Later it was made abundantly clear to me by many different people, including my parents, that it is impossible to make a living as an artist, and that I should choose something – anything – other than art to study when I went off the college. In those days, women typically chose nursing or teaching until they traded in their “career” for marriage, home, and family. I wasn’t interested in these options. Later, a high school teacher told me I wrote well so I went off to college and studied journalism. The other big thing that happened in undergrad school was my discovery of what was then called “women’s liberation.” I came out of undergrad school with a degree in journalism as well as an ardent feminist, these days called a “Second Wave Feminist.”
Writing for me has always been about making money. Over the years, I supported myself by working as a reporter for newspapers and by selling my articles to numerous publications as a freelance writer. I also have worked as an academic reference librarian (M.S.L.S) and an analytical indexer in the biological sciences college textbook publishing industry.
I began writing books around 2004. First I wrote nonfiction, and then in November, 2017, I published my first work of fiction, Desert Jade: A Letty Valdez Mystery. I repeat. Writing is something I do, and have always done, to support myself. I sometimes sell my art, but I don’t do art to make money. Why I do art is another subject.
Books have always been very important to me. I’ve mostly read nonfiction, mystery-suspense, and some of the best science fiction. My preference for mysteries dates back to the third grade when the school librarian put a book in my hand and said, “You’ll like this.” That was my first Nancy Drew mystery. She was right. I loved it. As a twenty-something, I tried reading romance and found it rather dull. There were meaningful glances across a crowded room and not much else happening. Boring. I was heavily into the women’s movement at that time, and that boring romantic stuff just didn’t work for me.
One day in the mid-1980s, I went into a local Walmart and saw an author sitting at a table signing her books. Her name was Janet Daily. The local newspaper reported that she had made 12 million dollars the previous year from sales of her romance books. I read one of her books and found it a bit dull, but I was very impressed by the 12 million a year in sales.
Romance and the Publishing Industry
When I started indie publishing my mystery novels, I did a lot of reading about dramatic changes in the publishing industry in the 21st century. One thing that had not changed, though, was the huge number of romance novels being sold every year. Author Dee Lloyd expands on this: “In 2010, romance fiction made about $1,358 billion, in sales. The same year, science fiction and fantasy made about $559 million, mystery made about $682 million, literary fiction about $455 million. What this means, boiled down to the nitty gritty, is that romance fiction accounts for 55% of the money made by all fiction.” The film documentary Guilty Pleasures opens with the notice that a romance book published by one of only two publishers (Harlequin and Mills & Boon) is sold somewhere in the world every four seconds.
Also I found that romances have changed quite a lot since I first read them. Let’s just say that many of the stories no longer are restricted to those meaningful glances across a room. They have become far more “sex positive,” as my character Cat Miranda puts it. The level of explicitness varies from “sweet” (no on-page descriptions of sexual encounters) to various levels of “steamy” (explicit, more explicit, very explicit, “kinky”) to “erotic” (lots of sex, virtually no story). I also learned that a lot (a lot!) of men are writing romance although they frequently, but not always, use a female pen name. Romance has become a much bigger element in other fiction genres, too. For example, romance in sci-fi and fantasy is common these days. More and more men are reading romance, too. As many as 16% to 18% of all romance readers are men. And there are subgenres in romance for the LGBT crowd, the multi-racial crowd, history lovers, romantic suspense and mystery, etc., plus there are numerous “tropes.”
After reading some romance novels in the past year, I discovered, not to my surprise, that the quality of writing in the romance genre is pretty much like in any other genre. Some of the writing is really, really good, and some of it is painfully bad. Like “oh-my-god-do-I-have-to-finish-this-book?” bad. [It’s hard for me to quit reading a book once I’ve started it.] The ones that don’t work for me are too often about the interior, hyper-emotional life of a very neurotic woman. The ones that do work for me have a real story, often some suspense, and best of all, I like a book with humor.
My New Project
Late last summer, I decided to try my hand at writing romance, or more specifically, romantic suspense, because I still love those mystery-suspense books. Yes, I was thinking about that 12 million dollars, though I’d settle for much, much less. Options to show and sell art had become difficult in Tucson, and after the pandemic arrived, nearly impossible. I figured writing a romance would be more fun that going to work at Walmart, right? (No disrespect to Walmart workers.)
I mentioned this thought about writing romance to several people I know. “I’m thinking about writing a romance,” I said. Much to my great surprise, I received a considerable amount of negative feedback from almost everyone.
Romantic relationships have been a part of human literary output since forever. Have you read the Song of Songs in the Old Testament? Then you know what I mean. Shakespeare wrote about romance. Even tremendously popular mystery writer Tony Hillerman included romance in his mysteries set on the Navajo Nation. His character Jim Chee had three romantic relationships over the course of several books: the women were school teacher Mary Landon, attorney Janet Peet, and Navajo cop, Bernadette Manuelito. Chee ended up marrying Bernie Manuelito.
And yet, I received all this negative feedback at the mere idea of writing a romance. These folks who gave me this unsolicited advice about writing romance said things like: “That’s a waste of time.” “Don’t you want to be proud of what you’ve written? You can be proud of your Letty mysteries” (but not romance). “No! Don’t do that! Think of your legacy,” and “We shouldn’t have to be subjected to that kind of thing.” That last one really got to me. No one is forcing anyone to read anything. So “being subjected to” is a figment of that particular reader’s imagination. As far as I was able to determine, none of these advice-givers had ever read a romance.
