A Bitch Too Far

The other day, a friend on Twitter said I ought to “…write an ex-con romance. Where the heroine’s the ex-con. And she totally did the crime. A bad one.”

Sure, no problem! There are lots of ways to make even heinous crimes forgivable, even those committed out of spite or greed. Come on—crimes of passion? Lemme just get my brainstorming notebook…

This friend also went on to dub me the “Master of Unlikable Heroines.” And this friend knows heroines—she’s a connoisseur of the romance genre. She loves romance, loves it as she loves the Bruins—utterly and fully and with such ferocity and thoroughness that she’s earned the clout to mock that which she loves when it lets her down. And maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think she meant the title as a slight.

And even if she had… Well, I earned it. Let’s take inventory.

Between myself and evil conjoined romance-writing twin Meg Maguire, our heroines have done some pretty questionable stuff. They’ve had an abortion (off-screen, in the past); they’ve cheated on their live-in boyfriend (with spurious permission, on-screen); they’ve done time in a mental institution; they’ve slept with someone’s lover after said someone was nice enough to fix their car; they’ve paid a male prostitute to take their virginity; they’ve let a sleazy Scotsman go down on them in exchange for cigarettes (kind of); they’ve established their own harem using the proceeds from their alimony settlement; they’ve gotten drunk and attempted to seduce their hero’s brother; they’ve videotaped their boss masturbating with the intent to use the footage as leverage (with said boss’s knowledge); they’ve blackmailed their stalker into being their friend; they’re known for having superior weed; they’ve shelled out good money for strangers to impregnate them; they’ve assaulted someone (in self-defense, off-screen); they’ve drugged animals; they’ve lied about their identity; they’ve robbed their hero in the dead of night…and those last four were all the same heroine. You better believe more than one has slapped the hero and had unprotected sex, and they have a tendency to withhold important information to cover their own asses. They’re kind of a mess. Explains why my DSM-IV-TR’s got more dog-ears and Post-It flags than my Roget’s.

But it’s not willful. It’s not any kind of statement or commentary I’m looking to make, no slut/stud or goose/gander double-standard I’ve made it my mission to challenge. My heroines just come out…questionable, sometimes. Often. And those examples were just from erotica and romance. The heroine of my lit fiction manuscript prostituted herself and sold her twin sister’s engagement ring for pill money. (Though the hero’s so thoroughly fucked, he makes her look like a girl scout.)

So yeah, I guess I’ve earned my new title. Do I get a badge?

But I’m curious now—what would I never let my heroines do? I must have some boundaries, some uncrossable lines. So I came up with a list. (Let me preface this list by saying I’ve never yet read a book in which any of these things happens, so none of them are intentionally referencing any existing stories. And if such books exist, I’ll be first in line to read them.)

Here we go. My heroines will never:

1. Torture any living creature for fun. (They may accidentally torture the hero psychologically, but that’s the nature of romance heroes. What fun are they if they’re not tortured?)

2. Sell their child into prostitution. Sell anyone into prostitution, for that matter…their own selves possibly excluded. And I’d totally write a madame heroine, so I’m not particularly opposed to them pimping.

3. Knowingly eat human flesh. Unless maybe it was the romance novel adaptation of Alive. Which really ought to be written.

This list is shaping up to be awfully sadistic, don’t you think?

4. Drive drunk or otherwise frivolously endanger others’ lives, on-screen (could have happened in their past).

5. Protect a child molester or rapist (as a grown woman. I could envision a heroine who dealt with molestation in her own childhood having protected the perpetrator out of fear.)

6. “Steal” a man from another woman. “Stealing” a man is of course impossible, but I can’t imagine writing a heroine who makes it her mission to lure a guy away from an established relationship. She can pine for him and he can wind up with her, but I don’t think I’d let her do anything designed to break up another couple. Feels kind of arbitrary, since I wrote that heroine who basically cheats, but there you go. Oh wait…there’s Natalie. She slept with Shane’s lover, in his bed no less, though she wasn’t trying to steal him… Hrrrm. I should probably retract this one. Otherwise I’m skewing a bit sisters-before-misters-style reverse-sexist.

So…that’s the list. Hrrrm. There should be more things, shouldn’t there? Now I’m starting to wonder how it is I have any readership at all. But for as long as I write about humans, I’ll probably write about screwed up humans as often as not, since the alternative is so terrifically dull.

