If you’re a romance writer, then you are probably aware of the drama going on regarding the question how much romance is necessary for a story to be classified a romance novel. I think of it as the Great Controversy.
If you’re a reader, hopefully you haven’t noticed.
SInce I’ve always had more romance than plot in my manuscripts, the Great Controversy is something I hadn’t thought much about. Not because I didn’t care but because I know what happens when you try to quantify the subjective.
Fools run errands and those wild geese you’re chasing bite back.
It’s like trying to eat a spaghetti sandwich. It’s possible, but you’re left with a mess and you’ve lost half of your noodles.
So, this summer, I let the Great Controversy go. I left it to others who are more articulate than I to work out the answers. Then I forgot about it.
Until I went to the airport for my flight to San Antonio for the annual RWA Conference and met the Angry Young Man.
Tall. Shaved head. Sharp tongue. His dark tattoos threatened to slash me, but it was his words that cut.
Romance novels? Pathetic. Formulaic. Pornographic.
I stepped away quickly, not wanting to engage in an argument before boarding a plane.
Yet, despite his derision, his eyes held desperate questions.
Will I ever be loved?
Will I ever love another?
Are Happily Ever Afters real?
My heart hammered and I felt nauseous. I hate conflict. And I had no words at the time, especially since we were on the same flight and might have to sit next to each other. But I was disappointed in myself. How could I aspire to be a romance writer when I couldn’t even defend my profession? I didn’t want to go to RWA anymore. Even if it meant missing the Golden Heart ceremony.
What difference did a Golden Heart final make if I couldn’t take away the pain in that man’s eyes?
Stuck with a non-refundable ticket and in desperate need of chocolate, I snuck away to the far end of the gate area. I searched my carry-on for my emergency dark chocolate with almonds candy bar. Instead, I found my RWA badge carefully tucked around my signed copy of Letters to Kelly by Suzanne Brockmann (which I take to every conference as my good luck charm).
The book dismissed me as a coward. My Golden Heart pins glittered, accusing me.
If my words couldn’t heal the Angry Young Man, then whose would?
Why was I so afraid?
That’s when the truth slammed her fist into my stomach. The Great Controversy had stolen my confidence. All this worrying about my books not being romantic enough had made me doubt my stories, my writing, my career aspirations. I’d thought that by ignoring the Great Controversy, it wouldn’t touch me.
Like a true introvert, I’d just wanted to be left alone.
Instead, I’d left my heart’s gate unguarded and self-doubt had crept in.
My desire for chocolate died, and I watched people move in and out of gates, down hallways, dragging baggage and pillows and kids. But in many of their eyes I saw an emptiness. A sad kind of desperation.
Were they just weary travelers? Or were they in the same kind of pain as the Angry Young Man? Just less obvious?
I heard loud voices nearby and looked up. The Angry Young Man was arguing with the flight attendant manning the departure door. I couldn’t hear his words, but his dark voice made everyone turn. For a second, we all held a collective breath, all held together in the moment. A minute later, a security officer escorted the Angry Young Man away. When he passed me, I met his gaze.
Will I ever be loved?
Will I ever love another?
Are Happily Ever Afters real?
I wanted to reach out and tell him that everything would be alright. That I had the answers to the questions in his eyes.
But he disappeared around the corner and everyone retreated back to their private space. Each person separate again, lost in their own thoughts. But something inside me had shifted, and I took out one of my Golden Hearts and pinned it to my sweater.
Although no one else would know what the pin meant, those mirror-image question marks holding the shape of a heart confirmed what I knew to be true.
I took strength from the heart’s beauty and found truth in its form.
Formulaic? Romance novels bring order and comfort to the chaos and suffering of the human condition.
Pathetic? Romance novels offer hope to the seeking, soothe the ill, and give solace to the grieving.
And the other word that’s not worth repeating? Romance novels prove that true love given and true love received can change the world.
I’m still not sure if my stories meet the requirements of the Great Controversy, but I learned something that day in the airport. The power of a romance novel comes not just from its level of romance, but from its graceful ability to answer the questions of the Angry Young Man.
Will I ever be loved? Yes. With great passion.
Will I ever love another? Yes. With great truth.
