Bring It, Sisters

It’s been a while since I wrote a really super-thinky wonkopost. I’ve been mentally calling this one “wonkowank,” actually, so no hard feelings if you bail out after the reading list.

What brought this about is that I’ve been reading women’s fiction. In the last few months, I’ve been on a binge. Here’s my list:

MeBeforeYou coverJoJo Moyes

Me Before You
The Girl You Left Behind
Silver Bay
Foreign Fruit (previously published as Windfallen)

Emily Giffin

Baby Proof
Love the One You’re With
Heart of the Matter
Where We Belong
The One and Only


Helen Fielding

Mad About the Boy

Curtis Sittenfeld


I’ve been enjoying myself immensely, not least because the women in these books have been doing all sorts of things not “allowed” in romance. Their transgressions are wide ranging, including but not limited to (and in no particular order):

  • Promiscuity
  • Infidelity at every level, from thought crimes on up
  • Sleeping with one’s best friend’s father
  • Sleeping with enemy—specifically Nazi—soldiers
  • Sleeping with a man while one’s children are asleep in the house
  • Not considering one’s child’s well-being above one’s own (or not considering it at all)

In my most recent read, the heroine (or anti-heroine) actually slept with a man other than her husband, got pregnant by him, broke up two close friendships in the process, and was still allowed to live (albeit provisionally) happily ever after.

Women in women’s fiction, in short, are allowed to make mistakes, to commit morally and ethically questionable acts, and sometimes—even often—to go on living what we would consider a happy life.

Not that all these questionable acts are celebrated. They often aren’t. They often bring loads of unhappiness on the perpetrators, or at least the feeling that punishment will come somewhere down the line. But they’re considered. They’re allowed to happen on the page so they can be examined, so their moral and ethical dimensions can be laid out and dissected and analyzed—if not explicitly, than through their narrative consequences.

Jayne Ann Krentz has been quoted many times talking about genre fiction as a transmitter of social values—in this argument, the reason heroines must be near-perfect, or at least deeply likable, in order to win their HEA, is that they are showing us how to live a good life. But I’m not sure this argument flies with me—first, because literature is constantly showing us how to live a good life through negative examples, and second, because I personally believe the universe of truly unforgivable acts is exceptionally small, and that the ones listed above—though troubling, are not among them, particularly if we consider motivation.

One way that we talk about the moral/ethical demands we place on romance heroines is to say that we expect them to be someone we could have as a best friend. But that just puts the question off; we still need to talk about what we demand from our friends. Do we tolerate no error-making in our girlfriends? Do you have one who has done something you don’t like or admire? Is she still your friend? Why or why not? If not, and if her transgression is the reason, are you certain you had the right to pass that judgment on her? Can we learn to read novels and withhold judgment so that we can explore some of the aspects of humanity that are a little darker, a little less perfect, than we might ideally like? Will this also make us kinder to ourselves? In many cases, might that not be a good thing?

A friend and I recently started texting each other when we feel guilty about our mothering. But instead of texting about what we feel we’ve done wrong, we’ve agreed to turn the wrong on its head. So I texted, “I’m a good mother, because in getting my daughter to her rehearsal nearly two hours late, I taught her important lessons about how to proceed when you realize you’ve made a mistake.” I’ve been finding this exercise remarkably uplifting, not only because it relieves some guilt, not only because it makes me realize how perfect I require myself to be—and how liberating it might be to stop—but also because it makes me realize that on the flip side of any mistake is the opportunity for grace, apology, contrition, and forgiveness.

It’s easy, when you’re writing romance, to get enfolded completely in its logic. After all, we often find ourselves eating, sleeping and breathing it—or at least exclusively reading, writing, and talking about it. The more you submerge yourself in a particular world of social norms, a moral microcosm, the more you internalize its peculiar rules. I find myself self-censoring madly while I’m writing: Oh, she can’t do that, readers won’t like that, oh, she’s being testy, she’s being self-righteous, she’s being weak, she’s being aggressive … And I’ve gotten more judgmental of myself the longer I’ve written romance because my idea of acceptable behavior has gotten hemmed in by this same self-censor. This isn’t what I want for myself, my readers, or my daughter—I want to read a version of the world that makes all of us more loving and less judgmental, not the opposite.