Still, five and a half unforgivable sins aren’t nearly enough. I’d love to have ten, so that I may post them in my office, commandment-style. So tell me, fellow wonksters—what have I overlooked?

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Soul Deep Nerditude

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Vicki Lewis Thompson’s Nerd series, in which a collection of nerdy heroes—programmers, accountants, lawyers, and more—win the affections of a host of glamorous heroines (including a stripper and a movie star).

Nerd in Shining Armor coverMy affection for the series may have something to do with the fact that some of my very favorite people are nerds. (Me? No, I’m glamorous.) Nerds are underrated. They can fix your computer and do amazing things with duct tape, and they make up for any lack of huge pectorals or fashion sense with abundant knowledge about and enthusiasm for sex.

Also, nerdiness is deliciously wonky. Romance heroes are supposed to be big, strong, rich, and alpha, and nerds, for the most part, are none of those things.

I can’t overestimate my affection for these books—all seven of them. They are funny, smart, cleverly plotted, and shockingly sexy. Still, I love the first one, Nerd in Shining Armor, oodles more than all the rest put together. And I’m pretty sure the way I feel about that first book is all about just how deeply, and genuinely, wonky it really is.

Nerd in Shining Armor is the story of how Genevieve Terrence and Jackson Farley get stranded together on a desert island, after their evil boss, on whom Gen had designs, deliberately crashes their little plane. The description on the back of my paperback edition captures absolutely none of the wonkiness. It doesn’t say, for example that Gen grew up dirt poor in a place known only as “the Hollow” and has forced herself to lose her hills-of-Tennessee accent (which would other wise result in utterances like “Tarnation, Jackson! You’re slower than a coon dog with a full belly.”). It also doesn’t say that Jackson’s clothing choices are on the far side of ugly, or that he is so easily sucked into his programming that he loses track of time completely, rendering him unable to successfully carry off a relationship. But all those details are the essence of what makes Nerd in Shining Armor such an amazing book.

What distinguishes Nerd in Shining Armor from the books that follow it is that Jackson is not merely a nerd on the surface but a nerd to the core. His nerdiness is also his wound, the mask he wears, the flaw that prevents him from connecting with women (and by extension, all of humanity). Another book in the series I loved, Nerd Nerd Gone Wild coverGone Wild, involves a private investigator and bodyguard who dresses up as a nerd in order to stay close to the woman he’s charged with protecting. But he’s not really a nerd. He’s an alpha hero dressed up as a nerd—a fake nerd, in other words. His nerdiness doesn’t penetrate—no, really!—to the core of who he is. The book is still good—it’s still funny, cleverly plotted, and sexy. But it’s not poignant, because its hero doesn’t suffer as a result of who he is. He doesn’t have to come to terms with how hiding in his work has separated him from the rest of the world. And for me, that adds up to the difference between an A+/Desert Isle Keeper experience and a solid B+.

The other books in the series all deal in faux nerdiness, to differing degrees. In one, a stockbroker is no longer nerdy once he takes off his hat with ear flaps. In another, a lawyer’s nerdiness goes no deeper than his obsession with Bigfoot. There was no true social ineptitude, and more to the point, no real rift between the hero and the rest of humanity. I missed Jackson’s real, honest to goodness nerdiness—his lack of attention to appearances, his inability to tune into the nuances of human interaction, his scheduling ineptitude, his self-esteem issues, his loneliness. You can’t, in short, fake wonkiness. A hero either is, or isn’t, genuinely wounded. Wearing the clothes won’t cut it.

What about you? Which is your favorite Nerd book? Do you like ‘em nerdy, or nerdier? And does wonky woundedness enter into your calculations?



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Realism, Romance, and Wonk-o-Mance

As Serena pointed out in the comments to her recent post, Why We Like It Wonky, romance is a convention-bound genre. She wrote:

When I started writing romance, I’d read maybe fifty books in the genre, and I didn’t yet understand how important the “soft” constraints of the genre were. Meaning, yeah, there aren’t very many hard constraints. Any hero, any heroine, a happy ending. And really, shouldn’t you be able to wrest a happy ending out of just about any situation? But then there are all these other genre-expectation constraints, having to do with what typical readers want to read.