Are Happily Ever Afters real? Yes. With great beauty.
Maybe, instead of asking the question of how much romance is in a romance novel, we should be asking if a novel fulfills its promise to the reader. A promise written with great passion, great truth, and great beauty. A promise of a happy ending.
I am proud to be a romance writer. I am proud that my stories offer a mix of adventure, suspense and love. I am proud that my manuscripts–like those written before and those yet to be–end with the same three simple words.
Three simple words which, almost invisible on their own, carry a force unlike any other.
Three simple words which, when strung together, hold the weight of a golden heart, the answers for an Angry Young Man, and the power to heal the world.
So yes, Mr. Angry Young Man. There is a Happily Ever After.
I, and my books, promise.
Now I’d love to know what is your absolute favorite romance of all time?
I will be offering two books for two lucky commenters: The first, in honor of my last K&T interview with Heather Ashby, will be an e-copy of Heather’s newest release Never Forget.
Second, in honor of my K&T interview coming up, I will be offering an e-copy of Night Sky, a new Young Adult novel by Suzanne Brockmann and her daughter Melanie Brockmann.
(You don’t want to miss it! My fourteen-year old daughter and I will be interviewing Suzanne and her daughter Melanie for our first ever mother/daughter and mother/daughter interview. It’s going to be tons of fun!)
All photos courtesy of Sharon Wray
Last week was an exciting one for all of us at Kiss and Thrill, so you’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I pause to brag a bit about my brilliant blogmates.
First up, huge congrats the the amazing and talented Sharon Wray, who not only won the Single Title Romantic Mystery/ Suspense Daphne award for her manuscript ROGUE’S ESCAPE, but also won the overall unpublished Daphne for having the highest score!
Second, we are all thrilled and delighted that Krista Hall won the Golden Heart® for best Romantic Suspense for her fabulous manuscript BROKEN PLACES! Congrats Krista!!!
Last, because Krista couldn’t make it to RWA in Atlanta this year, special thanks go to Sarah Andre, who accepted the award
on Krista’s behalf. Sarah was stunning and wonderful as she delivered Krista’s touching speech. (And thank you to Lena Diaz, who recorded the speech so I could watch the excitement at home.)
Since next week is the Rita/Golden Heart announcement day, my K&T sisters have asked me to repost this letter I “wrote” last week to my CP (critique partner). I hope that all who are waiting for a call, especially those who don’t get one, find some comfort in these words. They come from a writer’s heart.
“Monkey buttshine!” my son screams at his sister.
“Rat hag!” she yells back.
I drop the laundry basket and head downstairs.
They know the m-b word is not allowed. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what a monkey butthshine is, but to my twins, it’s the worst thing they can call each other. In their odd twin language, rat hag is the second-worst. So the one who starts the fight, the one who says “monkey buttshine” first, always wins.
“Take it back!” As usual, they speak at the same time, in the same false tone, with the same heavy breathing. Faced off like two cage fighters, they circle each other.
My daughter has on the ugly face, my son’s fists are clenched.
And my mother’s heart breaks. “Why do you speak to each other like that?”
They both turn and look at me, two pairs of blue eyes wide, as if noticing me for the first time.
My son answers first. “Because she tricked me. She’s always tricking me.”
“Am not!” my daughter replies.
“Are too! It’s why you’re the oldest,” he pauses for affect. “Monkey buttshine!”
Good grief. Not this again. “Your sister was born first because she was lowest. There was no grand conspiracy to make you younger.”
“By eleven minutes,” my daughter adds with a wonderful teenage sneer. “But mom said it felt like eleven hours!”
Did I mention my twins are thirteen?
“Go finish your chores.” I pick up the laundry basket with a heavy sigh (I can add drama to any situation as well). “And I don’t want to hear those words again.”
“Why not?” my son asks as I leave the room. “I’ve heard you say worse things to yourself.”
Without responding, I stumble up the steps and make it to my bedroom. My heart races and everything blurs.
I’ve heard you say worse things to yourself.
Those words cut me as surely as if I’d taken the sharpest knife to the softest skin on my forearm. Not only because I’m horrified that they’ve heard me, but because they’ve spoken the truth.