But beyond that, as a romance writer who sees so much good in the genre, I simply don’t want romance to cede to non-romance the right to look at men’s and women’s behavior critically and lovingly. After all, if romance isn’t about exploring all these aspects of love—forgiveness, grace, contrition, compassion—if it isn’t about asking—with intense curiosity and real openness—what love can accept, embrace, allow, even celebrate—what is it about?

Women’s fiction these days has given itself permission to ask those tough questions, and romance should too. Because romance has one huge advantage over women’s fiction when it comes to thoroughly exploring and answering them. In romance, we’re permitted to delve into the physical aspects of love, which gives us another dimension from which to explore the issues that surround romantic and marital relationships.

By the same token, I’ve noticed in the same books I’ve enjoyed so much for their openness to forgiveness a lack of sophistication in exploring the narrative logic of love. If you’ve ever heard Michael Hague talk about love, this might make sense to you. He argues that many writers—especially storytellers in non-romance genres—come up short in writing about love because they don’t satisfactorily answer the question of what makes one human fall in love with another. (He says they fall back on “who can say why two people fall in love?” or, worse, “chemistry” as answers.)

But most romance writers privilege this question; we give it the answer it deserves—that we fall for each other, at least in a narrative sense, because the other person sees the real us, an us we’ve previously regarded as too unacceptable—too unlikeable—to show the world. If we are unwilling, collectively, to write about what these unlikable aspects are, we are ceding yet more territory to women’s fiction, and setting romance back as a genre.

At a time when romance is finally getting a portion of the respect it has always deserved, we can ill afford to give up ground. Instead, we should make romance the territory where real, often difficult, questions about the nature and spaciousness and limits of love get answered.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 7 Comments

Herpily Ever After

I’ll admit it—I ran with today’s topic in large part because I wanted to use that title.

As for the post itself… My original yen was to write about how irksome I find it that no one in romance novels (aside perhaps from evil exes and wayward historical rogues) has sexually transmitted infections. As I said on Twitter, half the population of Romancelandia has suffered from amnesia, yet nobody seems to have HPV.

To quote the Wikipedia entry for amnesia, “though hardly anyone gets amnesia in reality, over two percent of all fictional characters in movies, books, short stories and television shows (particularly soap operas) have had amnesic effects at some point in their lives.” Mix in Harlequin Presents and we’ve got a full-blown epidemic.

Meanwhile, as much as half of the U.S. adult population (the rate of infection varies widely depending on which age group is being looked at) has genital herpes, or HSV-2, and up to 65% may have oral herpes, or HSV-1—and those percentages could well be higher, according to some estimates, as many who carry the viruses don’t realize they do. (Said estimates are all over the board, but here’s an interesting article.) As for the human papillomavirus, the CDC says, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. […] In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems.”

I had HPV, myself. There are dozens of different strains, and I had one of the ones which can potentially lead to cervical cancer if allowed to go undetected or untreated for long enough. A few years ago I had an abnormal pap and some pre-cancerous cells were found, then zapped away with a laser, and I’ve since shed the virus. [As an aside, I was on Massachusetts’ experimental affordable healthcare scheme at the time, the forerunner to the Affordable Care Act. So thank you, then-Governor Romney! I didn’t have to choose between getting cancer and going bankrupt! Now everybody quit bitching about Obama and go sign up for healthcare and get a fucking physical.] That was an unpleasant and stressful situation, but by and large, HPV was very much in the background of my life. These days I’m mainly contending with what Dan Savage calls “the original sexually transmitted infection,” which is to say, pregnancy.