The soft constraints — they are many in number. Consider the sort of people and relationships described in the list below, which comes from the submission sheet for Harlequin’s Kimani Romance line:

  • The hero and heroine should be single — not in a relationship at all, recently engaged, recently divorced (not just separated), widowed or exiting a relationship.
  • The hero and heroine should not be shown as sexually or emotionally involved with anyone else at the start of the romance.
  • The hero should exhibit good character and not be abusive or violent toward the heroine, misogynistic, dishonest, amoral or engage in criminal behavior.
  • The hero and heroine should be sympathetic characters to the reader. They should be educated and successful or on their way to success.
  • Explicit and excessive profanity in the text and dialogue is not permitted.
  • Condoms and safe sex should be used in intimate scenes where the hero and heroine are not married or not yet in an exclusive relationship.
  • Drug use or alcohol abuse by the hero or heroine is not permitted. Use by secondary characters should be limited as well. Descriptions of violence should be kept to a minimum.
  • Unless the story line has been approved by your editor, the heroine should not be pregnant before engagement or marriage. All children of the heroine and the hero — past and present — must be conceived within the confines of a long-term relationship, during an engagement or marriage.
  • Unless the story line has been approved by your editor, the heroine or hero should: be between their early 20s and late 30s; not have children when the story opens; not be married to each other at the beginning of the novel; and not live together before having an exclusive commitment, engagement or marriage.

I’ll concede that this is a particularly strict set of rules, and that it applies more to category romance (series romance like Harlequin’s various lines, or the new Indulgence line about to launch from Entangled) than to the genre as a whole. But certainly, romance as a genre is at least softly constrained by the requirement that heroes and heroines be sexually, emotionally, educationally, professionally, and verbally upstanding. Which, when you think about it, is a lot of upstandingness.

Literary fiction is not nearly so demanding. Lit fic protagonists are allowed to lie, to be adulterous, to have sex with strangers without using reliable birth control, to puke on train platforms and sit on toilets. In literary fiction, characters can do whatever people do.

But romance is an escapist medium, so of course it makes sense for it to be bound by a different set of rules. If romance novels mirrored real life, they wouldn’t be romance novels. There’s a promise of comfortable fantasy implicit in the genre — or even explicit, as when we talk about the “Harlequin promise” — and when that promise is violated, readers get upset.

Justifiably so, at times. When you mess with a convention-bound genre, sometimes what you end up with is just that — a mess. I read a category romance novel once in which I couldn’t figure out who the hero was supposed to be. The man having sex with the heroine in the first chapter was one possibility, but then he left the novel for eight or ten chapters, and another man came into view who had numerous sort-of caring, highly sexed-up thoughts about the heroine. He got several scenes in his point of view (whereas the initial hero candidate had no point-of-view scenes), which led me to believe that he was the real hero. Then — and this was the clincher for me — he had hot, mutually orgasmic sex with the heroine. Hero! I concluded.

And yes, I was slightly disturbed at that point, because the heroine had yet to break up with her boyfriend, and hero-candidate-the-second hadn’t said or thought anything particularly loving or tender about her. But the remainder of the novel would resolve those problems, right?

Wrong. Hero-candidate-the-first returned, and the plot veered sharply to the right. Hero-candidate-the-second got the boot, his point of view disappearing from the novel altogether. The heroine went swimming in a cesspool of guilt and was (sort of) made to atone for her infidelity. The “real” hero got some point-of-view scenes and figured out how to forgive his cheating woman. There was an unconvincing happy ending.

Let me tell you, when I finished that book, I would’ve gladly lit it on fire, so thoroughly had it confused and disappointed me. Which is to say that from the reader’s point of view, genre conventions are not to be trifled with.

And yet wonk-o-mance frequently, cheerfully, thoroughly trifles with them, with delightful results. As Serena put it, “I love wonkomance because it’s a reminder that sometimes books defy those soft expectations and still get embraced by romance readers.” Wonk-o-mance gives us the sort of story that encourages us to invest emotionally in the passionate affair of an unemployed ex-con with, say, a seen-it-all, done-it-all rodeo buckle bunny. (Quick! Somebody write me that book!)

There are two varieties of wonk-o-mantical convention tampering that I find particularly fascinating. The first is the use of the less-accessible heroine (or hero — though I’ll focus here on the heroine).

In an April 2011 New Yorker profile, comedic actress Ana Faris talked a lot about the rules of romantic comedy, many of which also apply to romance novels. She said, “As a lead in a romantic comedy, you have to make the women love you and the guys fall in love with you. It forces your choices to be cutesey and safe, which is why women are always falling down, rather than grabbing their tits and saying, ‘F*ck you, bitches!'”

