unabashed about romance

I’ve been out of town the past week, and came home to find many great comments on my recent blogposts.  Some of the best blog topics came straight from my readers, and here’s one I thought deserved a blog unto itself.  The reader asked: “Is there an advantage to writing for a romance publisher like Harlequin?  Is that a way to launch a career?”

I’m sure that reader noticed (as has anyone else who’s paying attention) that a large number of big-name writers who appear regularly on the New York Times bestseller list are former romance authors.  Nora Roberts, Tami Hoag, Lisa Gardner, Jayne Ann Krentz, Sandra Brown … my gosh, the list could go on and on.  These ladies (and I’m one of them) all started off writing category romance books.  In case you don’t know what I mean by “category romance,” I’m referring to the paperback books that are released once a month from such publishers as Harlequin, Silhouette, or Bantam.  All the books in a particular line (for example, Harlequin Intrigue, which is the line I once wrote for) have similar covers and are on the stands for only that month, then they get replaced by the next month’s offerings.  In the way they’re marketed and sold, they’re similar to monthly magazines.  But yes, they really are books.  And yes, many a now-famous novelist was once a romance author.

But it doesn’t mean that category romance is a good place for a novelist to “break in.”  First, “breaking in”, whatever the genre, isn’t as easy as you’d think.  I once heard a Harlequin editor say that in a single year, her office received about a thousand unsolicited manuscripts — out of which they accepted two of them.  So if you thought you could blithely pound out a 300-page boy-meets-girl story, send it off to Harlequin, and sit back and wait for your royalty checks to arrive, you’ve got a rude awakening in store.  Selling a romance novel isn’t easy.  If you have no respect at all for the genre, trust me, the editor is going to sniff that out and all you’ll get back in the mail is a rejection letter.

But let’s suppose you do respect the genre and you have the chops to write a publishable book.  Category romance does offer a few advantages as a place to start one’s career.  First, your audience is already built in.  Those readers who like the Harlequin Intrigue line will often buy from the line every single month, including books by authors they’ve never heard of.  You’ll have good distribution throughout the U.S., in grocery stores and bookstores. You’ll probably have international distribution as well, with translations of your book showing up in countries around the world.  If you write consistently and quickly, you’ll soon develop loyal readers who will buy your books no matter which company publishes you.  You’ll also have the chance to develop and grow as both a writer and as a business person.  You’ll learn the ropes of dealing with agents and editors, you’ll gain experience in the industry, and yes, you’ll even make a little money.

Ah, that money issue.  Here’s where category romance publishing presents a problem.  There’s a glass ceiling when it comes to income, because your books, no matter how brilliant, are marketed and distributed exactly the same way as every other category author in your line.  The great book isn’t pushed any harder than the mediocre book, and if you have aspirations of hitting bestseller lists, you’ll get frustrated when your print run always stays the same, even though your last books were fabulous.  So your per-book income will pretty much stay the same within the line.  When I was writing for Harlequin Intrigue, my highest advance was $10,000.  I’d have to write a lot of books a year to send a kid to college. To be perfectly honest, romance isn’t that different from other genres.  Whether you write paperback mysteries, westerns, or science fiction, an advance of $10,000 isn’t unusual, and sometimes it’s much less.  So if you want big contracts, if you want to hit bestseller lists, you have to break out of category.

Another downside to writing category romance isn’t monetary, but emotional: you’ll have to suffer the slings and arrows of literary snobs who will never consider you a “real” writer.  Yeah, I know we’re supposed to take pride in our work and forget the critics, but let’s be honest, it hurts to get asked when you’re going to write a “real” book.  (And yes, I heard that comment more than once.  In fact, I still hear it!) 

If and when you move into a different genre — say, thrillers — that “ex-romance author” label will stick to you like Superglue.  You’ll never get rid of it, and unfairly or not, it will affect how critics review you, and how “serious” readers regard you.  Which is why you’ll find that many former romance authors may get huffy and refuse to talk about their old romance novels.  They’ve been burned, that’s why.  They want to be regarded as writers, period, and not hear snide comments and sarcasm.


