Constraints and Freedom: The Wonky Appeal of Category Romance

People love to slag off romance, and they love to slag off category romance most of all. “Those books are all the same,” they’ll say. Forgettable. Trashy. Full of the same ol’, same ol’ recycled tropes, time after time.

But it was category romance that first pulled me into reading and writing romance, and as Serena Bell pointed out in a her post on Romance, Mystery, and the Blues, the very conventions of category romance — the structure that makes a Harlequin Blaze a Harlequin Blaze, or a Presents a Presents — provide a form that inspires endless variation. Form is a rich soil for innovation to bloom . . . and for writers to push at the boundaries of what is acceptable.

(On this note, Robin’s recent letter of opinion at Dear Author broke down form, formula, and genre in really interesting ways that I’m still thinking about.)

In the interest of exploring the territory of category romance, convention/constraint, and the freedom to be wonky, I’ve asked writers of category romance for Harlequin — all of whom also have written / are writing single-title books for New York-based publishers — some questions. Please welcome Maisey Yates, Molly O’Keefe, and Wonkomance’s own Meg Maguire (aka Cara McKenna) to Wonkomance!

Let’s begin with the limits — or lack thereof — in the category form. Do you find the form of category romance to be inherently limiting, liberating, or some of both?

MollyOKeefe1Molly O’Keefe: I think it’s a little of both, but in the best kind of way. The form and expectation of category romance allows the highest drama — which can be pretty wonky, really. Writing category allowed me to mix the realistic with the fantastic and the fairy tale. Basically, if it added conflict, I could write it. I had a lot of freedom in terms of plot, as long as it served the romance and the conflict.

The only pushback I ever got from readers was on my characters — I think there is a very recognizable archtype that readers want from category romances. Particularly heroines.

meg-maguire-headshotMeg Maguire: ‘Limiting’ isn’t quite the word, for me, either. ‘Challenging’ is more apt. So challenging, it took over a year and three rejected proposals to even sell my second Blaze! Category guidelines are far more nuanced than they appear, even to authors who’ve managed to sell a book.

When I’m writing erotica or erotic romance, it seems like I can pretty much get away with anything, in theme, length, mood, plot-to-boning ratio, character despicability… With category, there are more parameters. Word count, for one—which I actually love. My first drafts are always 5–10,000 words too long, so by the time I hand in the finished book, that sucker is tight!

Another restriction is that the hero and heroine (of which there is exactly one each and both are heterosexual) must be reasonably likeable, with palatable flaws, which I sometimes struggle with. Being a skeptical sort of gal, my heroines tend to skew toward being a bit hard and mouthy, so I have to make a conscious effort to soften them up.

The best part of writing category for me is that it’s a relief to work with guidelines and structure, after hammering away at an erotica project. There’s a security that comes with knowing, “Okay, I need to make sure I’ve got this, this, this, and this, and by the final couple chapters, I need to get to this point.” That can be comforting, especially if I’ve just finished an erotica that’s had me flapping around in the wind by my fingertips, with no conventions tethering me to a sense of certainty in the storytelling.

MG_5360-e1344272210536-200x300Maisey Yates: I actually find category freeing. What we have are ‘promises’ of the line, or what I consider to be anchors. The basic elements our readers count on to make a book that’s recognizable as being part of its particular line. Beyond that, we have the freedom to push so many boundaries, because those other boundaries are still in place. This gives us tons of freedom within the parameters set before us.

Category romance is so character driven, due in large part to the word count. So we might often work with familiar themes, but because it’s so character focused, each story should really feel different, because every character is different.

What have your experiences been with writing single-title as compared to category? Do you find single-title to be more open to wonkiness, or is it just as constrained by form, or more — and if so, are these the same forms, or do you have to adopt different forms moving from one publisher to another?

caught_134MM: My single-title romances are certainly wonkier than my Blazes, but I don’t believe that precludes the option to be wonky within a category. I think I just tend to play by the so-called rules with Blaze, because I’m still a fairly new author, and I haven’t yet earned the privilege of breaking major conventions—not until I’ve proven I can consistently deliver stories that meet reader expectations.

