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When Romance Writers Gather, The Plot Quickens
When Romance Writers Gather, The Plot Quickens

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.

"Something triggers Iraq for him," someone suggests.

"Maybe there's conflict with her son."

"Whatever happens with the kid, she'll have to confront Larry the Snake, too."

"I think it's that your heroes have sex with each other," someone says.

Conversation stops. Intriguing thought. Sex almost ruins the romance because they feel guilty for giving into their carnal desires.

At a workshop called "High Concept," author Lori Wilde leads attendees through a slide presentation, showing them how to create instantaneous plot by choosing items from under the headings of:

Universal Themes, Classic Plots and Innovative Twist.

Think: Good vs. Evil + Twins Switching Places + Banshees.

Think: Revenge + Star-crossed Lovers + Abraham Lincoln.

"I just turn on the TV" to find innovative twists, Wilde says encouragingly. "If you're just tapped out, [go with] the president."

* * *

Reading about these workshops is reinforcing your preconceived stereotypes about romance. You are righteously indignant. You are whining, They're just writing FORMULAS.

To which the astute romance writer will reply: So? Our nation's entire entertainment industry thrives on formulas, from the bristly cop dramas on our televisions to the bubbly romantic comedies in our theaters.

"What speaks louder than anything else is money," says Macomber, the wildly popular author of such sweet, cozy novels as "The Perfect Christmas," "Where Angels Go," "The Snow Bride." "And we bring in the money."

The genre was the biggest fiction category in 2007, the last year for which the Business of Consumer Book Publishing has compiled numbers. The recession has only helped: While other genre sales dipped or dived, Harlequin's sales were up 9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007. Barnes & Noble and Nielsen Book Scan both reported an increase in early 2009 romance sales. The genre pulls in nearly $1.4 billion in revenue each year.

To keep momentum and build name recognition, many working authors release three or more books a year, 40 or 50 books per career, cheerfully churning out 8, 10, 13 pages a day.

"I don't believe in writer's block. I think there are lazy writers." Famed romance and mystery author Janet Evanovich addresses the conference-goers in a packed Q&A section. "When we have writer's block, what we mean is it would be so much more fun to go to Saks and buy shoes."

This is the refreshing thing about romance writers: They resist the shoes. They keep plodding and plotting along. There are no artistes at RWA. There is no insufferable going on about how each sentence is like a precious baby, or self-expression or T.S. Eliot's objective correlative. Nobody calls these books "fictions." There is only story -- chesty, heavy, plump, glistening story.

"Every other genre has managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps and be defined by its highest level," says Lynn Coddington, a historical romance writer who also has a PhD in English. Just look at Dan Brown. People brazenly read "The Da Vinci Code" right on the Metro. "But romance is always defined by its dreck."

People always picture Fabio. People still use phrases like "bodice-ripper" and "heaving bosoms," even though bosoms rarely heave in good erotic fiction. Tell a man that you write romance and his eyes take on that glazed, smarmy look. "I get, 'How do you research your love scenes? Heh heh heh,' " sighs Beverley Kendall, a conference newbie who has just sold her first novel, "Sinful Surrender."

"And the women," her friend Devon Gray adds. The women are even worse. "They act all judgmental. Oh, I never have time to read that trash." She is kind enough not to call them on it, to tell them they probably do.

"They want to know, 'Why don't you use a pseudonym?' " says Kendall.

She was lucky enough to be born with a lacy bell-toned name. Other writers have to go invent pseudonyms, a laborious process that can involve flipping through phone books, looking for something melodious toward the middle of the alphabet. (It's better to steer clear of A's or Z's; that way, when your books hit the stores, readers don't have to stand on tiptoe or crouch down to see them.)

Lindsay Downs is a good name. Perky, pouty, evocative. Of course, Lindsay Downs is a man. He's here promoting his first book, a military romance story in a collection titled "Operation L.O.V.E." When he first started, his friends kept asking: What are you writing? What are you writing? He tried to brush them off with evasive non-answers.

"But finally, I got fed up and said, 'I'm writing romance, okay?' "

Now he is here, and he is among friends.

* * *

"I have a heroine who is 18." Back in the plot-development workshop, the writer of a sci-fi romance explains her problem to the group. The heroine "has committed some crime, and the retribution is that she has to give up love." The writer can't figure out what crime could reasonably result in that punishment. What could the heroine do that would make her unworthy of love?

"Maybe she did something that destroyed someone else's love," someone suggests.

"Or someone else's soul."

"Maybe she was accused of something she didn't do."

The romance writers find this plot point disturbing.

What kind of barbaric society would deny someone human connection as punishment?

In the land of the romance writers, everyone -- vampires, shape-shifters, extraterrestrials, politicians -- is deserving of love.

Which is why they will keep writing it. Whether you admit to reading it or not.

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