It’s time.

This time last year – April 5th, 2018 – I published a post that, among other things, reflected on the upheaval surrounding the RITA Award nominations.

You can find that post HERE.

The RITAs are the romance genre’s version of the Oscars. They’re sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and if you write romance, getting a RITA nomination is a Very Big Deal. When the awards were announced last year, there was a huge uproar because the majority – the large majority – of the nominees were white.

In years past, authors of color have been nominated and a couple have won RITAs, but no black author has ever won a RITA award.

I finished last year’s post by encouraging everyone to read outside their comfort zone, to buy books by authors of color, and to listen to what authors of color have to say about how they’ve been treated and how they want to be treated.

And then a weird, but not entirely surprising, thing happened.

Nothing.

I mean, I wrote that post with the best of intentions, and in fact I followed my own recommendations, picking up books I might not otherwise have read. The ‘listening’ part didn’t happen, though. Not because I didn’t care, but because…I don’t know…the opportunity didn’t present itself?

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

See, for the last year and a few months I’ve been treasurer of the Rainbow Romance Writer (RRW), the LGBTQIA chapter of the RWA. Last year when the RITA nominations caused such a stir, it was brought to the attention of the RRW board that authors of color view our chapter as unwelcoming. At the time, we put out a statement vowing to change.

Which makes my inaction that much worse, because I could have worked for an opportunity, and I didn’t.

Did I mention that when the RITA nominations were announced this year, they were just as white as in years past? The biggest difference has been the fall-out: authors of color spoke more forcefully, on twitter and on various RWA forums, calling out the Nice White Ladies whose subtle, unexamined racism perpetuates the system.

I am a Nice White Lady.

I care about the usual range of liberal causes, and I want to live in a world where racism isn’t a thing, where we can all let go of that particular piece of baggage.

It’s a nice idea, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.

In the days since the announcement of this year’s RITA nominations, I’ve kept pretty quiet, preferring to read the twitter threads and Facebook posts and show my support through re-tweets and likes. Which is fine, but it’s also a demonstration of the thing I can’t ever let go of.

My own privilege.

Here’s the thing. Once the social media dust settled last year, I was able to put aside these issues and focus on other things. The authors of color I know – even those I consider friends – don’t have that luxury.

This was brought home to me with particular eloquence in this essay on privilege by NBA player Kyle Korver. (HERE‘s the link to his essay.) More than anything else, this paragraph resonated with me, and prompted me to write this post:

What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.

No matter how important I think the fight against racism is, I have the ability to put it aside in a way some of my friends don’t. Hell, I was able to take a whole year off, even after hearing that a group I help run is part of the problem.

It’s a sobering thought.

I’m left asking myself how I’m going to make things different this year. It’s easy to throw things down in a blog post and then let them slide because there’s no accountability. I will say I’m lucky, because the same authors who pointed out that our RRW chapter has issues are willing to work with us, to share their ideas so that we can create a more diverse chapter.

I’ll be working with the other RRW board members to move forward on that dialogue. (Can it be a dialogue when one side is mostly listening?) In addition, the RWA has put together a number of resources for encouraging diversity, and while I don’t want to make a bunch of empty promises, I’ll be exploring what’s there.

I may not be able to change the world, but I can work on myself. I can put more effort into recognizing all the ways the game is rigged in my favor,
in the hope of finding places I can level the playing field, so that next year’s RITA nominations are a celebration of diversity as well as excellence.

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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.

What happens next?

snow nyc GIF by Caitlin Burns-downsized_large

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.

Three Things That Are Rocking My Writing World

Since this blog is primarily about writing, for writers, I’m going to share a few things that are making my writing life easier right now:

POV1) Diving Deep into Deep Point of View – This month-long, online class, led by Rhay Christou over at Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy, is one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my career. (And it was relatively cheap, only $60.) I’ve read books on Deep Point of View before, but there’s nothing like breaking it down in a lesson format and actually applying it to your own work. Plus, you get to learn from Rhay’s feedback and she is obviously a master at Deep POV.

For those who don’t know, Deep POV is when you remove as much authorial interference from your writing as possible so that the end result is that the reader feels like they are in the character’s skin, experiencing everything along with them. It works in both first and third person. This was my first time writing in third person, so it’s been fun to go back and take out all the filter words and stage direction that isn’t needed. It really does make a difference.  I can’t wait to apply these same techniques to my unpublished first person MS and watch them get stronger.

This class seems to be offered twice a year (last time was in November) so if this interests you keep an eye on Margie’s site or follow Margie (@MargieLawson) or Rhay (@RhayChristou) on Twitter to find out when she’ll be teaching it again.

Me taking notes with my smart pen. The pen transmits the to receiver clamped to the top of the page.
Me taking notes with my smart pen. The pen transmits the to receiver clamped to the top of the page, which relays what you are writing to a program on your device.

2) My Smart Pen – I read an article a few months ago about a pen that converts your handwriting into text and was immediately intrigued. You see, I do a LOT of research for my historical fiction novels (approximately 12-25+ sources per novel) and that means a LOT of notes. I hand write my notes because I retain information better that way than when I type it. But when it comes time to plot, or even write a blog post about what I’ve learned, I need those notes in typewritten format. After typing up two books worth of notes but hand, I realized there had to be a better way.

Enter the Equil Smart Pen 2. It uses blue tooth technology to record your notes as you take them on your smart phone, tablet or laptop. It’s kind of freaky to write on one surface (I write in notebooks since this pen isn’t limited to special paper like some others) and watch your handwriting appear on your device. The pen uses real ink, but relies on a program called Equil Note to capture your writing. It isn’t available for Kindle and I couldn’t get it run on my Windows laptop (as soon as I can afford it, I’m switching to a Mac), but it works like a dream on my iPhone.  I haven’t tried to convert it to text yet and I do expect some blips (especially with my horrid handwriting), but anything is better than typing from scratch.

1stplace_medallion_greatexpectations_v1_20153) Gaining Recognition for My Writing – Remember that post I wrote last month about not knowing if my romantic comedy will ever get published because it isn’t easily classified as romance, women’s fiction or chick lit? Well, it may not have a book deal yet, but it did win the single title romance category of the Great Expectations contest, sponsored by the North Texas chapter of RWA. This is one of the bigger romance writing contests, so I’m hoping that having this win in my bio will help when I start querying again soon. (For those who don’t know, my former agent is no longer an agent.) Plus, I’m in several other contests.

So, what’s rocking your world, writing or otherwise? Share the happy vibes!