That said, I think all my books will naturally be somewhat wonky. I mean, look at Caught on Camera—my first category romance sale, which I wrote by trying desperately to create a textbook Blaze so I could get a gig writing for that line. But despite my best efforts, that book is a hot mess (though it seems to have worked, somehow), and it definitely isn’t the Blaziest of Blazes. It got called “different” left and right, which had never been my aim! Even when I try to color inside the lines, I wind up with crayon mashed in the carpet.

MY: For me, I’ve found [single-title] to be more limited in terms of wonk. But then, I’m writing small-town contemporary romances (with lots of sex), so wonk isn’t necessarily a reader expectation or desire. I’m sure someone writing paranormal or erotic would give a different answer. To be honest, in my opinion it’s really just as constrained as category romance. Not in general, but specifically, I’m writing a certain type of romance. Readers have expectations. I have freedom, but I have to keep with a certain brand. A brand that is, in this case, dependent on me, versus one Harlequin has created, but there is still a brand.

crazything2001MOK: I think depends on what you consider wonky. The fairy-tale aspect of category romance is pretty wonky to me. On the other side of that though, I have been able to push every single possible envelope I could think of in terms of character and backstory with my single titles. Likeability can take a while to be created, or can take a backseat to interesting. I’ve had a lot of fun with that.

How do your editors at Harlequin respond when you take your stories in a risky or different direction? Do you get pushback or applause when you write something that makes you think, “Hmm, they might not go for this?”

MM: I actually had a call with my editor, Brenda Chin [of Harlequin Blaze], recently, on this very topic. Brenda is not shy about risk-taking. I asked if I could break a romance rule and let the heroine get hot and heavy with a guy who’s not the hero on-screen (after she’d already gotten hot and heavy with the hero). I really wanted this scene, to prove to the heroine that her dream date might have everything she thinks she wants, but if he can’t offer that passionate connection she had with the bad-idea hero, all his other selling points won’t count for shit.

Brenda suggested a compromise—sure, they can get hot and heavy, but stop short of third-base. Her rationale? The heroine, like any woman, should hesitate to get into some under-the-jeans action with a guy she isn’t feeling it with. So it wasn’t even the idea of the heroine getting on-stage sexual with two guys that gave her pause. She’s very open to risk-taking, as long as it aids the story.

MOK: I wrote a couple of books for Wanda Ottewell at Superromance that I thought, ‘there’s just no way she’ll say yes to this,’ and she totally did. I think the editors putting out six books a month have to look at the whole spectrum of what their line can deliver. There’s going to be some authors and some books that are right in the pocket and others that are going to work the fringe. I’ve always thought the smart editors try to keep that spectrum fairly wide, perhaps not deep out there on the fringe but they try to test the limits of that line.

MY: I have the best relationship with my editor, and she always, always on board with me pushing boundaries and being edgy. She’s pretty unhappy with me if I turn in something too expected, to be honest! If anything, she pushes me to take things a step further.

5HPWhat about from readers? Do you find that your most successful category books are the ones that are riskier/different, or do readers seem to want the books that fall most squarely in their comfort zones?

MM: I can’t really speak to this one, only having one category romance released at the moment. I’ve got January, March, and August Blazes (and possibly a winter one, too) coming in 2013, so ask me again in a year and I may have an answer!

MOK: Superromance has been a line in flux for as long as I’ve written for them. They’ve had a few different cover redesigns and the word count was moving around so it’s hard to say what people were reacting too.

MY: I find that not all of my books are for everyone. Recently a reviewer said I was a “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” I think it’s because I like to explore different themes. Sometimes shocking themes. I recently had a hero who was self-harming, and people seem to really love him. On the flip side, I have a hero who I consider much less edgy, a prince on the verge of a convenient engagement, who people have had an issue with as they consider his actions with the heroine to be infidelity. So, the long and the short is, no. Not everyone likes every book though, because not every crazy thing — or even non-crazy thing — is for everyone. And you can’t predict the problems people will have with a book either! The most virulent piece of hate mail I’ve ever had was over me having a 27-year-old virgin heroine. I write Presents! That’s pretty normal, and of all the things I’ve done, not something I thought would inspire vitriol.

