'Romance' Is Never a Dirty Word at Romance Writers of America Conference

At the Romance Writers of America book-signing at the Marriott Wardman Park, passionate fans get ready to grab autographs from their favorite authors.
At the Romance Writers of America book-signing at the Marriott Wardman Park, passionate fans get ready to grab autographs from their favorite authors. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

"I like to have at least one orgasm in every chapter," Colleen Gleason says. "At least in my erotic romance," the genre she's working in now. She just came out with "When Twilight Burns," the sequel to "Rises the Night."

Burning. Rising. Ohhh.

So that's about 60 love scenes, times eight novels, plus three she has coming out next year, which works out to . . . Wow. But her number is not so large, truly, when you consider other writers in Washington this week for the Romance Writers of America's annual conference. We're talking the Nora Robertses, the Debbie Macombers, the Linda Howards. Big names who have released more novels than there are elements on the periodic table, with titles involving an assortment of Twilights, Touches and Forevers.

"When it comes down to actual syntax, Thesaurus.com is my friend." Gleason, 42, rattles off some reliable standbys: "She felt a pang, heat rushed over her, she peaked, flooded, she felt a twinge, her stomach flipped." Gleason really loves the word "maelstrom," but her friends thought she used it too much. Now they allow her just one maelstrom per novel.

You, haughty reader of Nobel finalists, are already sneering. You are picturing fuchsia covers and tacky typefaces; you are picturing, God help you, Fabio.

No matter. The utterly unpretentious members of Romance Writers of America have no illusions regarding how you feel about what they do. They have gathered together to perfect their craft anyway, even if it's in a genre you swear, swear, swear you never read.

* * *

There is no prototypical romance writer. Here at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, some 2,000 women of all races and ages wear everything from chunky Goth boots to strappy stilettos. (There are also men. Maybe five of them.) But if you squint and look for a general appearance trend, this is it: They look like your mom. They look kind, comforting, domestic, as if they are wearing perfume made from Fleischmann's yeast.

The real pros are fluent in every genre. Paranormal romance -- ghosts, vampires -- is big, though the market might be reaching saturation. Jane Austen-era stuff always does well, though one industry expert confidently says, "I think Victorian is the next Regency," which makes everyone in earshot go "Ooh." The array of titles at a massive book signing reveals the wide gamut of what turns people on: "Lord of Bondage," "My Sexy Greek Summer," "Alien Overnight," "Diving in Deep." That last one is a gay, swimming-themed romance written by one straight woman for other straight women.

Workshop offerings are equally vast. More than 100 sessions address everything from "High-Octane" kisses to sketching believable alpha heroes (sub-categories include: Warrior Alpha, Chief Alpha, Extreme Alpha, Bad Boy Alpha, Wounded Alpha, Swashbuckling Alpha, Geek Alpha and Gentle Alpha) to sketching out "imperfect" heroines (possible flaws include: Too Tall, Big Hips, Ten Pounds Overweight and Too Beautiful).

In a brainstorming workshop on plot development, Amy Talley fretfully asks a small group for help. "I just don't know what their dark moment is," she says.

Her hero and heroine are both damaged -- he's an alcoholic Iraq vet, she's a single mom with a snakelike ex. She needs help figuring out the big issue that will almost drive them apart.

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