Every so often, I pop overÂ to the newsgroup rec.arts.mystery to check out their latest chatter, and I came across this particular topic: “Do romance writers have an advantage?”Â It asked, in short, do romance writers have an easier time getting published as mystery authors, and how on earthÂ would such awful writers as Sandra Brown, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts, and — ahem, yours truly — ever manage to get their mysteries published otherwise?Â
Normally I’m a rather mild-mannered person, but there were follow-up commentsÂ on thisÂ topicÂ that made me want to get out a gun and start shooting people.Â The majority of those comments said, essentially: “Romance writers are talentless hacks who write purely by formula.Â I read one (or two) romances back in the Pleistocene Age and wouldn’t dream of even picking up another one, unless I was sick and dying of boredom in the hospital.”Â There was this one comment thatÂ pretty much sums up what they think about romance:
Â Romance seems to be pretty much nothing *but* formula —
the identical formula of the love triangle and the woman who
has to “tame” the “wild” man — maybe 90% worth.Â Â
Mysteries, while they do have formulae, have a huge field of
variations — serial killer procedurals, psychological thrillers
told from the killer’s pov …Â So far as I
know, Romance doesn’t have anything like that.
Mind you, these are comments coming from people who actuallyÂ admit that they haven’t read a romance since they tried Barbara Cartland as teenagers.Â That’s like saying, “oh, I ate chop suey once, when I was ten.Â I haven’t tried it since, because I know that Chinese food is awful.Â And of course I’m an authority on the subject.”
Or: “I read a Hardy Boys mystery when I was twelve, and it was awful.Â So I’ll never read another mystery because I know what they’re like.”
As Tabitha King once said, “That’s a really powerful position to argue from! Â Ignorance!”
But, okay.Â Deep breath here.Â I’ll ignore the post that said GRAVITY was such a poor book it goes to prove Tess Gerritsen’s a hack.Â (GRAVITY has enough glowing reviews and awards and a listing in Stephen King’s ON WRITING as one of his favorite books to take away the sting of that post.)Â I’ll just address the topic here: Do romance writers have an unfair advantage when it comes to selling mysteries?Â
Since I’ve been honored in both genres (a Rita Award for THE SURGEON; a Nero Award plus an Edgar nomination for VANISH) I think I’m qualified to address this issue.Â And my first reaction is this: why would anyone think that being published inÂ romance makes selling a mystery any easier?Â There are legions of romance novelists who have not been able to break into the mystery/thriller genre.Â Just as there are legions of writers of all stripes who haven’t been able to break in.Â The examplesÂ cited in this discussionÂ thread (Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, Iris Johansen) happened to have been mega-selling authorsÂ before they started writing mysteries.Â (Oh, and by the way, Nora Roberts’s mysteries weren’t even written under her name, but under the name J.D. Robb, and they sold well even before anyone knew who J.D. Robb really was.)Â So, imagine you’re a publisher.Â Imagine that an author who regularly sells aÂ million paperbacks a year says, “You want to publish my new thriller?”Â Do you suppose you MIGHT want to publish that book?
Of course you will.
So the examples cited on the discussionÂ thread have nothing to do with the fact these ladies are romance authors.Â It has to do with the fact they have a zillion fans and a proven track record.Â Their romance writing isn’t what gave them the advantage; it’s the fact they’ve already demonstrated they can reel in readers.Â StopÂ attributing itÂ to the fact they’re romance writers.Â They are bestselling writers, period.Â No wonder they’re published.