After getting over being really surprised, I found this very annoying. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to step on another person’s creative efforts. Remember than six-year-old me who was told she had to make the sky blue? Yes, you can give thoughtful critical feedback, but to totally disrespect and dismiss someone’s efforts is just not acceptable. Only an idiot would say to a budding artist who wants to paint abstracts, “Don’t do that. Your paintings will look like something messy that a little kid or a monkey did.” Or if someone wants to play jazz and is told, “Don’t do that. No one listens to jazz anyway.”
Research on Romance
I started doing research. I read two books about romance writing/publishing and women’s studies: Dangerous Books for Girls (2015) by Maya Rodale and Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels (2009) by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. Rodale’s historical approach especially appealed to me because I’m a history geek. I also watched two documentaries on Kanopy, Guilty Pleasures and Love Between the Covers.
Rodale pointed out that women began writing and reading a lot of romantic fiction in the 19th century after paper production and printing became cheap enough to allow low-cost books to be made available to the general public. Hint: Jane Austen. She wrote romance books which were also social commentary and criticism. Women’s interest in reading romance was a direct response to the very limited opportunities they had at the time. They were very often forced into loveless marriages for financial reasons. In fact, we could say that marriage was basically a financial arrangement that had little to do with love. Of course, the cultural watchdogs didn’t like women thinking about love, reading about love, and wanting a loving marriage because these romances gave women “ideas” that were inappropriate (as in, inappropriate for a woman to know what she wants and then tries to get it?) So these readers were shamed for reading romance.
There is still, after all this time, considerable shame attached to being a romance reader for a lot of women. I asked one woman, a wife and mother, what she read for fun, and she answered, “Dumb stuff.” As she said this, she broke eye contact with me, looked down, and appeared decidedly embarrassed. I asked her, “Romance?” And she nodded. I made a point of assuring her that she was not dumb just because she read romance. Shame still comes with romance for too many romance readers.
Sexism and Romance
After reading these books and watching these documentary films, I came to the inescapable conclusion that romance gets dissed because of deeply entrenched sexism in our culture. If a writer writes something enjoyed by women, it is considered of lesser value. And if it has sex in it, then that bumps up against the notion that “nice girls” don’t do things like have sex with a man for pleasure and actually like it. We Americans still have the Puritans breathing down our necks.
Also interesting in Rodale’s book was information about the evolution of romance in the late 20th century. The connection between the subgenre of romance called “bodice rippers” and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a surprise, as was the connection between the 2008-2009 economic recession and the appearance of billionaire romances. By the way, “bodice rippers” as a romance sub-genre was actually quite short-lived, although the term lives on as a way of disparaging all romance. In contrast to this, and with tongue firmly in cheek, there are two sisters in the Los Angeles area who established a romance-only bookstore called The Ripped Bodice.
Another thing I was told by several people is that romance is “unrealistic.” Well, are Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, Hercule Poirot, Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne “realistic?” How about Harry Potter? (Note what all these characters have in common? Yep. All male). We’re talking about fiction here, folks. So why does romance have to be realistic when no other genre fiction is? And what is “realistic” anyway? One romance writer turned the idea of “unrealistic” on its head. She made the argument that romance presents a vision of a male-female relationship in which a woman actually gets what women really want: love, respect, fidelity, and orgasms. Romantic fiction is only “unrealistic” in that women enjoy in fiction what we rarely get in the “realistic” world.
The end result is that this Second Wave feminist (me!) who wants to make money from her writing decided to disregard the naysayers. My first mystery/”sweet” romantic suspense, Kissed: A Cat Miranda Mystery, was published March 29, 2020. In Kissed, Miles gives Cat a poem from Rumi that goes like this:
Run from what's comfortable.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
So I decided to be notorious (which is kind of amusing at my age). I’m in the process of publishing some very steamy romantic suspense novellas under a pen name. The pen name is not a way to hide out. The purpose of the pen name is for the sake of Amazon’s algorithms that get confused if an author publishes in more than one genre. Amazon likes to run “Also Bought” ads with an author’s book listing, and the algorithms are not sure what kind of ad to run if genres are mixed. As for me, I hope that being notorious will make money and be a lot of fun, too. I still think it’s gotta be better than working at Walmart. If I make money from writing romance, and it gives me more time to paint, then I have achieved my goal.
I suggest you check out my publishing website, Rope’s End Publishing, for an overview and details about these steamy romance books, Letty Valdez Mysteries, and my “sweet” Cat Miranda Mystery. Click on Fiction on the top menu.
So if you are a person who has read and enjoyed steamy romance and if you are willing to trade a free ebook copy for a published review, then email me. If you have not read steamy, and are just curious, consider yourself warned. These books have explicit descriptions of consensual and enthusiastic sexual encounters between a man and a woman in the context of a growing love relationship. If you are a “we shouldn’t be subjected to that” person, don’t bother contacting me at all.
Here is one of my abstract landscape paintings, Dream of the Desert (oil on canvas). You’ll note that the sky is not blue.