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At The Back Fence – Issue #152


Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

January 1, 2003

Happy New Year! I’m proud to announce that I read a grand total of 91 books this past year, which puts 2002 in a tie with 1999 as my biggest year of reading. Not of earth-shattering importance, but I’m excited nonetheless. It’s not the achievement I’m proudest of in 2002, but it is book-related, and I’d like to read 100 books in 2003. Did you have any particular book-related goals this past year? Have you formulated any for this new year? Think it over after you’ve read this new column.

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Remembrances of Books Past (LLB)

Before I discovered romance novels in the early 1990’s, I read a great deal of popular fiction. When I was in high school, it was whatever my parents were reading, be it Wilbur Smith’s Eagle in the Sky, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, or Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. Then Judith Krantz’s Scruples came along; I had a friend at college who swore by a diet tip she’d picked up in the book (occasionally over-eat to jump start your metabolism). It seemed everybody read that book, just as everybody read Shirley Conran’s Lace – “Which one of you bitches killed my mother?”

The late 70’s and early 80’s were the glory days of the television mini-series, which began with books I’d already gobbled up: Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots, Scruples, Lace, The Thorn Birds, Celebrity, and Bare Essence. Bare Essence, if you don’t recall, was a novel about the perfume industry; the mini-series, with Genie Francis and Bruce Boxleitner, was horrendous, but then, unlike most of the mini-series’ based on “serious” novels, which were often quite good, those based on “glitz and glamour” novels were usually horrendous.

And though I read a lot of well-respected popular fiction during the 80’s (Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel and The Prodigal Daughter and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities were not only good, they were well-reviewed), I developed quite an appetite for trashy “glitz and glamour” novels. If a novel was long, and/or about fashion, cosmetics, movies, television, or the rich and trashy, I read it. Many of these books were aimed at women, but I don’t think the concept of “women’s fiction” had been, as yet, defined. I read other “women’s books” too – books about relationships and family sagas.

These other “women’s books” explored friendships between women and the relationships women had with men. Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion, which followed the friendships of women from college into middle age, along with Shirley Conran’s Lace, set a standard for what we know today as Women’s Fiction. It seems a good third of all Women’s Fiction books follow three or four women throughout a period of their adult lives. From Anne Rivers Siddons’ Outer Banks to Patricia Gaffney’s The Saving Graces, this has proven a successful format.

Many of these “women’s books” mirrored social changes in society at the time, particularly reflective of women’s changing status in the nuclear family and in the workplace. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1974), Marilyn French’s The Woman’s Room (1977), and the 1978 film An Unmarried Woman all explored different aspects of how women’s lives were changing, in terms of their sexuality and personal growth. Empowerment for many women during this time meant being able to go it alone, although I’m sure I wasn’t the only starry-eyed teen to wish Jill Clayburgh had ended up with Alan Bates.

Two short years after An Unmarried Woman, Ronald Reagan was elected president and the U.S. took a swing to the right. But not all the way, of course. Women continued to break barriers in the workplace, but you could die from having sex. People weren’t so much “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out” as they were snorting (and later smoking) cocaine. Instead of aspiring to John Lennon’s world of imagining “no possessions,” people wanted to be Yuppies and drive Volvos. This was the time of the “Me Generation.” Corporate raiders became media stars at the very same time homelessness in America became a national tragedy.

Much of mass market fiction in the 70’s and 80’s reflected these changes. The growth of therapy and psychology also appeared in fiction of this time. Those familiar with Judith Rossner might remember her 1983 novel August, a wonderful book about a psychologist and her patient. Though not as explosive as her 1975 blockbuster Looking for Mr. Goodbar – most certainly an iconic book – it remains on my keeper shelf.

In the 80’s I was also introduced to Marge Piercy when assigned Woman on the Edge of Time in a college course on women’s literature and have continued to read her ever since. Gone to Soldiers (1988) is, without a doubt, my favorite book by this author, and stands up well, as does August, to multiple re-readings.

The last group of books I read before falling in love with romance were a grouping of “women’s books” such as those by Cynthia Freeman, whom I dutifully read throughout the 80’s. This past weekend I checked out a couple of her books at my local library and was aghast that I ever found them to be good reading. Her final book – Always and Forever, published in 1990 – begins as a beautiful and well-educated young woman goes to Germany after WWII with a group of other young idealists to help the rebuilding process. Though she falls in love with an enigmatic young doctor who is part of her group, she marries his cousin, only to live through years of bullying by her father-in-law, philandering of her husband, and the “easiest” polio scare I’ve ever heard of involving her young son. It isn’t until her husband hits her that she gets off her ass and takes charge of her life. This is one of those one-sided books where all the good characters are completely good and all the bad characters are complete pigs. I’m sure I found the heroine noble when I first read this book, but after encountering hundreds of romance novel heroines who thankfully act rather than react, I had an almost allergic reaction upon my re-read.

