Hard Work

I was thinking about a review that I read for Ruthie Knox’s latest novella, Making It Last — which in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read yet — specifically of a line in which the reviewer called it and other ‘marriage in trouble’ romances Important.

I can’t find the exact review now; I don’t mean to establish a strawman. I doubt the reviewer capitalized Important, and yet I sensed the emphasis, the sort of 18th century abstract, personified ideal attached to the pronouncement.

Certainly it is accurate to say happily ever afters do not simply happen. They must be cultivated and protected. Relationships are, as your aunt explained to you at your bridal shower, hard work.

More seriously, not every moment of a long-term relationship is sunshine and flowers and champagne. The trust that you build up in the difficult moments (and years) bears fruit in the balance. You love each other more for the wee small hours when you’re caring together for a sick child, or for the unconditional support he offers you during a professional crisis, etc. I’ve been in my relationship for 14 years (married for 9 of those); this is not simply something I believe, but something I live.

To the extent that romance doesn’t represent past the happy ever after and that ‘marriage in trouble’ romances are corrective, I am behind this designation. And yet…

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Kern der Sache

What’s the beating heart of romance? What drives the genre? What propels the books off the shelves?

We could say, banally but accurately, that the answer is as varied as the number of romance readers and leave it there. But let’s not, if only because then this post would be so short. (Yes, this tautology fuels much of my life.)

In the anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a collection of essays about the genre by popular romance writers, we get a number of responses. Penelope Williamson writes that in romance, “The fantasies are uniquely feminine and the story is primarily the heroine’s” (126, emphasis in original). Laura Kinsale disagrees, arguing, “It is the hero who carries the book” (32) and that romance reading “is the experience of ‘what a courtship feels like’” (39). Jayne Ann Krentz says that romance is the un-politically correct fantasies of women readers, including to challenge (and perhaps be dominated by) the alpha hero who is also the villain (107-9).

So the draw of romance is that it puts a woman at the center of the narrative, subverting the Western canon, wherein she must solve (conquer?) the man who is hero and antagonist at once. Got it.

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Why Should You Read Brave in Heart?

“So, Emma, I see that you wrote a book,” you say.

“Yes indeed. Funny you should mention it. It’ll be out in two weeks.”

“But why should I read it?”


  • It’s a second-chance-at-love story. As I’ve discussed before, this is one of my favorite tropes. It is almost as close as it’s possible to come to a universal experience. In the back of all our heads is that nagging little question, “What if?” Brave in Heart explores that scenario.
  • After a prologue, a postcard from the past if you will, Brave in Heart starts with a dance. There is almost always a ball in historical romances, but the dresses? The music? The subtext? How can you not love a novel that opens with dancing?
  • One word: angst. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” Lysander says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And for Margaret and Theo, this statement is practically etched in sky-writing over their heads (if of course there had been planes in the mid-nineteenth century). But their stumbles toward happiness are all the more rewarding for the difficulties along the way.
  • The stakes are high. There’s a war on. A deadly, terrifying war that the characters care deeply about. Every kiss, every conversation could be the last one.
  • Love letters that burn up the page. Or the, um, Kindle. You know that you’ve read Wentworth’s letter over and over again. In the course of Brave in Heart, Theo and Margaret spend a lot of time apart. The letters they exchange are their only contact for months at a time. It’s in the letters that you see them fall in love. Beta readers and earlier reviewers have consistently told me that the letters were some of their favorite parts of the book.
  • The book features an accurate, compelling historical voice. If you’ve ever complained about wallaper historicals, then Brave in Heart is for you. I wanted it to read like it could have been written in 1863 (except now with sexytimes and faster pacing), including the diction and grammatical forms.
  • Also, if you’ve ever complained about how narrow the scope of historical romance has become, give this a try.
  • It’s a little book, meaning it’s short (41,000 words) but also it’s done in watercolor. It’s about quiet moments between adults who want to love each other and just can’t figure out how to given their historical circumstances.

If this sounds interesting, you can pre-order the book on Amazon, add it to your to-read shelf on Goodreads, or find out more about it here.

The Stages of Hating Your Manuscript

I finished a radical revision of Together is Enough this week and I’m so very close to finishing Brave in Heart. So incredibly close. As a reward, I made the catastrophic mistake of picking up a book that shares both a genre and a setting with the former. It was a lovely book. Character-driven, tense but believable, politically progressive, compelling, and concise. Just terrific. After I finished, I said, “Damn it! I’ll never write anything as good as that!”

Those different processes — writing, editing, reading — are part of our lives as aspiring novelists. But they bring with them almost predictable attitudes towards our works in progress. I think it plays out something like this…

When you start drafting, you’re enthusiastic about your project. Out of all the ideas you have, this is one you’re writing now. So you naturally think it’s going to be awesome.

Then, you start writing and you hit the first plateau. It suddenly doesn’t seem so awesome anymore. If you’re like me, this happens at about 20,000 words.

After a lot of hemming and hawing, you push through and finish the manuscript. As you type those words, those lovely “the end” words, it is so gratifying. “Gosh darn, this project is awesome,” you think.

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Why Write Genre Fiction, Part 1

A piece for the Huffington Post by Anne Brown Walker about smart women reading (and writing) romance has been getting some play on the interwebs. I’ve been reading romance for 18 months and writing it for half that time. I’m also a “smart” woman: a PhD student, a former professional, etc., so I thought I’d add my thoughts.

In the poem “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” William Wordsworth describes how nuns find happiness, freedom even, within the confines of the convent. Yes, their lives are routine but within the rules and regulations, the nuns are able to be creative and find their bliss.

Now, a former poetry professor of mine used to say that at some level every poem is about the act of its own creation. In other words, if you aren’t sure what a poem is about, pretend that it’s about the process of the poet writing it. You’d be amazed at what smart stuff you come up with.

I don’t even know that you need that sort of interpretive jijitsu with “Nuns Fret Not,” because Wordsworth gets a little meta in the middle:

In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Some writers might complain that the sonnet form is a prison with too little to offer writers but Wordsworth finds the binds of the form sufficient ground for his work as a writer.
The poem concludes,
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Look, I have a lot more to say about the romance genre and why I like it. But for the moment, I want to start with this: when I’m teaching writing, I often use an exercise where I give students a list of words and instruct them to write a poem using only those words. The poetry they write is much better than if I instructed them to write a poem but gave no constraints. When you’re focusing on the rules, some part of you gets freed up. That’s why I read and write romance.

Why Write? Part 1

If you write — a blog, a diary, poetry, creative non-fiction, creative fiction — why do you do it?

I started writing the project I recently finished because I had dissertation-induced writer’s block. The writing project I was supposed to be working on was paralyzing me and I needed to get back to work, back into a writing rhythm.

I continued writing fiction because it allowed me to express something fundamental about my perception of the human experience. And if people read my work someday, it would allow me to make connections to other people. Writing is transcendent.

So my first answer to the “why” question — and there will probably be others — is that it’s about something larger than myself. Hence the name of the blog.