Pregnancy is the only biological consequence of sex that we really get to give our characters in romance, because [most] people feel that babies are nicer to have than genital warts. Especially in fiction, where they’re largely silent. (My stepmom-in-law advised me to have the kind of baby they favor in her beloved Mexican soap operas, which do nothing all day except look adorable while not crying.) But speaking of silence, why no STIs in romance?*

At first, I wanted to get really uppity about this. By all accounts, we can assume that 50–90% of the sexually active population has an STI of some sort, and so it should follow that our characters do, as well. I know a few of mine must. Both herpes and HPV can be contracted even with A+ condom use, and some of my characters—despite being explicitly responsible when it comes to safe sex—really get around. Odds are, they’ve got something. Yet I’ve only ever once made a reference to a character being affected. That character was a male prostitute, and my editor for that book was great and let me get away with just about everything, and those two facts combined meant I got to imply that he’s probably rocking some benign virus or other. But that’s been it so far, for on-the-page mentions. On the flip-side, loads of my characters deal with mental and emotional disorders and addictions, and they live with that right on the page. In Romancelandia, heroes and heroines suffer from some of the worst childhood traumas and most trying circumstances you’ve ever conceived of, and yet we’re forced to assume that they all have pristine, hermetically sealed genitals.

“It’s because with every other type of illness, people are perceived as victims of their circumstances!” I huffed to myself. “It’s because our sex-shaming culture still clings to the belief that STIs are punishment for moral failings!”

I think this is an accurate point…but also largely moot.

The thing about most STIs is, you can live with them with very little disruption to your day-to-day life. In fact, many, many people have no idea they even have an STI. Most range from benign to occasionally annoying, and while this means they’re not deserving of all the stigma they receive, it also means that, by and large, they’re really not that big a deal.

Know what else isn’t generally too big a deal? Pollen allergies. Heartburn. Needing to pee. Wearing corrective lenses. And we don’t see a ton of those things being dealt with in romance novels, either. Very few bathroom breaks, far fewer bespectacled folks than in real life, nearly no mentions of hay fever. Why not?

A better question might be, why? Why, if it has no effect on the plot or conflict of the book or the character’s personal growth, would you bother mentioning that she’s got Celiac disease? Only if she falls into conflicted love with a zealous French pastry chef would it make much sense to inform the reader she’s dealing with a gluten intolerance. Why mention that a character is removing their contact lenses at the end of the night…? Only because perhaps at some point they get caught in a situation without them, and there are consequences.

Why mention, then, that a character has an STI? Because it affects the story. I mentioned it in the male prostitute story because condoms were about to be foregone, and the consequences of that commitment were on his mind. Otherwise, if a character is like most actual people with an STI, going through life aware of but not haunted or consumed or even distracted by that fact, there’s nothing compelling about the situation. It’s not causing conflict (unless you decide to make it do so, in which case, tell me the name of your book so that I may read it), so you leave it out.

The same goes for any other banality that makes it into your first draft. The heroine’s chewing gum, you say? Is it annoying the hero? Does she choke on it and need CPR? Is it a nervous habit, a recurring mannerism that enriches her as a character? Is she a stylist who sneezes and spits her gum into the hero’s hair, and hilarity ensues? If the answers are all no, don’t bother mentioning that she’s chewing gum. This same rule should go for STIs.

This isn’t why there are virtually no characters with STIs in romance, of course. The why is largely because it’s still too stigmatized, too unromantic, too gross, some might say—proof of some slutty moral failing on the character’s part. It’s for this same reason that characters don’t fart or have much trouble getting erections, or poop or have coughing fits, or get charley horses or yeast infections. Such things are typically non-titillating, background biological inconveniences, the same sorts of details we leave out of nearly all our storytelling, be it a romance or a TV show or a documentary or a personal anecdote. (Unless it’s funny or scandalous, of course. We’d all clamber to hear a story about an acquaintance getting diarrhea in the middle of a swim meet.)

So should there be more visibility and frankness in our culture around STIs? Duh. It would spare a lot of people a lot of shame and embarrassment, and no doubt save lives. (I had that pap smear and my pre-cancerous cells were promptly dealt with, but some people might be too humiliated or scared to seek diagnosis or treatment.)