Comparing authors such as Marilyn French, Judith Rossner, and Cynthia Freeman isn’t easy to do, particularly since French wrote fiction with a political agenda in mind. Rossner continues to confront culture head-on, albeit less and less successfully – I cannot recommend either Olivia or Perfidia, her last two books. Freeman simply isn’t in this league; she reminds me of a more complex Danielle Steel, if such a thing can be said. Yet Freeman’s type of family saga, wherein a woman grows after her “perfect life” falls apart, is another rich vein today’s Women’s Fiction has mined. Affairs, divorce, and mid-life crisis – do these themes ring a bell?

My years as a non-genre adult reader (late 70’s to early 90’s) were filled with a combination of novels – historical novels, these “women’s books” I mentioned, and general fiction which both men and women read. Men and women still read many of the same books, but it seems that today there are fewer general mass market books and more specialized mass market books, just as there are a hundred “specialized” cable channels for cooks, gardeners, DIY enthusiasts, independent film buffs, watchers of sit-com re-runs, etc. In the mass market world there are readers of thrillers, legal thrillers, medical/biomedical thrillers, and psychological thrillers. There are an infinite variety of mysteries, just as there are many different sub-genres of romance. There is Women’s Fiction, and, of course, there is literary fiction, which is something completely different, and yet sort of related.

I see more than one type of Women’s Fiction. There is Women’s Fiction that parallels the “women in peril” movies you see on LifeTime Television – the Belva Plain yearly victim parade I used to quite happily read. There is also Women’s Fiction that is more literary, angsty-driven, and/or issue-oriented – think Oprah’s now-defunct book club. There is Women’s Fiction with an agenda and post-agenda Women’s Fiction, which is Chick Lit. And there is Women’s Fiction that simply explores relationships. Many of the books in this grouping tend toward the literary but are less issue-oriented – consider many books by Judy Blume, Susan Isaacs, Susan Wilson, Joy Fielding’s recent non-suspense novels, and many of the women novelists who’ve followed Anne Rivers Siddons and write Women’s/Southern Fiction, such as Dorothea Benton Frank and Rebecca Wells. There’s one other category of Women’s Fiction – that written by authors who previously wrote romance novels.

Some of these authors wrote romance novels fairly early in their modern incarnation, which I place in the early/middle 70’s with bodice-rippers by Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Jennifer Wilde. While mass market fiction in the 70’s and 80’s reflected changes in society, I can’t necessarily say the same about romance novels of the period, which I don’t believe “caught up” in general until the middle/late 1980’s (one reason I don’t read many romances written before this time). Think about it – the concept of “free love” was born in the 60’s, but by and large genre romances were tied to far more traditional sexual views, not to mention the “careers” most women had in contemporaries during this era.

The “goals” for characters in mainstream fiction throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s was personal growth, which often included rampant sex and major life changes such as divorce. Although it’s not true, many critics of the genre romance saw marriage as the only “goal” for the women characterized within. While the rest of fiction was directed at those who had lived through the social upheaval of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and the woman’s movement, it seemed as though romance novels were written in a vacuum. It’s no surprise they picked up an “anti-feminist” label; the worlds described in many of these early romances (be they the bodice-ripper historicals or the old Harlequins) did not match the rest of mass market fiction, or the emerging culture.

And yet I believe these critics missed something: for many people, small steps are easier to take than huge leaps. For instance, sex in a bodice-ripper may have been the easiest way for many women to come to grips with their sexuality. Then too, there’s something to be said for the escape into a fictional world totally unlike the world in which we exist on a daily basis. Those old bodice-rippers were certainly not politically correct in the decade before “p.c.” was even given a label, but they were based on long-lived fantasies.

Eventually, though, romance novels “caught up” in many ways with the rest of culture, and the uneven playing field that existed in romance novels between men and women slowly evened out; by the early 90’s, heroines saved heroes nearly as often as heroes rescued heroines.