When I sold my first thriller Harvest, I was not a bestselling romance novelist.Â I was earning, oh, about ten grand a book.Â My previous sales were definitely not an advantage to my being published as a thriller writer.Â Do you suppose the editor who bought HarvestÂ thought: “Oh!Â An unknown!Â Â But she’s a romance author, so let’s put a ton of money behind this book!”Â Of course not.Â They put their support behind the book because, I assume, they thought it was a great book.Â
Do romance writers in general — even those who aren’t already bestselling writers — have an advantage when it comes to selling a first mystery?Â Â The fact that they’re already published, in any genre, is of course an advantage.Â Just as a published SF writer or horror writer would have a better chance — because they’ve alreadyÂ demonstrated they know how to write, unlike the millions of merely aspiring novelists who can’t even land an agent.Â
But romance novelists, as a group, may actually faceÂ more challengesÂ than other genre authors when they try to break into mystery.Â And the reason is written allÂ up and downÂ that discussion thread: many mystery readers loathe a romance plot in any way, shape, or form.Â Some of them even admitted that if an authorÂ at any time in her career ever wrote a romance, they wouldn’t pick up her mystery novel.Â Their hatred borders on the irrational.Â Â They think they are tooÂ discriminating and literary for such drivel.Â A brush of the lips, a longing glance, and BAM!Â They slam theÂ book shut.Â They will eagerly devour pages and pages of spattered blood and glistening entrails, but a man and a woman falling in love?Â Horrors!Â
Those who’ve read my books know that I do not shy away fromÂ glistening entrails.Â Heck, I’m one of the few who’s actuallyÂ seenÂ glistening entrails and I’m not afraidÂ to write about them.Â I can write about them with more authority than 99% of mystery writers.Â But I also write about human beings.Â Â So how do we human beings get on this earth?Â We fall in love, have sex, and have babies.Â We’re much more likely to do these things than commit murder.Â And to ignore such a powerful emotional force as sexual love is to revert back to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys sexlessness — mysteries which are far less realistic than any romance novel.Â (Does anyone really think that Nancy and Ned weren’t getting it on in the back seat of her convertible?)
I’ve blogged in the past about my struggles to be accepted as a thriller writer.Â Even though I’ve now written more thrillers than romance novels, there’ll still be some critic somewhere who’ll dismiss me as “just another romance author.”Â Â In BLOODSTREAM, I wrote a four-paragraph love scene.Â This was in a book filled with autopsies, gory deaths, an amputated thumb, and school shootings.Â Yet the critic zeroed in on those four-paragraphs as evidence that, yes, I was just a romance author.
So no, I do not think that romance authors have an unfair advantage.Â I think we have a disadvantage, because certain jerks think that once you’ve written a romance novel, you are somehowÂ tainted for the rest of your life and no one should ever take you seriously.Â
Lawrence Block, an award-winning crime novelist and one of the most gifted writing instructors around, has never been shy about his past as a writer of paperback porn.Â Why should he be ashamed of it?Â It was a writing gig, it paid the bills, and he used it as a vehicle to hone his craft as a storyteller.Â No one ever puts downÂ Larry Block as “just an ex-porn writer.”Â Â Dammit, he’s a crime writer.
But those of us who once wrote romance will, it seems, never be accepted as crime writers.Â We’ll always find our names popping up in “they’re just stupid romance authors” discussions.Â And the comments are always along the lines of “and because of romance writers horning into the genre, serious mystery writers don’t stand a chance.”Â Because of course, mystery authors are the real artists here, the ones who never write a bad book, the ones who never write by formula.
Well, lemme tell you the mystery formula:Â “A crime is committed.Â An investigator seeks out the truth.Â The truth is revealed.”Â Most crime novels cleave to this formula.Â Some writers do a dazzling job with it.Â Some writers are, to put it plainly, hacks.Â
Is there anything wrong with the formula?Â No.Â Just as there’s nothing wrong with the formula for a romance novel: “A man and woman are attracted to each other.Â Conflict or crisis keeps them apart.Â The conflict is resolved.”Â There are a million different ways to tell this story, just as there are a million different ways to tell a mystery.Â And any mystery reader who continues to insist that romance novels are all exactly the same doesn’t know squat.Â
Why do these discussions keep popping up?Â Beyond sheer ignorance of the romance genre, there’s another theme beneath the surface.Â And that’s jealousy.Â Whenever I hear a mystery writer whine, “These ex-romance authors are crowding the mystery market!”Â I think: “Ah.Â You can’t sell your book because it’s just plain lousy and no publisher wants it.Â And you have to find someone elseÂ to blame.”Â
It’s so much easier to blame “those romance novelists” or “the narrow-minded industry”Â or “ignorant editors” when one’s book doesn’t sell.Â I’ve taught enough writing courses and read enough amateurish manuscripts to know that there’s a reason that 99% of those manuscripts remain unsold.Â And I’ve also heard the writers of those same awful manuscripts complain bitterly about how well Patterson or King or Cussler sells when “my book is obviously so much better!”
They have to blame someone.Â And it might as well be the evil romance writers