Romance novel heroines are similarly confined in the cutesey, safe box. They hardly ever say things like, “F*ck you, bitches!” And this is because writers of romance are advised that the reader (who is always presumed to be a woman) ought to want to marry the hero, and she should feel as though the heroine is her new best friend. This soft constraint — The hero and heroine should be sympathetic characters to the reader – pushes authors to create heroines who are less unique.

Nor is it simply that the heroine must be reliably cutesey and safe. She must also, according to the soft constraints of romance, be accessible. The constraint goes well beyond any external characteristics of the characters — beyond the Kimani guidelines quoted above — to the level of craft. Creating sympathetic heroines in romance requires deep point of view and immediate, complete revelation of motivations.

Readers expect to know what the heroine is thinking, pretty much always. From the first scenes of the novel, they expect to be given the details of her past and to learn why she’s behaving as she is. And, most important, they expect this access to her perspective to give them the information they need in order to like her.

Wonk-o-mance, by contrast, occasionally gives us less-accessible or even inaccessible heroines. Meg Maguire’s recent release, Headstrong, comes to mind. This novel’s heroine, Libby, is brash and often irritating. Whereas the typical heroine is a girl’s girl, never happier than when she’s exchanging pedicures with her best buddies and dishing about a man, Libby doesn’t even particularly like other women, and they certainly don’t like her. She lives on a boat and showers at a gym. She’s very intelligent, but lazy about it. She flirts outrageously, makes a public spectacle of herself, and takes advantage of people she likes. For the first half of the novel, it’s challenging to identify with Libby. But she’s interesting.

Equally interesting is the process of watching Maguire peel back Libby’s layers one at a time — the way that she walks the reader through a closer identification with the heroine at the same time that the heroine opens up emotionally to the novel’s hero. It’s a very different sort of emotional trajectory for the reader, and a very different sort of story. Not a romance. A wonk-o-mance.

And a wonk-o-mance, I’d argue, that finds a different, equally legitimate line to skate between realism and escapism. Headstrong delivers a powerful, affecting love story, but it delivers it with a heavier dose of realism than genre-conforming romance ever can. Rather than present perfect, lovable people with perfect, lovable problems, Maguire gives us a heroine who’s kind of a pain in the ass. A heroine who reminds me of a couple people I’ve known, and struggled with, and ultimately loved — people who deserved to be loved, warts and all.

The other pathway from romance to wonk-o-mance that interests me has to do with dialogue. The romance genre requires characters to talk about how they feel. At a bare minimum, they need to have an honest conversation at the book’s emotional resolution that clears up their differences, opens their hearts, and leads to the happy-ever-after. In most romance, the characters talk about their feelings a lot.

Realistic? Hmm. Sort of, sort of not. Depends on who you’ve fallen in love with, I guess, and what your personal tolerance level is for stripping away all your emotional defenses and inviting somebody who you don’t yet know well to stab you in the heart. I guess we’ve all got to do it if we want to have emotionally fulfilling relationships, but I’d also venture to guess that most people don’t ever have conversations with their beloveds that reach the romance novel level of soul baring. Not stone-cold sober, anyway.

This is another way in which wonk-o-mance veers away from the genre toward greater realism. The conflict in many of Theresa Weir’s romances — Amazon Lily, Long Night Moon, Cool Shade — depends upon the hero and heroine’s refusal to talk about what they’re feeling, despite the obvious depth of their emotional connection. When Corey, the heroine of Amazon Lily, realizes she’s in love with the hero, Ash, she immediately thinks something along the lines of, “Well, at least I have the good sense not to tell him. I’m not stupid.”

Likewise, Isabel Sharpe has a series of three novels for Harlequin Blaze with a rather wonk-o-mantic subplot in which two older, post-divorce characters meet, fall for each other, and refuse to talk about their attraction for three books, until finally they fess up toward the end of the series. They’re afraid, you see. Love is scary. Love is risky, and these people are cowards. Like me. Sharpe’s series was good, but it was the subplot that kept me reading, and it was the subplot’s resolution that really satisfied me.

You see, it turns out that I like my romance with a stiff shot of realism. I like it when romance novelists shed some of the soft conventions of the genre and experiment with what happens when they blend the realism of literary fiction with the escapism of romance.

The results are occasionally a train wreck, but when it works, it rocks my world. And I know I’m not the only one.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 11 Comments