Regardless of this time lag, as romance authors expanded their writing and moved beyond genre fiction, they began to change the face of Women’s Fiction. Of all the varieties of Women’s Fiction, I’m more apt to read those without an agenda, without an “issue.” I go for the books that explore relationships, which tends to include those written by former romance novelists. They are accessible, driven by character rather than plot, issue, ideal, or trend, and those who write books of this vein generally do so because they are interested in characterization. I’ve found that whatever flaws good romance novelists bring to Women’s Fiction when they first make the move, they have little trouble transferring their ability at characterization and relationships beyond the man/woman thing into the people thing.

Although I haven’t read her most recent effort, former historical romance author Patricia Gaffney’s first two forays into Women’s Fiction were quite good. Former series and contemporary romance author Barbara Delinsky also writes some fine Women’s Fiction. (Interestingly, my first book by Delinsky was right before I started to read romance. Her 1993 release More Than Friends is a classic work of Women’s Fiction in terms of its exploration of friendship, marriage, family, and infidelity.) Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind also gained acclaim for her Women’s Fiction novels. And my vote for 2002’s biggest buried treasure novel is Mary Alice Monroe’s The Beach House, a Women’s/Southern Fiction delight.

When St. Martin’s sent me a hardcover copy of Haywood Smith’s Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch, I couldn’t wait to get to it. After not having seen a book by her in more than a year, I’d wondered whether this romance buried treasure was no longer publishing. After all, her books were different from other romances; my favorite of her books, for instance – Dangerous Gifts – featured a hero and heroine who didn’t even meet until page 100. Knowing that she had a new book was exciting, even if she’d jumped the historical ship for Women’s Fiction.

Many of you already know I’m a bookie by way of being a “wordie” – I love the way words sound when put together well. Smith had me hooked by page four of her Women’s/Southern Fiction novel with this sentence:

The same damned purple bathtub full of pink begonias reclined on its gilded ball-and-claw feet beside the front door, like a rich old socialite laid out on a swooning couch in her underwear.

The two romances I recommend for Smith had some explosive moments, but she excelled at the smaller ones. Queen Bee too has some small moments, but its tone is so brash it hardly seems the same person wrote it. That’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned; indeed, I’m impressed by an author who can write with different voices. And while she created characters and forged relationships quite well for 90% of the book, she unfortunately failed miserably in the 10% that didn’t even need to be there.

At the start of Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch, Linwood Breedlove Scott returns to the bosom of her family and family’s home with nothing. Her husband of 30 years left her after spending $200,000 on a stripper, the IRS sold most of what was left, and she’s got precious little other than her car, her clothes, and extreme trepidation about living with her racist, senile father, her overbearingly Southern mother, her demented uncle, his steadfast but unequipped wife, and the brother who’s never amounted to anything – all in a mansion without central air conditioning in the middle of the summer. Her goal is to find a job and earn enough money to re-do and move into the garage apartment.

As Lin figures out how to cope with the changes in her life, she makes important discoveries, about herself, her brother, and her mother. She finds temporary employment at the local pharmacy while earning her real estate license, and though it’s through this job at the pharmacy that her life changes, it’s also where she gets to know pharmacist Grant Owens. Author Smith knows how to write sexual tension, and the chemistry that develops between Grant and Lin is exciting to read. But Smith squanders everything in a simple scene roughly 50 pages from the end of the book. I don’t read Women’s Fiction for a “romance novel” HEA ending, so it wasn’t the fact that things soured between the two as a result of the scene that was the problem. Instead it was that it was so clumsily written and ridiculous, and therefore a turn-off, that nothing I read in the pages that followed even registered. Romance novelists know how to write successful or failed intimate scenes; what happened to Smith’s ability is a mystery, but above all a disappointment. The book, which had begun and continued with so much promise, went from a B to a C in an instant.

Although I continue to read some Women’s Fiction, reading Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch was a reminder of why I prefer romance novels. Obviously I’ve read romances that fail in a turn of the page, but even in those books I know there will be a romantic happy ending. Reading another type of book, where a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, can simply be too much of a crap shoot. It’s one thing to not have a happy ending, it’s another to be disappointed along the way.

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Let’s switch gears now and head back into the world of romance novels. I’m a tremendous fan of Donna Simpson, who has written some wonderful traditional Regency Romance. She and I just completed a quick Q&A. I’ve also conducted a Q&A with Chris Keeslar, senior editor of Dorchester Publishing, which publishes the Leisure and LoveSpell lines of romance. The Simpson Q&A is up first, followed by the Keeslar Q&A.