I drop the basket in front of the window, the morning light highlighting the folded white laundry, and I see all the variations in the white cotton, where the bleach never penetrated. Perfection is a self-defeating behavior, but self-destruction by words is far worse. Especially when one is a writer with an entire arsenal of rhetorical devises armed and ready.
I am, and always have been, harsher on myself than anyone else. Usually I keep the brutal self-talk inside, but I have a tendency to mutter when I’m upset. I just figured no one else was listening. But, apparently, I was wrong.
As I reach down to start putting away the yellowed whites, my cell phone vibrates. A text from one of my CPs.
21 days until GH/Rita finals announced. I don’t think I have a chance of finaling. I feel like puking.
I take a deep breath. Those words carry so much emotion, and I remember her disappointment when she didn’t final last year. I remember her smiling on Facebook and cheering on her fellow writers with the grace and humor she’s known for. I also remember the horrible things she and many of my published/yet-to-be published friends confided to me about themselves and their own manuscripts while others celebrated online. And I don’t know how to respond.
Yes, I’ve finaled in the Golden Heart three times over the last three years but I’ve also not finaled five times. I know the disappointment and can still taste the tears, but I hesitate to type back. How can I encourage her when I treat myself with the same kind of contempt? With a kind of harshness I wouldn’t shower on my worst enemy?
As I put away laundry and struggle with what to say to my CP, I hear the kids downstairs negotiating whose turn it is for dog doo-doo duty. In the midst of back-and-forth promises and threats, my son says, “I’m sorry I called you a monkey buttshine. You’re prettier than a monkey’s butt.”
“I know.” My daughter quickly responds, “And I didn’t come out first on purpose. I was at the right place at the right time. But sometimes the best comes out last.”
My heart skips. Sometimes the best comes out last.
“At least we have each other,” my son says. “Can you imagine how hard this would all be if we had to do everything alone?”
And, again, I’ve learned from my children. My twins were born with a confidence I’ve always envied. Everything they’ve ever faced from speech therapy, entering middle school, to getting braces, they’ve had a sibling. A friend. A partner.
I stand by the bedroom window and watch them outside. In yellow puddle boots and arms wrapped in plastic newspaper bags, they work together to clean the yard while the dog chases them. And I smile. They’ve shared everything. Haircuts at the scary cartoon place. Death of the beloved hamster. Whispers in the dark. Birthdays. They may argue, but they don’t fear because they are never truly alone.
Suicide by words is just plain old fear wrapped in vivid imagery and clever metaphors.
And isn’t it my job as a CP, as a friend, as a colleague, to stamp out this fear in both myself and those I love? It’s my privilege to encourage in the face of trials and disappointments. To celebrate in times of joy. To sit by quietly, just holding her hand, as she struggles. And even though I’ve failed myself doesn’t mean I can’t do better, can’t try again. Maybe by helping her, by not letting her face her fears alone, I can help myself.
I reach for the phone, but I don’t text. Instead, I compose an email for her and all the other brave writers who entered RWA’s Golden Heart/Rita contest this year.
“Dear Friend, Let me take your hand,
Regardless of what happens on March 25 or in two months or next year, I will not let you listen to the words of the serpent.
Regardless if that editor reading your newest manuscript offers you a contract or rejects you, I will not let you hide.
Regardless of the path your publishing career takes, you are still a writer. Your words (and drawings) still matter.
Your words aren’t meant to draw blood. Your words are meant to change peoples’ hearts. And isn’t that the most important thing? Isn’t that why you became a writer?”
Whether or not the phone rings on March 25, please remember these words for they come from my heart. Sometimes the best things come out last.
And the best is always worth waiting for. Just ask the teenagers. They know everything.
P.S. You are not a monkey buttshine (whatever that is)
Have you ever suffered from your own internal words? Words you’d never say to anyone else? How do you rise above the negative self-talk? I’d love to know I’m not alone.
The winner of any one book from Christy Reece’s LCR series is Chris Bails. Congratulations, Chris! Contact us within the next 10 days to collect your prize.
Today we’re priviledged to have with us legendary James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor which became the iconic Robert Redford movie, Three Days of the Condor. James has won literary prizes around the globe, including France’s Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in 2001, Italy’s Raymond Chandler Award in 2003, and Japan’s Baka-Misu Literary Award in 2008.
