of the Westerbrook family, is beautiful, has cultivated her beauty, too, like a crop meant to solve the world’s hunger problems.

She understands, keenly, her beauty’s lack of durability, its frustrating transience, how it must be exactly paired with charm and social responsiveness, how much a hair toss, precisely timed, matters.

She worries over her beauty, and her charm, and wit until they are worn stones in her pocket, compulsive touchstones that reassure her that for at least another day, there is hope.

Because, Kate, she is playing a long game, a game that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, a game that forces her to be alone in her sensitivity to a scandal that took place before she was born and predicts difficulties her own children could face if the world refuses to change as it should. She is incredulous that she should be the only one to grieve the loss of her father’s extended family, lost to his own choices and crushing institutional sexism, and she is desperate that she be the one to bear all the potential suffering of this loss, if she is unable to wield her beauty and charm as so much embroidery silk—mending and mending and mending.

Every time she looks at her younger sister, Rose, observes her anxiousness and depression as a victim of bullying at her finishing school, every single time Kate sees it in the smallest change of Rose’s posture, Kate touches her stones and she rallies and she compartmentalizes, a little more, every small part of herself that is herself, that is even a little untidy, or needful, or messy, or grasping, or simply says, inconveniently, I want.

Kate is not, as the copy suggest, at least to me, ambitious, Kate has designated herself and the accident of her beautiful genes as a graft between two generations who she believes need each other to go forward, to secure the happiness of everyone who comes next. She will not accept loss; she will not accept that the grief passed through its time before she was born. She of course, sees the evidences of her broken family in Rose, in the genteel shabbiness of her mother’s home, even in her father’s tenacity that his choice of love above all other considerations was big enough to grow over the losses.

I can’t help it, I resist, my heart in my throat, tight and lodged, Kate’s friends’ and family’s assessment that Kate is a cold pragmatist, and the book’s evocation of Elizabeth Bennett, and Kate’s struggle with Lizzie’s prejudices and the prize of Pemberly’s shining balustrades in spite of them, is a deeply complex literary guardian of Kate’s motivations. One way, Kate’s desire to stupefy a wealthy and titled man into marriage, a man that could only be introduced to her if she is vouched by the Westerbrook matriarch that has cast out her family, is evidence to her inability to feel acceptable desire—the desire for the truly loving marriage her parents share and have suffered the costs for. Another way, Kate’s desire for love is so great she is willing to forgo love to have love visited on every single subsequent Westerbrook that follows her own life. Rose will be free to love, with or without balustrades. Kate’s children. Onward, because yes, she understands love very well.

She tightens this tether around her own needs and wants, buckling them in like a child in a carseat, I can’t help but think, understanding Kate very well, yanking the strap that secures them against anything that might jar them loose.

Like loss. Or love.

There is a way in which, that speaks to the great argument of this book, that I root for Kate to wear down the prejudices of the reigning Westerbrook matriarch and so gain entry into the ballrooms, have her dance card thusly filled by marquess after marquess, and smile in such a way in the right dress and under the right number of candles that the stupefaction of some kindly marquess with 10,000 a year is managed. From such a position, then, she calls the terms of her life, she ascends as the matriarch, pardoning her own father, legitimizing the eccentricities of her siblings as accomplishments, watching her own children marry for any fucking reason they wish.

I almost wish, in fact, that Nick Blackshear would just stop looking at her.

A barrister without his own land holdings and unable to see the way through his own ambitions due to his brother’s scandal, he is an agonizing foil to Kate’s mission. What’s more, they both have come to this understanding. She does not direct her charms to him, he is not in receipt of them, he alone, in fact, will do what he can to assist her in her campaigns to win her father’s sister-in-law, they have all but shaken on it, or at least, stood in close proximity under darkened stairwells steeped in choking sexual tension on it.

What this book accomplishes that Austen couldn’t manage, is love without the ease of the balustrades and loss acknowledged, but not mended. If I rooted alongside Kate, my voice grew hoarse and distant, and then quiet inside the empty room above a ballroom that should have been Kate’s marquessed triumph, and instead was the ache of catharsis as Nick brought her to orgasm, their bodies still entirely clothed, all barriers between them.  After this, Kate wants and needs for herself, and in fact, all she has are her needs, and her wants, even her gown is borrowed.