Sometimes, a writer just has to do her own thing

If I were to write the books my readers say they want me to write, I’d be frozen in a schizophrenic paralysis.  Judging by recent emails, most of my readers are begging for another Rizzoli and Isles book, and they’re not so sure they want to read a stand-alone historical thriller like THE BONE GARDEN. Then I take a look at my reviews on Amazon.com and see some really rotten reviews from readers who write that they can’t stand Rizzoli and don’t ever want to see another book about her.  No matter what I write, it seems that I’m going to piss off some reader somewhere. 

I have to remind myself why I got into this business in the first place: because I love to tell stories. 

Lately, I hunger to tell different kinds of stories.  I came to that realization a few months ago, as I was preparing for my speech at Thrillerfest, about how to turn an idea into a book.  As I was jotting down my thoughts, it occurred to me that what I’d tell writers today isn’t what I would have told them ten years ago.  My sense of what makes a great story has changed because my reading tastes have changed.  Many thrillers now leave me cold.  I’ve grown tired of ever more cruel and gruesome killings.  I don’t want to read about guns and explosions and invincible he-men or kick-ass warrior women.  I don’t want to read about sociopathic, alcoholic heroes.  And here’s the most surprising thing of all: action bores me.  I find myself flipping past those scenes.

“What?” you’re probably asking.  “How can a thriller writer be bored by action scenes?”

But it’s true.  When I go to a movie these days, if there’s an obligatory car chase or gun battle, I find myself yawning and counting the minutes until some good dialogue comes along.  I remember watching the second Matrix movie, and during all those painfully prolonged fight scenes between Mr. Smith and the Keanu Reeves character, I was bored out of my mind because — dare I say it? 

Action is just not all that interesting.  On the page or on the screen.

Maybe it’s the fact I’m getting older, but what I find riveting in a movie or a book is great dialogue infused with conflict.  I find more tension in the witty repartee of a Jane Austen novel than in a James Bond chase scene.  I find more suspense in the threat of violence rather than in the violence itself.

THE BONE GARDEN grew out of my own changing tastes.  Lately I find myself drawn more and more to history, and I wanted to tell a meaty story set in a time of grave-robbers and horrifying medical practices.  I wanted to write about Oliver Wendell Holmes and the dawn of microbial theory in medicine. The fact it isn’t a Rizzoli story may have touched off a bit of panic at my publisher.  What?  The author wants to try something new?  Something her readers aren’t expecting?  Something her readers may not want?

I wrote the book knowing full well that I will probably lose a few readers because the subject matter is so different.  It’s a scary gamble, but I don’t want to be just another commercial ovelist who writes the same damn story again and again.  That’s what readers, booksellers, and publishing beancounters want us to do.  They want us to be predictable, because then they can predictably sell our books.  They want us to conform to the brand we’ve established for ourselves. 

They don’t want us to be artists; they want us to be trained poodles.

I’ve taken risky leaps more than a few times, so I know all about the possible rewards and consequences of doing the unexpected.  Eons ago, I started off as a romance writer.  Then I became a medical thriller writer.  Then I wrote GRAVITY and became, briefly, a SF writer.  Then I wrote THE SURGEON and became a crime writer.  And now I’ve taken another turn with an historical thriller. Sometimes the gamble was a commercial success; sometimes (like GRAVITY) it was a commercial flop.  But I’ve never once regretted having written a book.  I’ve never said, “that was a baby I wish I’d never given birth to.”  Because every book, whether it sold well or not, taught me something.  Every book has been, in its own way, deeply satisfying.  Every book was one I had to write.

Now I wait for THE BONE GARDEN’s release with more than a little trepidation.  I’m proud of this baby, but I know how unforgiving the marketplace — and the critics – can be.