One interesting note is I did have a very minimal amount of…eh…rude mail regarding my hero who was black. But I just got my royalty statement and that book is by far my bestselling book that hasn’t yet been released in the US. So even though I *heard* some negative feedback, it wasn’t reflected in sale. Ultimately, I think every risk is worth taking and every boundary worth testing, because it’s what makes any book, category or not, interesting.

Thanks for these thoughts, Meg, Molly, and Maisey. Such an interesting set of brains you have. 

And now a question for the readers: do you read category? What do you see in those books, wonk-wise, and how does it resonate with what these authors are saying?

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 7 Comments

Lovable Losers and a Free Read

Lately I’ve had losers on the brain. Those blue-collar, struggling guys who can’t catch a break and the heroine who gives them one. Yum….

And it seems like they’re coming up in the romance world. Well, I’m writing one such hero in my romantic suspense right now, but aside from that I found Charlotte Stein’s amazing story and then there was Bonnie Dee’s new release with a janitor hero. Which reminded me of my story which appeared in the Felt Tips anthology but which I’m reprinting here for your wonky reading pleasure. Enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

by Amber Lin

Marianne Childers was not a lonely woman. She was barely a woman at all.

She was a mathematician, an engineer, a genius. An overblown calculator.

The long hand slid into place, marking eight o’clock. It didn’t make a sound – it wasn’t that kind of a clock – but she felt the tick down her spine. The drone of the vacuum oscillated back and forth, back and forth, ever closer. Any second now.

Her forefinger nudged the eighth paperclip into place. Patent shoes shuffled on the harsh mat of office-grade carpet. The proof she’d been solving, failing to solve, mocked her with its assumptions, its implications. She turned the paper over.

Silence, the flick of a switch. Worn workboots that she knew by heart squeaked to her door.

He knocked. The only permission he requested.

“Come in,” came out as a croak. She cleared her throat.

The door opened and she drank in the sight of him. Tousled black hair, ruddy cheeks peppered with stubble, a rumpled janitor’s uniform. Her lover’s eyes were as greedy as hers, stealing the breath from her lungs. The lock clicked shut.

“Quintate la ropa,” he said, in his smoke-roughened baritone.

The first time he’d said it to her, six months ago, she’d gaped at him. She hadn’t known what the words meant, though the disdainful look at her denim jumper had said enough. This time she didn’t hesitate. She stood and unbuttoned each plastic button from her white dress shirt. She unzipped the black suit pants, kicking off her shoes at the same time. Her sensible all-day-support white bra came off next, then her white cotton blend panties.

Marianne stood, naked, exposed, her only shield the thick metal desk. Her only weapons the papers and paperclips, neatly arranged in stacks and rows.
That was an illusion. For seven days and six nights of the week, this office was her own. Her body was her own. On one night, they were his. Juan was his name – his nametag said so – but she preferred to think of him as him. He wasn’t just male, he was the male to her female.

He circled the desk, inspecting. Taking inventory, taking stock.

“Tus manos sobre el escritorio.”

Her hands tentatively touched the desk. At the approval in his black eyes, she flushed and placed them more firmly. This was where it got tricky, with the commands that he liked to change.
She could learn Spanish. She already knew Cantonese and Russian, in addition to English. Not to mention the programming languages. Spanish would be simple. She forced herself not to look up the words each week, not to search for patterns in her speech that would help her translate them. That wasn’t the point. If they could communicate, everything would change.
“Ha estado esperando por mi, eh? Te he extrañado.” He smiled, showing a row of even white teeth and a single gold tooth. The brown skin around his eyes crinkled, but his eyes were flat.
She didn’t know what he said, but she could imagine. You like being a slut, eh? You don’t have a choice.

Two fingers turned her chin to face forward. That she could understand.

His heat burned against her back, but she kept her gaze ahead. Callused palms held up her breasts, shaped them. The fabric of his shirt pressed against her back. She thought she could feel the tiny presses of the buttons, the outline of his embroidered nametag on her bare back.

