Questioning the Happily Ever After in Romance in 2018

Does romance always have to end this way?

I’ve only written one romance, Been Searching for You, but there is a romantic element to everything I write, so I do (sometimes reluctantly) identify as a romance author. The Romance Writers of America (RWA), of which I am a member, will hate me for saying this publicly, but I don’t buy the rule that they espouse that says in order to be a romance, a book has to have a happy ending (a happily ever after or HEA) or at least a happily for now (HFN). They classify anything else as a tragedy or at best a love story, not a romance. *eye roll*

I know I’m going to make a lot of romance writers and readers mad by saying this, but personally think the “romance must have an HEA/HFN” rule is crap created by the publishing industry to condition readers. Now, I love a happy ending as much as the next woman, but some of the greatest love stories ever told did not have a happy ending: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, just to name a few. (I know, I know, those are love stories not romances. Whatever.) In the romance industry documentary Love Between the Covers, author Eric Selinger points out that the 1920s and 1930s were when American publishing began to insist on happy endings in order to distinguish their books from the British version of romance. As I said, artificial.

Anyway, my larger interest in this has to do with a recent Huffington Post article that notes the rising trend of women choosing to remain single on TV. As the article asks:

So what happens when, for the first time in American history, you have a critical mass of unmarried women over the age of 30 who choose to or simply find themselves in a position to build family structures, financially stable careers and homes independently? Do the stories ― even the fictional ones ― we tell about these women expand along with their realities?”

According to the U.S. publishing industry, no. At least not yet.

Not only does this situation call the “traditional” definition of a romance into question, it may beg a bigger question about what the romance industry is saying to single women with this whole need for an HEA/HFA. As a single woman, I’ve felt the pressure inherent in that setup for a long time. (In fact, I wrote Been Searching for You as the happily ever after I haven’t actually experienced.) I’m 38 and have never been married. I haven’t really dated much. Romance books sometimes make me feel inferior because my love life is often non-existent and I’m not sure if I will ever get my own HEA. I honestly don’t have time for a HFA right now; I’m too busy building my career to devote proper time to a relationship. But as a romance author, I also know I’m required to give my characters an HEA or HFN if I want my book to qualify for a RITA (the American romance industry’s version of an Oscar). So I’m conflicted.

For example, I am going to (eventually) write a story in which my heroine, Violetta, is perfectly happy being single and is not letting it stop her from living a very fulfilling life. That is, until her ex, Miles, comes back into her life and she slowly realizes she has room in her life for someone else. Right now I don’t know if it will end in an HEA or HFN, but it will be one of the two. But given the article above, I’m wondering what message I’ll be sending to single women reading the book. I certainly don’t want to take a strong woman and turn her into someone inferior just because she falls in love. I’m hoping I’ll be able to show how Violetta and Miles compliment and strengthen one another and how the romance is a natural evolution for her, rather than her suddenly capitulating to societal demands. To once again quote the Huffington Post article,

Being single, even when you are satisfied with and excited by your life, does not preclude a desire for a romantic relationship that fits.”

Personally, I’d love to write a book where a strong heroine chooses to remain single. But if I do, it won’t qualify as a romance; women’s fiction, maybe. To me, the very fact that this distinction between genres exists is sad. I don’t get why the heroine can’t metaphorically be her own happily ever after. I know I am very happy and if my life were to end today (don’t get any ideas, Universe) I would consider this an HEA or at least an HFN ending, even though I am single. But according to RWA standards, my life story would be a tragedy – maybe a love story for a short period of time in my early 20s – not a romance.

Maybe in the future this will change. The romance industry in America is dealing with a lot right now, such as much bigger issues like racism and consent/harassment in the age of #MeToo, so I don’t expect things to change on this front right away. They may not ever. After all, several generations of women have been conditioned to expect happy endings from romance novels, even if that no longer accurately reflects life for all of us. But then again, they were also conditioned to believe (as an agent once told me) that romances could only be told in third-person POV with alternating chapters from the female/male POV. That is beginning to change, albeit slowly, with a number of successful first-person POV romance authors like Colleen Hoover, Jaime McGuire and Alice Clayton, so maybe this will, too.