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Q&A with Donna Simpson

LLB: When you decided to write romance, why did you choose perhaps the least read (and understood!) sub-genres? Was it primarily a stepping stone or because of a long-time love of traditional Regencies?Donna: I would have to say both. I have always wanted to write murder mysteries and have completed several unpublished (unpublishable?) novels in that genre. Because of my love of Jane Austen and her time I began reading Regency Romances and was totally hooked. So it was a natural fit, when I began to look beyond writing murder mysteries to romance to write a trad Regency. I did, and it was my first published romance novel, The Absentee Heart, published by Rubenesque Romances, a very small publisher. LLB: Although the traditional Regency is known for non-explicit sensuality, your Regencies, while still very subtle (often “kisses only”) don’t seem to be lacking in sensuality. Some Regencies are more explicit than yours while in other instances I’ll read a Regency and wish for something more. That never happens when I read your books…I don’t miss a love scene at all. Why do you think that is?Donna: I really appreciate that compliment because sometimes I think that is one of the hardest thing to decide for a Regency. How much lovemaking is enough? How much is too much? Zebra is a little more conservative that way than some other Regency publishers and so I am bound by those rules. However, I think that makes me aware of all the non-sexual sensuality there is between a man and a woman. A touch, a look, a sigh… they can all be expressions of longing which heightens the power of eventual sexual union. Once that uncertainty is answered and the yearning has its fulfillment much of the sexual tension is released and dissipates. Television people know this well, and that’s why so many TV couples play footsie for so long before they actually come together. LLB: Lord St. Claire’s Angel featured a plain heroine and a good-looking hero originally out to dally with the heroine to spite his sister-in-law. In spite of himself, he falls in love with her. The heroine in Lady Delafont’s Dilemma is overweight. The heroine in your short story A Rogue’s Rescue (part of the Untameable anthology) features a hero and heroine who are not particularly attractive. You’ve also written stories involving beautiful heroines, but let’s talk about these other stories first since they aren’t the norm. I know you have an interest in writing stories about larger women. Tell us about this, and about the characters from Lord St Claire and A Rogue’s Rescue.Donna: I never really thought of those characters not being the ‘norm’ in romance fiction, I suppose because they are the norm in real life. All you need to do is look around to see that not everyone is Catherine Zeta Jones or Pierce Brosnan. And yet they fall in love and experience romance, sometimes in beautiful and passionate ways. Imagine that! I may seem to be being a little sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way. It just puzzles me that anyone should think that strange. Why in our society is romance deemed to be the province of the physically perfect? For too long “imperfect” women especially were only ever seen in TV and movies as the butt of jokes. A fat woman as the romantic heroine? Ridiculous. But not all romance novels treated women that way, and that’s what inspired me. I read Regencies with physically flawed heroines and heroes, too, and they intrigued me. People with real problems and challenges interest me much more than those who don’t.

Celestine Simons from Lord St. Claire’s Angel was very real to me. I have known people who have struggled with arthritis, and yet who have come through it with this beautiful, cheery, selfless character that sometimes emerges from suffering.

I love Ariadne Lambert and Viscount Ingram from my novelette A Rogue’s Rescue. She was based on the indomitable spinsters in English murder mysteries, and in fact her first name is the same as Ariadne Oliver, one of Agatha Christie’s characters. Ingram is one of those darkly enigmatic and charismatic men who, with other men on an even footing can be brutal, but who is, with women, absolutely gentle… courtly, even. He becomes intrigued by Ariadne when he sees the flashes of brilliance behind the facade she is trying to create of a mindless, witless aging hen. I knew, when they created their story, that there was not another woman in London who would satisfy Ingram’s ruthless honesty, brilliant mind and his impatience with affectation, stupidity and snobbery. Their love, then, is based entirely on character and has nothing to do with looks. That they are both homely is incidental. If one or the other had been beautiful but still the same underneath they would have still fallen in love.

As far as weight issues in my novels go, in real life I know a lot of women with excess pounds, and in almost every instance their husbands fell in love and married them just as they are. Men are not as shallow as some people would make them appear, nor as led by public opinion. The same is true of women. Most women don’t care about thinning or disappearing hair or a paunchy gut. The old adage that beauty is only skin deep is so oft-repeated because it is so very true.

LLB: Love Lessons, another short story you had published this year (in the My Dashing Groom anthology), was one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. I wrote in an earlier ATBF that it featured two romances, all in 87 pages, and that there are a couple of very startling lines of dialogue in the story. One is the line that begins the novel. Another comes far later, and the moment the hero utters it, he wishes he could take it back. It’s one of those lines that are absolutely devastating upon impact, and it made me cry.