Nick’s arc is an echo, in way, of Kate’s father’s. Nick’s brother married himself and the Blackshears out of proper society by falling for an unacceptable woman. Like Kate’s father, Will accepts the consequences in the face of the gains of love and the chinks in the monolith of sexism. Kate’s father’s brother, despite his love for Kate’s father, never stepped over the rift, and so the grief of this riff was visited again and again and felt keenly by Kate. Nick makes a different choice, but we have absolutely no reassurance that choices made for the benefit of the human heart, and not society, will be enough. Much is said, in this book, of the hope of the world changing. Maybe, maybe, it is choices like Nick’s like Kate’s, when she lets herself love him, that change the world.

The triumph of this book is that Nick and Kate do not know, and yet, choose love anyway.

Elizabeth Bennett did not have to make this choice; she made love behind the gleaming balustrades.

Nick and Kate have only the other’s hands, to hold under their table.

***Giveaway*** Three commenters, who comment by Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 at 8:00 a.m. EST, at which time the giveaway will be closed, will be chosen at random to receive digital copies of Cecilia Grant’s A WOMAN ENTANGLED. Void where prohibited.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 15 Comments

I Will Not Be Afraid of Women: Thoughts on RWA

Eating hard-boiled eggs at breakfast: Cara McKenna, Serena Bell, Ruthie Knox, & Del Dryden's hand.

Eating hard-boiled eggs at breakfast: Cara McKenna, Serena Bell, Ruthie Knox, & Del Dryden’s hand.

I’m sitting at the Atlanta airport, running on three hours of sleep and a Snickers bar, thinking back on the past four days, which I spent in the company of hundreds of writers and publishing professionals at the Romance Writers of America conference.

This was my second RWA. Last year, I was adjusting to the novel experience of having an editor, an agent, and more than one person telling me, “I read your book!” This year, I was adjusting to the novel experience of two RITA finals, a huge amount of publisher support, and getting fangirled in the elevator by people who told me, “I read all your books!”

Which is pretty awesome, but it’s not the point. It’s basically impossible to get a big head at RWA, because (a) you keep running into people whose work you fiercely admire, which means you end up being the person in the elevator saying “I’ve read all your books! Oh my god! That one with the thing! You are so awesome!” and (b) the collective intelligence, experience, and fierce amazingness that gathers together at RWA is so vast that you can do nothing but float along as a happy amoeba among the primordial soup.

Or something. I don’t know, that wasn’t my best metaphor, I haven’t slept much the past four nights. I was too busy talking.

At the Wonkomance Karaoke meet up: Jackie Horne (Romance Novels for Feminists), Del Dryden, Ruthie Knox, Sarah Frantz (Riptide Editor), & Cara McKenna. Pretty sure Cara has just heard the karaoke machine calling her name.

At the Wonkomance Karaoke meet up: Jackie Horne (Romance Novels for Feminists), Del Dryden, Ruthie Knox, Sarah Frantz (Riptide Editor), & Cara McKenna. Pretty sure Cara has just heard the karaoke machine calling her name.

Because here is the thing about RWA: in the run-up to conference, there are a lot of nerves. People worry about who they will talk to, what they will say, whether they will fit, if they will manage to get through a meet-and-greet / a panel / the literacy signing / their RITA speech without having a complete mental breakdown. They worry about what they’re going to wear and if it will be “good enough” and whether they weigh the right number of pounds and if their pitches will tank and whether their roommate / editor / agent even wants to suffer through dinner with them, much less what they will say to these exalted personages.

But here is the more important thing about RWA: none of that matters. Everyone wants to talk. There are a million things to say, and none of them are “right” or “wrong.” You fit. We all fit. There is support for every crisis, more experienced practice partners for every pitch, thousands of outfits on hundreds of bodies that are skinny and chunky and round. My god, the bodies. All the bodies are amazing. I think I have a permanent crick in my neck from double-taking at all the hotness, in every possible physical guise.