James doesn’t merely talk, he lights up the room, exudes a charge that amplifies and builds, reaching into the dark corners of the audience, until everyone is astonished by his fingertip information and unique perspective. No matter your political opinions, he has the ability to dredge up facts, turn your mind around, and get people motivated.
It is that same energy that pervades his books. He takes the most implausible of facts – for instance, crazies in a secret CIA asylum, let loose on society (Mad Dogs), and not only suspends disbelief, but transports the reader to a roller coaster of an adventure that doesn’t let go until the very last word.
James wil be giving one lucky reader who leaves a comment a copy of his book, Mad Dogs, so make sure you hit that comment button or you won’t be in the running!
Please help me welcome, James Grady.
Diana: You hit the best seller list the first time out of the gate with Six Days of the Condor . How did success impact on you as a young writer? If you had to do it all over again and could choose, would you want success at such an early stage or would it have been better a little later on? Did you understand what an incredible, lotto-winning miracle, that kind of success was at that time?
James: Condor swept me up like the tornado in The Wizard Of Oz. Living in a Montana shack, I knew how incredibly lucky I was. My major fear was that I would blow or betray my luck. Condor gave me a chance to do what I always wanted – write and publish fiction – plus I didn’t want to be some kind of footnote burn-out jerk. After Condor, I worked as a U.S. Senate aide and a muckraking reporter making far less than my fiction work because I wanted to use my life to do more, learn more. I lived like a blue jeaned grad student, worked as hard and as fast as I could, 12 hour days. I think success so early let me grow into being the kind of writer who – I hope – has earned it. Of course, now I’d love another tornado like that one!
Diana: As a journalist who has focused on the intelligence community for much of your life, how do you feel about the average spy novel? What kinds of things drive you nutty when you read them?
James: Most modern spy novels are better than most modern spy movies that are often actually “cop” or “superhero” cinemas. I’m not a fan of “grand conspiracy” spy novels. What makes spy novels hard to write is that at their heart, they are novels about politics and personal integrity. We’re lucky to have a bunch of “spy novelists” out there who get that, but what drives me nutty is the spy novel where nothing “real” or moral feels at stake or where the characters seem to be in a video game.
Diana: Condor was a quiet novel — by that I mean it was about an man battling the system with little more than his brain, and winning. Many books and films these days have more things that go boom than intelligent thought. Even Mad Dogs, while very smart, is much more action packed — which is also a direct result of the characters. Do you think the quiet novel is a lost art? How do you balance the need for intelligent writing and the market’s need for action?
James: Great question! I think publishers “push” authors to make their books BIG and BOOMING in the mistaken belief that that’s what readers want. Readers want great stories, believable characters and novels that say something, mean something, matter. Yes, we want thrills, but we want them to make us feel something more than the drive to turn pages. It’s like the difference between a guttural SHOUT and a great kiss: readers love, remember and seek out a great kiss. And such stories pay: Graham Greene wrote dozens of “quiet” novels that are still selling today.
Diana: Who is your favorite author? Who are you reading right now? Do you find you read more in or out of your genre when selecting fiction?
James: I can never narrow it down to one favorite author, though I think Bruce Springsteen is The Great American Author of my hit high school 49 – 37 years ago generation. As for authors who create words to be read…Ray Bradbury, John Burdett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Sally Denton, Emily Dickinson, Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Hand, Steve Hunter, Craig Johnson, John Le Carre, Harper Lee, Dennis Lehane, John Dos Passos, Maile Meloy (who’s probably the Great American Author of her younger than moi generation), Bobbie Ann Mason, David Mitchell, George Pelecanos, S. J. Rozan, John Steinbeck, Rex Stout, Jess Walter, Robert Ward, E.B. White, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I could drop 47 other names in that alphabetic row. Right now I’m reading Nathan Englander and Joe Lansdale. I make it a point not to read the kind of book I’m writing, and while I love what critics call “thrillers” or “crime novels,” I’ve been happily seduced by everything from chick lit to fantasy. There are just so many great authors out there, and so little time.