The story features the reluctant romance between former army officer Nic Barton and Linnet Pelhem, whom he comes to know while trying to break-up the betrothal between his older brother Cedric and Jessica, the former actress who is his mistress. He doesn’t know Linnet is Jessica’s younger sister, who is equally determined that her sister and Cedric be happy and married. Their first meeting is as unforgettable as the opening line of dialogue that starts the book, and the chemistry and drama of the situation never wavers for a second.

This novella succeeded for a couple of reasons. One is that the secondary characters were fairly unusual. But the main reason is that, as a couple, the hero and heroine were unforgettable, and that’s because as individuals they were well-written and well-defined, and because the hero’s growth was poignant and believable.

Can you comment on this?

Donna: First, I was so thrilled when I read your column. Every writer wants to make readers cry! Seriously, inducing emotion in a reader is the ultimate goal of every romance writer. You want your readers to laugh, cry, shout in anger, and yearn along with the characters, but the secret is that you absolutely cannot set out to induce those emotions, or your writing becomes manipulative. You have to create real people, give them real conflicts, and see what happens. It’s an intuitive process for the most part, at least in my own case. You can do a lot of planning for a book, but there is a whole lot you can’t plan, or it just feels forced and unnatural. Dialogue is like that, I think.

Nic and Linnet’s romance was guaranteed to be a troublesome one. You start with two characters who are attracted to one another on many levels, and then give them the kind of obstacles those two faced, and you are going to get conflicts. Nic’s one saving grace in the story is that he is capable of growth and learning and that he can admit when he is wrong. Those are the same attributes that made him a successful soldier. If an army captain could not grow and learn from his mistakes, he would kill his men. That was the tragedy of the Regency British army in many cases; too many of the leaders were hidebound and incapable of thinking on their feet and adapting to changing circumstances. If they had not had Wellington, who exemplified that kind of ‘thinking-on-your-feet’ intelligence, they would have lost the war.

Linnet’s challenge was to see Nic’s penance as the apology he longed to make for almost unforgivable words uttered in haste. That she could, speaks to her own character strengths as a nurturer at heart who makes allowances for the frailties of others, as she does with her sister. Jessica is, in my opinion, absolutely real. There are some women who just want and need someone to take care of them, and for her, Cedric was her perfect match, because he needed someone to take care of. He, too, is a born nurturer, and that’s why he and Linnet get along so well; they understand each other and know they can rely on the other’s strength.

LLB: In A Matchmaker’s Christmas, you included three romances all within the confines of a Regency’s relatively short word count. And it worked! You also were, as far as I’m concerned, quite daring as the primary couple was relatively old. I admit I was actually reluctant to read the book because of the “age thing.” Were you concerned about this? Why did you want to explore this?Donna: I would love to say that I foresaw the “age thing” as a problem, and that was why I balanced Beatrice and David’s romance with two youthful ones, but… well, I have to say I truly did not see it as a concern. I just didn’t think of it. Books come to you different ways. A book’s genesis for me can be a snatch of conversation, a setting, or a character. A Matchmaker’s Christmas came to me as that opening scene; a middle-aged woman cutting the last fall flowers and talking absently about the change of the season, all the while snatching peeks at her irascible employer, who is being far too quiet. (As an aside: was the fall season a metaphor for Beatrice’s age? I didn’t think of it until after, but it’s possible that my subconscious planned it that way. That often happens to me, that I plant things in novels and don’t realize their significance until later. It’s part of what happens to an intuitive writer.)

I knew Beatrice had a secret, but what was it? And why, despite being a long-term companion to this woman did she never let her guard down, never let herself take for granted her situation? Lady Bournaud obviously cared for her and relied on her, but Beatrice never let herself feel quite secure. Unanswered questions drive me nuts, so off I went to merrily find the answers to Beatrice’s closely guarded mystery.

Why did I want to explore a romance between two middle-aged people? I think the fact that they were forty-plus was a by-product of that secret in Beatrice’s past. She had harbored it for many years, that I knew when I started, so she had to be forty, or almost forty.

But in truth, people find romance at every age. My mother lives in a senior building, and the amount of flirting, canoodling and carrying-on there is amazing. People come together and break-up, have lover’s quarrels, marry, divorce, and move in together. Isn’t that great? I love that humans never come to the end of that need for love, romance and togetherness. I think that is the beauty of the ever-hopeful, ever-optimistic human spirit, and I did want to celebrate that.