Shelley Ann Clark & Carolyn Crane, looking fierce in red

Carolyn Crane & Shelley Ann Clark, looking fierce in red

RWA isn’t a contest. It’s a love-fest. Not the sort where people hug and pointlessly build each other up for days, but the sort where people who are smart and passionate — people who know things and think hard and care and approach their work with energy and joy — gather together for a few days to be collective. We share knowledge, we share drinks, we share beds, we share so much hilarity, oh my god. So much hilarity that sometimes you’re hanging off the edge of the bed with your hair dangling, clutching your stomach, because you can’t even take it. So much enthusiasm that you’re dancing barefoot, bumping hips with someone whose book you read last week and whose brain you admire so hard, it kind of hurts. So much knowledge, affirmation, empathy, shared experience, and power that sometimes you have to cry a little bit, or clutch hands, or nod really hard and lock eyes and just think “Yeah, yeah, she gets this. She so gets it.”

A helpful diagram drawn by Mary Ann Rivers for Serena Bell to illustrate some sex thing we were all talking about.

A helpful diagram drawn by Mary Ann Rivers for Serena Bell to illustrate some sex thing we were all talking about.

Also, Carolyn Crane karaokes Led Zeppelin in a skirt with deer on it. Vicki Lewis Thompson tells your friend that she’s going to write more nerd books, and you squee a little. You meet everyone from your publisher and realize, my god, these people are sharp and cool and passionate. You wander through a crowd of people dressed like it’s prom so you can sit in a room for the RITA ceremony at one table among more than a hundred, and you laugh and nod and smile and applaud and applaud and applaud.

It’s fucking awesome.

I don’t care what people who aren’t romance writers and readers and editors and agents say about romance. I know romance is ghettoized, run down, slagged off, constantly. Just this morning, I got the most condescending email, I didn’t even know what to say about it. And don’t get me wrong — I hate that. I do. I got my angry pants on and wrote back. But this morning, I can’t really care very much. I can’t. I’m proud of what I do, I’m proud of RWA, I’m proud of women. I love this conference. I want to wrap my arms around it and squeeze it until it squeaks.

That’s the thing about RWA. It’s just so fucking awesome.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance | 64 Comments

An Introvert’s Guide to RWA

Tomorrow I fly to Atlanta for the Romance Writers of America 2013 national conference. The last time I went to RWA was 2011. That was before I started attending my local chapter meetings, before I started hanging out on Twitter, back when I had exactly one romance-writing friend, whom I’d met before I started writing romance and before she’d ’fessed up that she did.

It was before I met my critique partners, before I “found my tribe,” as my friend Katy Cooper so wisely put it when I attended my first New England Chapter meeting. It was during that long dark time when I had a finished manuscript but wasn’t quite sure how to write a query letter, how to structure a pitch, or where to file all the agent rejection letters.

It was before my agent called me and wowed me with her faith in me, before I sold my first book (which was really my third book) and my second book (which was really my first book), before I learned how hard promo is, how overwhelming release week is, how tempting it is to crawl into a hole and hide.

I knew only one person at the 2011 conference and it was heaven. We clung to each other and attracted a few other newbies, one-by-one, until we’d made a little clump of like-minded peeps who to this day I hug fondly in my mind when I need a little conference TLC.

This conference will be as different from that conference as—

I used up all my similes in the first page of the holiday novella I just finished writing. I had to cut, like, fifty of them when I revised that baby.

Suffice it to say that this conference will be totally different. I have fifteen events in my calendar, not including a single, solitary workshop, keynote, conference meal or bathroom break. Publisher and agent lunches, dinners, meet-and-greets, cocktail parties, scheduled meetings with colleagues, you name it.

It causes some anxiety.

In general, I do not worry about shoes, nail polish, pantyhose, hair styles, makeup. It’s not in my genetic makeup. But I am worried. I am worried about whether I can walk in these ones, whether those ones are too 1998 (yes! That is when they are from! but I can’t care! I swear to you, I cannot care!), and whether I should run out right this second and buy red strappy sandals and chunky matching red beads and earrings in case I need to do something really different with that little black dress. Should I? SHOULD I? *shakes reader*

I have agreed to do karaoke. I don’t sing! I don’t stand up in public! I don’t know what I was thinking!

It is possible that the 2011 RWA conference, with my single, well-known roommate and the vast spans of time spent simple observing, was exactly in my comfort zone and that I am about to step out of that comfort zone in an epic way.

If you have the remotest idea of what I am talking about, you will love—as I did—Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I highlighted so many passages and made so many notes that when I was done and exported my clippings, I had 28 pages.