But is romance the place to champion such a movement? No, not especially. Not if it doesn’t serve the story. Am I a little disappointed by this conclusion, because I’d already begun pondering how I might work STIs into upcoming books? Naturally. But in the end, I’ve decided the issue is more a curiosity than a cause for outcry. Something interesting to discuss and dissect, but probably not much more. Not aside from the inspiration for one super awesome title for a blog post, that is.

*Ridley tipped me off to the one book she could think of where a main character has an STI—Erin McCarthy’s Flat Out Sexy, in which, I’m told, the hero has been left infertile by gonorrhea. Sold!


Posted in Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Writing for Fun and Profit

I woke up this morning not having written my wonko-post, not having an idea for one, but then I saw Jane at Dear Author’s announcement. (If you missed it, she writes as Jen Frederick.) So it seemed like a good time to talk about pen names and secrets and writing experiments.

I’ve been pretty quiet on social media lately.

The reason was a combination of things. It started during the Great Hibernation of Late 2014, where I basically slept all day. All freaking day. Not an exaggeration.

Turns out it was depression. I didn’t feel sad, though. Just tired.

When I (mostly) (kind of) recovered from that, I was busy working my ass off to make up for all that I hadn’t done in those few months. It was hard to justify spending time on twitter, especially when a lot of the people I had chatted with were going through life changes and weren’t online much.

The other thing that happened was at the beginning of 2015 I decided to make this my Year of Focus.

I haven’t been big on resolutions in past years, but I knew I needed to make a change. The catalyst was financial, but this impacts all areas of my life—including happiness and sleep and depression.

If your business has two products, which one do you cut? And which one do you double down on? What if they both take the same amount of time and money and effort, but one earns 10X the other?

In this case, the low performer is the Amber Lin pen name. There are some exceptions to this. My debut sold well, especially considering the original price tag, and the second sold okay. More recently the rock star series does well, but while our writing efforts are split pretty evenly, Shari is the driving force behind marketing that.

For the past few years I’ve supported myself primarily through my other pen name, Skye Warren. I never meant for that to happen. The pen name started as an experiment, a way for me to see what book discovery was like for someone with no platform while I got my “real” pen name off the ground. But Skye Warren earned more, by large margins, while I actually poured more time and money into Amber Lin, year after year.

Business is business…unless it’s writing. I didn’t want to give up Amber Lin. I fought with myself about it, a lot over the years. I held onto the hope that this would be the book, the series, the genre, that would finally work for her.

It never happened though.

And business is business, even if it’s writing. So my Year of Focus, the reason why it needed an important name with capital letters, means not writing as Amber Lin anymore.

I’m going to revise and rebrand and re-release the Lost Girls series as Skye Warren books. I think they’ll fit just fine with the other Skye books. The rock star books are the ones left hanging, but they run on their own rockstar-centric audience now, one without much crossover to other Amber books. And I’ll probably move them to Skye eventually too.

The Year of Focus is about doing what I need to do, for myself, for my family, for our finances, for my mental health, so I can have time to breathe, so I can have time to play and rest and watch the occasional TV show, so I’m not constantly afraid of slipping into a half-comatose state again. But it’s also hard to let go of things that I’ve wanted for so long. The Year of Focus is about ambition but it’s also about giving up. It’s about balance, even though I’m not sure what that is.

The relationship between words and money is a complicated one. Whatever I’m writing is alternately the best and worst thing I’ve ever written, destined to be my bestseller or my biggest flop. Every book is the book of my heart, one specific piece of it, a snapshot in time.

As a community, the romance genre is a little more forgiving of writers who write “for money” than some other literary circles. But even here, I repeatedly see the idea of selling out, that trends are inherently bad, that real writers don’t do it for the money. That you can write your dirty fetish erotica to pay the rent as long as you have a poorly selling pseudo literary book to counter it. I dislike that dichotomy, I don’t believe in it, but in a way I’ve also lived it out with these two names, even though Amber Lin has always written dirty books. The Year of Focus is about stopping that, about writing and working fully as Skye Warren, these dirty books of my dark, dark heart.

So, that is what I’ve been up to. What about you?? Any secrets you want to share? Today is the day, apparently :)

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 10 Comments