LLB: You’ve been public in talking about the books you’ve written that perhaps didn’t work as well as some of your others. It’s a breath of fresh air but I wonder why you are able to do this when so many other authors aren’t?Donna: You’re talking in particular I think about A Country Courtship, to which the AAR reviewer had an unfortunate reaction. I think there was one particular thing that set her off and destroyed the rest of the book for her, because by and large the reaction I’ve gotten is that though it was not my best book, it was certainly not horrendous. But individual reaction is what taste in anything – art, movies, TV, books – is about. I absolutely hated the movie Message In A Bottle because I felt the author was cheap and manipulative with the viewers’ emotions, but I know that most people loved the book and movie. Different strokes, and all that.

But why shouldn’t I talk openly about the fact that not every book I write is a diamond? I work very hard and I write a lot. I make my living from it. But the way it works in the business is that you propose a book to your editor with a short synopsis. If he or she accepts it, a contract is signed, and in my case I write character descriptions and describe a couple of sample scenes for the blurb writer and the cover artist. In other words, almost everything is locked into place long before the book is even written, and you are contractually obligated to deliver it on a certain date. This is not to excuse sloppy or slipshod work. I do not let go of a book until I feel good about it. But on the other hand I can’t pull a J. K. Rowling either and hold up production until I have had time to iron out everything. I do my level best, and then I have to let it go. In the case of A Country Courtship I worked hard to make sure the premise did not come off as a Big Misunderstanding plot. However, it never quite gelled the way I had foreseen when I first proposed the novel. I still don’t think it was terrible, just not my best ever.

If it makes me a rare bird to admit that not everything I do is golden, then I think it’s kind of cool to have that distinction. I believe deeply in honestly. I think that honesty, integrity and passion are integral to our craft as writers.

LLB: I know you are trying to move into the single title historical arena. If you can, would you still like to write traditional Regencies? What would your action plan be to make these books more widely read?Donna: I would like to continue writing Regencies, and so far, I will be. A lot of ideas occur to me for romance novels, and sometimes these are just better fitted to a trad-style Regency than to a single title historical. It has nothing to do with sensuality or complexity and everything to do with some indefinable ‘aura’ that is a combination of tone, character and dialogue style in an appropriate length and format.

As for making them more widely read, I am continually surprised to hear from young people just discovering Regencies. I think there will always be some readers to whom the format appeals. From what I hear, the audience is the most stable romance reading market in the business, though fairly small. However stability is not what any industry is looking for, it’s growth. I don’t know what I can do individually to encourage more people to read them but continue to write quality books and talk about them every chance I get.

LLB: Who has influenced you in your romance writing? When did you decide to write romance, and how did you start? What are your favorite books? Favorite romances? And why?Donna: When I first started reading Regency romances the writers who appealed to me immediately were Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley. I liked their characterization and the depth of feeling in their novels, and have always been attracted to character-driven novels, romance or mystery. I love almost anything by them, and in fact my favorite romance novels are all Regencies. I adore Patricia Veryan’s Married Past Redemption. In her skilled hands a standard Marriage of Convenience plot became a powerful love story that transcends genre or sub-genre boundaries. I love The Duke’s Dilemma by Nadine Miller, The Rake’s Rainbow by Allison Lane, and Miss Billings Treads The Boards by Carla Kelly. My favorite Christmas-themed Regency is Winter Wonderland by Elizabeth Mansfield. The first meeting between Miranda Pardew and Barnaby Traherne is devastating, when she makes him the object of ridicule, setting in motion a chain of events that haunts them both for years to come. How they come together is a great story! I find for me to react to a romance, there has to be some character within it that makes me feel for them. I need to be engaged and root for them whole-heartedly, as I did in the above-mentioned books.

As for how I started writing Regencies, all the time I was reading them, I was writing mystery novels and trying to get them published. That is an extremely difficult market to crack.

I took me a while (duh!) to make the connection that what I enjoyed reading, I should try writing. It was a natural fit from the beginning, and The Absentee Heart was born. After that, I had this inspiration for a heroine with a severe form of arthritis, and I wrote Lord St. Claire’s Angel. I belong to no writing groups, and am not a member of RWA, and so I was a complete innocent at marketing a romance novel. The first people I approached all said they were no longer publishing trad Regencies. Then my sister, the most persistent and best marketer I know, e-mailed Mr. Zacharius at Kensington asking about their Regency program. He said he didn’t think they were accepting any, that they had a stable of writers who supplied all of their needs, but that she could e-mail romance editor John Scognamiglio. John said to send the manuscript in, and on January 11th, 1999, Lord St. Claire’s Angel was accepted. It was a scene right out of the movies, with champagne popped and everything.