Cain’s main point is that we live in an extrovert’s world, a world best equipped more or less since the dawn of assembly-line capitalism for the perkiest, more social, and least-solitary human beings. She notes several times that introversion is not synonymous with shyness or anxiety, defining it mainly as the need for downtime to recharge, or sometimes a preference for one-on-one or small group interactions—though she does say that many introverts are “high reactive”—meaning prone to overstimulation.

Introverts have tremendous strengths, she tells us. Here are few that you might recognize, a few that come in handy if you are going to put your butt in the chair day after day despite the vagaries and whims of the publishing world.

Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.

On the downside, introverts have trouble with many tasks that are expected of nearly everyone these days (and expected in spades at a conference like RWA):

To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up.

 …people here don’t even want to meet with you if you don’t have a PowerPoint and a ‘pitch’ for them. Even if you’re just making a recommendation to your colleague, you can’t sit down in someone’s office and tell them what you think. You have to make a presentation, with pros and cons and a ‘takeaway box.’

Cain wrote Quiet in part to encourage introverts to play to their strengths rather than always trying to be more extroverted. Because the same traits that make it challenging to maneuver your way through a conference of several thousand people make it possible to engage in the acts that won you the right to be there. Cain discusses a study that found that musicians who practiced alone, rather than in groups, were able to attain the highest mastery. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you’re familiar with the idea that mastery occurs at around 10,000 practice hours. I’m not sure how many words that translates to for most writers, but “serious study alone” as Cain calls it is the strongest predictor of skill in any skill-based field.

“It’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice,” Cain writes:

…You identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly…

Yes. Yes. We do.

But of course we’re introverts, not hermits, and sometimes we like to, you know, say, Tweet.

Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Yeah. We do that, too.

And we do have to come out of the cave sometimes, and let other people read. That’s just fine, Cain says, as long as we keep the creative functions separate from the critical ones. It turns out that—contrary to some long-held views—in public brainstorming sessions, people came up with fewer good ideas then when they were allowed to come up with ideas on their own and share them in safe environment afterwards:

Personal space is vital to creativity… so is freedom from ‘peer pressure.’ … The fear of judgment runs much deeper and has more far-reaching implications than we ever imagined.

In effect, she’s saying what we all suspect, that you should write for yourself and not for the market, that genius is a solo endeavor.

RWA, however, is most definitely not a solo endeavor. It is all that is big, loud, overwhelming. It is all that is peer pressure and groupthink and mass exoduses from ballrooms with too few exits. And shoes. (I didn’t mean to lump all those things together. Shoes are an objective good and groupthink is an objective bad. The shoes just jumped in there because I can’t stop thinking about them.)

But RWA is also a celebration. It’s a party, from beginning to end, a party not just for those of us who might appear to have “arrived” but for every romance writer who has dared to imagine getting “the call.” The uber-confident are invited, as are those of us, like me, who talk a good game but spend some time mustering up courage in dark and private places, too.

The party is for all of us, even if it is perhaps more obvious to the extroverts how to engage it. (For more excellent thoughts and advice on this subject, check out Del’s wonko-post about how she learned to love conferences.)

If you an introvert, and if it is not immediately obvious to you how to be at the party, think of it this way: Wrapped inside the party is a reminder. It is the reminder that we are not alone, a reminder that we are a tribe engaged in this weird, solitary, hyper-public pursuit, that there are flesh and blood people behind the wild success stories, behind the teeny tiny avis, behind the ill-advised act of online self-defense, behind the golden names on the book covers.

A wise woman told me to worry not about how I might appear or be received at the party by the tribe, but about what there is to like and even love in every other member I encounter.

In other words, the invitation to RWA, to all of its many events, is an invitation not to perform but to connect.

And that, Susan Cain says, is something introverts excel at. Most love one-on-one and small group conversations. They like to ask questions, often personal questions, sometimes questions that are off-putting to extroverts, who—on balance—like to skim the surface more. They enjoy conversation that digs past the basics. They want to know other people.

So: It is possible that I suck at shoes. And I have this pair of dress pants with so many buttons and ties that I often forget to do the fly. My singing voice is out-dorked only by my attempts to imitate a pop performance.

But I am going to try to forget all of that. I have done something I am good at, and I have been rewarded for it by this overwhelming bounty of people in small groups and big groups, at parties, at formally set tables, in lobbies and hotel rooms and bathrooms. And I am going to consider them—you—exactly that. My reward.

Stand back, RWA. I’m coming to find out who you are.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 16 Comments