Interestingly, the Romantic Novelists Association (of which I am also a member), which is based in Britain, does not have the HEA/HFA rule that RWA does and includes women’s fiction in its purview. So if American romance doesn’t change its definition, at least writers who feel like me will still have a home. (Or maybe I should just move to Britain. That’s never a bad idea!)

For what it’s worth, I have no desire to argue with writers/readers who feel that RWA’s definition is right. I respect that you feel that way. I just ask that you respect that I do not.

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To Trunk, or Not To Trunk

Have you ever heard a writer refer to a “trunk book,” or even “trunking a book”? Although the exact definition seems to change depending on who you ask, the term usually describes a project an author has spent a good deal of time, effort, and often emotional energy on, only to decide–based on any number of reasons–that the book is no longer worth said effort and should be abandoned, for now or even for ever. A trunk book gathers dust (usually metaphorically, in the abyss of one’s hard drive rather than a physical trunk), out of sight and out of mind, hardly ever revisited and rarely revived.

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Now, don’t misunderstand me: a trunk book is not automatically a bad book. They certainly can be (one of mine is 100% a Very Bad Book) but they can also be genre books with a non-existent markets, or good books that didn’t survive querying or submission, or half-baked novels writers simply lost interest in partway through. In fact, I would even wager that most authors have at least one book they trunked and still think of fondly, perhaps dreaming of someday resurrecting it and giving it new life.

My current trunk book count is three (that’s not counting false starts or massive rewrites, which would push the number significantly higher). There is my very first completed novel, which I now know belongs hidden away in the dark and really doesn’t ever need to see the light of day under any circumstances. I actually still quite like my second book, a demon-hunting urban fantasy set in London, but sadly I trailed the market by about 2 years and no one wanted to touch it. The third–a paranormal science fiction (I just made up that genre) set in a city where dreams are forbidden–is very dear to me, especially since it got me into PitchWars and landed me my agent, but I’ve come to realize it would need an overhaul.

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Gods help me, I sold my fourth book. (Hashtag Amber & Dusk, go add it on Goodreads!)

And that catches us up to my current work-in-progress. The story is a loose, Celtic-inspired retelling of Swan Lake, told from the perspective of the “Black Swan.” This book has been difficult from the start, and has taken me waaayyyy longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I started it nearly a year and a half ago, as a distraction from the mind-curdling misery that is editor submission. (Let me tell you, the first few false starts were so angsty you’d think I was fifteen and listening to My Chemical Romance on repeat.) I passed my halfway mark last spring, but every word felt labored, every sentence a struggle. So when I got my revision letter for A&D, I was more than happy to put it aside until this fall.

At which point I opened it up and realized I needed to add a character and change the tense. (When am I going to learn to write in the appropriate tense from the start?) Oh, and no big deal, restructure everything.

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And now, after months of feeling blocked and struggling to get any words whatsoever, I’m finally close-ish to finishing. Like twenty thousand words until “The End.” Tops.

But…I’ll be honest. I’m this close to trunking this book. Even with that finish line in sight, I’ve been falling into the Orphean trap of looking backwards at the chapters I’ve already done. And I’ve completely lost perspective. One minute I’ll be marveling at a turn of phrase or good scene, and the next I’ll be absolutely certain the entire manuscript is a boring, self-indulgent, plot-less dumpster fire. At this point, the only thing preventing me from trunking this book is this irrational thought: “But I’ve never trunked a book I didn’t finish before.” 

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Truman Capote once remarked, on the topic of his last unfinished book he spent twenty years working on, “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” The unfinished draft of the novel was published posthumously.

So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe it’s time I trunk this book.

Do you have any trunk books gathering dust? When do you decide to abandon a project? Let me know in the comment section below!

 

Pre-Order Announcement!

A little while back I shared the cover reveal of my upcoming young adult novel, Blackbird. Well, I’m very happy to announce the publication day and the pre-order links (if you’re so inclined)!

Blackbird

What if YouTube warned of the end of the world? Would we even take it seriously? Or just assume it was some lame, internet hoax?

Maggie has her first college finals to prepare for; she doesn’t have time for pranks and conspiracy theories. But a super flu has broken out on campus and her dorm mate keeps coughing, threatening to get her sick before she can get through the tests and get home for Christmas.