Since then Kensington has been very good to me. Even if I move on to longer-format historicals set in the Regency period, I will still want to write trad Regencies. They require tight writing, snappy dialogue and the readers of Regency romance are a knowledgeable bunch! I love being challenged to get my history right, and there is nothing more enticing to me than reading research books about the Regency era. I made some grave errors directly out of the gate, and I swore to myself that I would get better. The reviewers and MB posters at AAR are the best around at pointing out deficiencies, making valuable comments, engaging in lively debate and offering direct criticism. For any honest writer willing to take a cold, hard look at his or her writing, this place is tops, and I appreciate all the hard work you do there at AAR to make this industry, the romance fiction industry as a whole, a better place!

(See also Donna Simpson on what a writer owes her readers)

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Q&A with Chris Keeslar

LLB: How would you define your job as a senior editor at Dorchester? Break it down in percentages in terms of finding new talent, cultivating existing talent, working w/an author in terms of actual editing. Consider AAR’s audience as not knowing exactly what you do and educate us.Chris: Define my job, eh? Crazy. You all know the stereotype of the harried jack-of-all-trades editor? I can’t dispel it. Every editor has different expectations based upon his house’s needs, but being employed by a small publisher makes flexibility, broad knowledge and ability crucial – along with a superhuman ability to manage time that I’m still working on acquiring. To use the old cliché, everyone at a small publisher wears a bunch of different hats. It’s even truer of my profession. To accomplish our tasks, each of us must be a terrible Frankenstein’s monster: sadly sewn together bits of reader, businessman, writer, marketer, and schmoozer. (Ask my authors – they’ll agree at least on the monster part. I’m tall and green.)

An editorial staff is in charge of handling the publishing schedule (under the purview of the Editorial Director), and so they must make sure that their list each month is populated by several established writers with proven track records, several authors they’re trying to groom to move up to the next level (the infamous “midlist”) – and one or two new people, only a few of whom ever actually write a second publishable book. Working as a team, the staff needs to make sure all of their schedule’s different “slots” are filled. Thus, each editor needs to be able to read and buy bigger-name authors or delve into the slush piles to find the next new thing. Being a senior editor just means I have more pull regarding whom we put where, and I have more freedom to develop projects on my own. You ask for percentages of time devoted to new or established authors? Every month is different. It depends on the quality product I have from authors I’ve worked with before, material that my colleagues have bought or contracted, and what is available in the slush piles.

Here’s a quick summary of editors’ jobs:

From a huge pile of submissions we need to extract the most marketable books and analyze our company’s ability to promote and publish them for profit. When we’ve actually found something we think is worthwhile, we have to get our publisher – the guy who holds the company purse strings and is in charge of the whole shebang – and the author (or the author’s agent) to agree on terms. Then we have to fit the book into our publishing schedule, and work on the contract wording and continued negotiation. In regard to the book itself as a product, we have to help the author see exactly what she’s trying to say and help focus that – in every scene and on a more holistic level. We help each author tweak her work so that she’s made her book the best it can possibly be. Then we go over each manuscript line by line, making sure everything is clear and concise. Then we answer any questions the copy editor had while he was checking grammar and punctuation. At the same time we write the cover copy, explain the book to the art department and help them come up with a marketing concept/package (although I don’t always have as much power in that as I’d like); pitch the book to everyone in the company so that they are excited about it; and finally hype it to the company’s sales representatives. After it goes into stores, we have to track its sales to see if we can publish the next book an author may or may not write. (Of course, this is all with one book and one author. I average anywhere from 24 – 36 books per year.) We also work on projects our current contracted authors present to us, and help those get developed. Also, three times a year, we go to conferences to promote our company to get more people to submit…starting the process all over again.

You ask for percentages? I’d say about 5% of my office time is reading new authors. Often I take their work home with me. The other 95% of my time is doing the rest.