Diana: Mad Dogs takes place in a secret CIA insane asylum, which sounds perfectly reasonable and practical on the page as you describe it. Is there really such a place in real life? What other kinds of black sites exist that the public knows little about?
James: spent years as an investigative reporter chasing whispers that the CIA had a secret insane asylum. I never found it, so I let the notion flower as fiction. There are black sites for SIGINT (signals intelligence that targets communications), as well as training sites and way off the books operations not on any federal register.
Diana: Will they have to kill you if you tell us? Or now that you’ve told us? How do you balance the fine line between being interesting and not divulging something you may know but that might cause problems for the intelligence community? Is there such a line? Do you think Americans should know everything in freedom of the press, or should journalists restrict themselves and under what circumstances?
James: I’m cautious about what I divulge. I have a problem with wholesale or frivolous dumping of secrets. That’s one reason the people who work in our shadows trust me. There is a line – sometimes fine, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes undeniable – between the rights our Constitution gives writers for freedom of the press and doing damage for no good to our country. We need to know the why’s and what’s of our government . We may not need to know the how’s. There are two questions every writer must ask her or himself when they cover government or even personal secrets: Who does reporting this hurt? Who does reporting this help? When the FBI is trying to stop the Mafia from heroin smuggling, election rigging and prostituting children while the CIA is using the Mafia to assassinate a foreign leader like Castro (happened!), we have both a right and a need to know. We need to know what our public servants are doing for our democracy to work.
Diana: Your new book is on Arab Spring. Can you tell us a little about it and when it will be out?
James: While I’m calling it an “Arab Spring” novel, 2/3 of the story takes place in Washington, D.C., with the rest in a blended imaginary “Arab” country. But the story is actually about our new streets of politics everywhere and how a man and a woman risk everything to fight for their personal as well as political integrity. I think of it as a blend of Condor and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana. Sarcasm, suspense, glimpses behind the scenes in D.C. and spy worlds, and a love story unlike any I’ve ever written. The working title I had is too close to another author’s thriller that just came out – something I bet many people can relate to — so I’m “opening my heart” to whatever title will come from my manuscript. I’m about halfway done, have shown it to no one, so there’s no pub date yet. When I get one, I promise to let you know.
Diana: You have a pretty spectacular family. Tell us about them. James can’t stop gushing about them, another one of his endearing traits.
James: I am in awe of my family. My wife Bonnie Goldstein, now a blogger for The Washington Post’s “She The People,” has been an internet journalist, a national ABC TV producer, a U.S. Senate Aide, a Private Eye, a coat check girl, a model, and a never went to college hippie who managed a tough bar in Mexico. My daughter Rachel Grady is an Academy Award nominated documentary director/producer who tackles issues like struggling kids, poverty, our crashing American dream, women’s rights. My son Nathan Gradyhas published two articles in national venues and is defining himself on the way to being 24. Rachel’s not yet two years old son Desmond
says “Yeah!” all the time and never stops laughing. So far, they still let me come to family dinners.
Diana: The love story in Condor was very poignant. Why couldn’t your hero and heroine have their happily ever after? Do you think you might have written it differently today?
James: Another good question. I struggled with this. Didn’t think it was believable for amateur Condor to score a complete “win” against the professionals hunting him, plus I wanted to make the readers feel the real costs of that world. So he had to lose the girl.
I try to create a story that feels authentic to smart and deserving readers. And actually, when I got a handle on my sorrow and anger after 9/11, I wrote a novella “re-imagining” how I’d “do” Condor in these times – “condor.net” (click here to read!) — with the roles of women changed and deepened.
Diana: See I didn’t even know that! James is always ahead of the curve. Thanks so much for stopping by today, James, please visit us again soon.
James will be giving a copy of his book Mad Dogsto one lucky commenter below. So don’t forget to hit the comment button and leave one. Mad Dogs is a book you don’t want to miss. Come back on Thursday to see if you’ve won!
2012 K&T Golden Heart Finalists for Romantic Suspense
“Body of Evidence” by Rachel Grant
“Rogue’s Return” by Sharon Wray
“Spy in the Harem” by Diana Belchase
Kiss and Thrill also congratulates all of the finalists in the 2012 RITA® and Golden Heart® contests. For a complete listing of the finalists, go to Romance Writers of America.