Rough hands stroked down her sides. Down, down to her hips, the soft, pale skin that only he had ever touched. Lower to the backs of her thighs, her knees, tickling her. Up between her thighs.
“Quieres que te toque tu coño?” Thick fingers stroked her core, feather-light.

Will you be a good whore for me? was what she imagined.

“Yes,” she breathed. She would do anything.

Gently, slowly, his fingers pressed into her. Her eyes fell shut. She could feel them unraveling, the constraints that bound her. She wasn’t smart or competent or professional. She was just a woman, being pleasured by a man. Being taken by one.

His fingers were slick. It was her – she was wet. He felt inside her until he found the spot, the one that made her hips rock forward, then he retreated. A tease.

He vibrated his fingers. No, it was her again. She quivered above him, around his fingers, like a tuning fork pitched just for him. He was the master, he was her maestro.

A soft roll of her hips asked for more. A whimper begged him.

His fingers slipped out. She groaned.

The same fingers, wet, reached and turned the paper over, the one covered with her halting scribbles and confused diagrams. She wondered what it looked like to him. It wasn’t even English. It was logical. Except it was illogical. She didn’t want to think.

“Por que trabajas tan dura?” he said, curious.

Why are you so stupid? she heard. She shook her head, didn’t know.

“Es necesario que te duele, no?” he said, resigned.

You want me to hurt you, no? she heard. She nodded.

Her fingers tightened on the cold, block edge of the desk.


The heart of his palm slapped her skin. Air whooshed against stinging skin, and then he hit her again. Again and again, he spanked her, punished her, fixed her. The pain poured hot and cold through her, she couldn’t keep up.

Her confused scribbles teased the edges of her vision. She shut her eyes.

Soft grunts escaped her in time with his blows. They shouldn’t have been feminine, but they were. There was nothing more womanly than to be wanted by a man, being love-hit by one.

And when she thought she’d had enough, he hit her harder and faster. Her breath sawed out of her throat, distracting her. She was so close, not to orgasm, but to release. It wasn’t a particular blow that did it, it was the steady, pounding rhythm, each beat push-push-pushing it out of her.

The words poured out, love words mixed with logical ones. She wasn’t speaking them as much as she was releasing them, letting them spill over. Words trapped, confined, hidden.

I thought of you, she told him, I couldn’t think of anything else.

Apply transposition, she whispered, doesn’t work.

I want you to do the worst things to me, she cried, hurt me.

A contradiction, she muttered, proof by exhaustion.

I love you. She opened her eyes.

He turned the paper over, the one with her work, all wrong, the one with his fingerprints damp from her sex, and slammed it down across the desk, scattering the paperclips. Her fingers loosened their hold on the desk, itching to arrange the paperclips, but a sharp slap on her hip stopped her. Her hands tightened, but her whole body canted forward. Order them, fix them.

She held tight. The rip of foil was her reward. A smooth, blunt tip prodded her, then slid inside. The thin metal lines were touching, scrambled, messy, but she forced herself to leave them alone. If this was a test, she would pass. If this was the proof he needed of his control over her, then he would have it.

But it didn’t matter soon. Each thrust broke her concentration, speared her focus, engulfed her mind. Then his angle changed and she was gone. No longer her, but her body only. Female. Sex. Hotness.

Hips tilted back – more, more. Her whole body waited, tensed, wound.

“Please,” she whispered. Her voice was a plea in any language.

He thrust harder, rammed into her, rattling the metal desk. Light blanketed her vision as she came, glinting off the tangled metal lines.

A rumbly groan came from behind that made her clench around latex. Hot, open lips sucked the corner of her neck as he came.

The office came back into focus. They breathed together, recovered together. Then a hand, the one that had hit her, had caressed her, damp with sweat, pried her own off the edge and set it flat on the desk. It was permission. Grateful, she moved each paperclip back in line, even while he softened inside her.

He pulled out and away. The whisk of a zipper concluded the argument. Q.E.D.

Her whole body sagged in anticipation. He would leave now. Marianne knew the path he would take. She knew what the back of his head looked like as he left the room. She remembered the finality of the door clicking shut.