More and more people are coming down with the super flu and the vaccines aren’t working for everyone and when one of her professors is dragged out of the classroom by cops and doctors, Maggie realizes she’s waited too long to leave campus.

Finals are the last thing she should be worrying about—she needs to get home, but can she make it in time?

Coming June 1, 2018!

Pre-order from your favorite retailer now:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords | Kobo | iBooks

Add it on Goodreads now! 

What happens next?

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I was going to title this post “The Whiteness of Romance”, but that seemed a little on-the-nose. Instead, I figure what happens next is just as appropriate, because there’s a lot of stuff going on…

The post I wrote last month – Where is the line, exactly? – was deliberately vague, but now that the issue has resolved, more or less, I want to fill in some of the blanks. I wrote the post about the situation in the world of M/M romance, where Santino Hassell was revealed to be something other than the character in his author bio.

Instead of being a bi dude single father with health and money problems, he/she/they is a husband & wife team with a talent for manipulation and, it seems, very little conscience. In the weeks after my post, the testimonials describing their abusive behavior – in addition to questionable crowd-sourcing support for unlikely health problems – has been really appalling.

I don’t know for sure how many of the accusations are true, but the entity known as Santino Hassell has been dropped by their agent and most of (all of?) their publishers. That’s enough for me.

On the heels of that – like, literally the next week – author Xen Sanders came forward, and in painful detail accused Riptide Publishing of racist practices and sexual abuse. (You can read his full statement here.) His editor has been fired, and a substantial number of Riptide authors have asked for and had the rights to their work returned.

Riptide is (was?) one of the bigger LGBT romance publishers. Their principal editors put out a statement (read it here),vowing to do better, and they’re currently closed to unsolicited submissions.

All in all, it was quite a 1-2 punch for M/M romance.

And then RWA announced the RITA nominees.

The RITAs are the annual awards for published novels, organized by the Romance Writers of America (RWA). Think Academy Awards but for romance. As usual, and to the surprise of no one, the nominees are predominantly white. I did find numbers that suggest there’s a small increase in diversity; Alexis Hall’s blog post on the RITAs historical category goes into some statistics. But still.

But still, no black author has ever won a RITA.

And people are speaking up. Loud.

Maybe the shitstorm in M/M and the takedown of Riptide primed the pump, and maybe the #metoo movement laid some of the groundwork. For sure and for certain, the diversity report put out by The Ripped Bodice, a romance-only bookstore, added fuel to the furror.

This is the second year The Ripped Bodice has put out a diversity report that can be summarized pretty simply. Six of their top ten best sellers are written by authors of color, yet overall, only 6.2 out of every 100 romances published in 2017 were written by an author of color.  That’s down from 7.8/100 in 2016.

Here’s one of their other statistics: “80% of publishers had fewer than 10% of their books written by people of color.” Read the whole report. It’s food for thought. They debunk the most common excuses used to justify the disparity, and give credit to Crimson Romance, who at 29% had the highest percentage of authors of color.

Crimson closed the day the report came out. Not joking.

A few paragraphs ago, I said people – authors – were speaking out, but the thing is, I don’t want to put words in their mouths. Go to twitter and listen to the stories they tell, stories about the shit way they’ve been treated by publishers, editors, and the RWA and its members. Follow Courtney Milan, Rebekah Weatherspoon, or Alyssa Cole, and listen to what they have to say. Follow Xen Sanders. Follow EE Ottoman.

And while you’re listening, buy their books!

Because the best way to prove to a publisher that a book will sell it to buy it. To be honest, I think Ripper says it better than I ever could:

All books.

ETA….so what does happen next? I’d like to think we all wake up and start treating each other like Mr. Rogers thought we should. But…

Meanwhile, take small steps. Read outside your comfort zone. Listen to what the authors of color you know have to say. Systemic change will only happen when a critical mass of individuals push for it. Be part of that critical mass.

ETA2..here’s a link to RWAs statement, “Board Commitment to RITAs and Inclusivity”. And for more ideas on what you can do, check out this statement by the POC Queer Romance Authors Community.