But those things didn’t happen, not yet. He stopped and turned back. His eyes were not flat anymore – they burned.

“Eres mío, Maria,” he said.

She didn’t have to understand Spanish to understand what he said. It was a universal language – ownership, possession. Love. It was a declaration, when they had made none. It was emotion, when this was sex.

He was taut, expectant.

Worse, she would fail him.

A funny feeling tickled behind her nose, poked pins behind her eyes. She only hoped he wouldn’t think her rejection was because of his job or his money or his language. No, it was because he was a man, and she had not learned to be a woman. She had not accepted that she could be one for more than one night in a week. Not yet.

The disappointment hung in the air like dew. But there wasn’t anger.

“Maybe next time, mi amor,” he said, and slipped out. The door clicked shut. Only then did she realize why she could understand him – he’d spoken in English. She shivered.

The harsh staccato words ticked like a metronome. Next time, next time.

The foreign words flowed over her, through her. Mi amor.

One straightforward, logical. The other soft, beautiful. Could she have both? Was it possible? She tested the words on her tongue, whispering, “Next time, mi amor.”

Marianne sat, pressing the heated skin of her ass against the cool leather of her swivel chair. The wetness at her core – hers, his – slickened the seat. She solved her proof, naked, swaying slightly to the music of the vacuum cleaner, back and forth, back and forth, taking her lover away. A small, private smile curved her sex-flushed lips.

Until next time.

My love.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 8 Comments

Enduring Wonk and the LBD

Ask a random sampling of romance fans for their favorite “classic” titles and chances are high that many of them will say “Pride and Prejudice.”

Then a certain percentage of the rest will roll their eyes, and eventually carnage could ensue. Really, you should be careful throwing loaded questions at random romance fans.

But if, like me, you’re among the fans, you really need to check out The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (if you aren’t already hooked on it like the sweet, sweet addictive video crack that it is). It is a modern retelling of the story in the form of a vlog by Lizzie Bennet (with guest stars), and it’s brilliant.

The short reason to watch it: It’s hilarious, and I hear that’s true even if you don’t know the original book well. And since it’s in serial form (and the modernization has created some opportunities for surprise and spoilers) you get the fun of playing along on twitter as the story unfolds (yeah, there’s a twitter RP to accompany the videos). If that’s reason enough, go now! Go watch! Get caught up quickly, because things are just getting really interesting!

The long reason to watch it: like I said, it’s brilliant. The casting is inspired. The producers and writers have a really deft hand, a stunning grasp of the source material, and are masterful at balancing all the comedy, awkwardness and poignancy. And it’s maybe the best example I’ve ever seen of cutting right to the heart of why people continue to love this story. At its heart, though many an English major would love to argue this point, this book isn’t about the constraints society puts on our choices, or how we are a product of our times. It isn’t about a fledgling proto-feminist Lizzie, and it isn’t even really a cautionary tale about Lydia and the evils of straying from the path. It is a romance. It is about the way love persists despite all the other societal crap, often despite our best intentions and sometimes even our own best interests. And sometimes that screws us completely, and sometimes it works out well, but either way the love is all that matters in the end. Even wonky love between two characters who are (let’s face it) not behaving very well throughout most of the story. - The only version of Pride and Prejudice I'll watch is the one with Colin Firth.The LBD has updated the externals, but the core dynamics of the story are still the same. They are attracted to one another (kind of), infuriated by one another, have vast misconceptions about one another that are supported more by emotion than fact. Neither of them wants to back down from an established position. But love conquers all. Or I assume it will; so far, we’re only just a little past the part where Lizzie visits Pemberley again and runs into Darcy unexpectedly.

Along with some of the other characters, Lydia also has her own vlog – now partly coopted by George Wickham. It’s increasingly hard to watch, because you know no good will come of it. But it’s mesmerizing. Oh, Lydia.

Wonko favorite Courtney Milan has a lively tumblr upon which she discusses the LBD, probably far more articulately than I could ever hope to. So check that out too!

I leave you with Jane’s portrayal of Darcy fake-texting to avoid interaction…which will make much sense after you’ve seen the LBD :-)


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 1 Comment