LLB: What’s it like being an editor in a predominantly female field? Susan Grant mentioned that there are advantages as well as disadvantages. An advantage – being more bold in accepting new concepts and plots. Disadvantage? Perhaps more emphasis on action and plot than romance. Another advantage? Letting an author know when a male character is speaking like a sissy. The flip side? Having to “fight,” so to speak, for the “mushy stuff” women like.Chris: As you imply, there are both positive and negative aspects to me being a man in this field. There are times when I think I am eminently qualified for my job simply because I know what makes a story dramatic, and there are times I feel like a complete schlub because I don’t think like a woman. I don’t always like “mushy stuff” for its own sake, and have to rein in my own tastes. I do, however, like a good book – be it Romance, Mystery, Western, Fantasy, whatever. And I know how to help most authors make books that work.

To be honest, most good stories have a romance in them; it’s simply a matter of focus. I grew up reading Fantasy (swords & sorcery-type stuff), which I see as a male version of romance: both genres are about bringing out the best in people. For Fantasy’s predominantly male audience, the catalyst for change (or heroicism) is some external obstacle (a dragon, an evil magician, a usurper, etc.) For Romance’s female readers, there’s going to be some similar external action, but that is only going to be framing the real journey: emotional development. The two genres are sides of the same coin. The same desires are being fulfilled, bad guys are beaten, guy and girl get together. Romance gets teased all the time for always having happy endings, but I’m not sure that Fantasy is all that different.

A good Romance demands a strange mixture of plot, character development, and other top-secret stuff. I depend on my authors to give me all those ingredients in a dough. I suggest to them different shapes for the dough. They cook it, then I stick a fork in. When there’s dough on the fork, I send it back to their oven. I’m around to try to catch that stuff – the plot elements that stick, the characters that don’t make sense. I help try to ensure no idea comes out half-baked. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. I ask that my authors watch out for all the fantasy fulfillment stuff they need and want. They watch out for what their sister readers are looking for, and I help them make sure those desires work structurally. Maybe I’d be better at other aspects of my job if I were female, but every editor brings his own set of skills to the table. Mine are mostly about structure and logic. I look for authors whom I can complement.

So far, I think most of my authors and I work pretty well together.

Also, as you suggest, because I’m a guy and don’t have the same background as some women in similar positions, I might be more likely to take risks pushing boundaries of what is called “Romance.” I could go into a whole discussion of why Romance is looked down upon right now and how the Publishing industry and the readers themselves continue that problem, but it would go on for pages and pages…so I won’t.

LLB: Oh, please do.Chris: You know how publishers yank an author out of Romance when she starts to get big enough, hoping to make her “mainstream.” That means there will rarely be authors who are huge names and perfectly representative of the best the genre can be. The fact that most authors hope to graduate from Romance is genre-defeating.

Also, the readers who play down the fact that they enjoy Romances are helping this obstacle persist. Similar to my thoughts about the cover treatments, I think this all may come down to the fact that the puritanical roots of America and the titillating nature of Romance are in natural conflict. At first I’d want to blame an historically male-dominated power structure for making women feel silly about loving books with the “mushy” stuff, but then I laugh at such masculine hubris and wonder if it’s also a foe closer to home. Isn’t it just as possible that women are afraid of other women looking at them and seeing their “weakness?” It’s like being the female friend who’s not married by 30 – as a New Yorker I have plenty of friends who fall into this category, so I’m not casting aspersions or implying anything’s wrong with that; I’m just pointing out this weird social stigma – to be the friend who really likes Romance novels, to be desirous of books about the search for one’s perfect mate. (I’ve found most of the people who admit to liking Romances without wanting to admit it are upwardly mobile professional women who feel like their tastes might stigmatize them in some way – not only with men, but with their own female friends.) A person may feel perfectly comfortable and fulfilled with Romance books or being single, but the societal conventions are there, weighing one down….

I have pals (no kidding) and when their families find out what I do, they always point at their crazy old Aunt Ethel who loooves Romance novels. I wonder how many of the other women (and maybe men) in those families have read and enjoyed a Romance but don’t speak up. Even I, sometimes, feel a twinge of silliness when I talk about my job. But the truth is, a lot of what I produce is good solid fun. And some of it is even better than that. Heck, maybe this is like any kind of stupid prejudice: everyone needs to stand up as one and fight.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the genre is stifled. It needs to grow, and to be allowed to grow. It doesn’t do any good when companies try to put out the same old rehashed junk, simply because it worked once before. It’s a good marketing and business strategy (look at Hollywood and sequels!), but it’s terrible for an art form. Change needs to happen. And it will. Dorchester (of course I’ll put our name at the forefront) and the other companies are stretching out bit by bit, and I think the genre will come away the stronger for it – at least in terms of reader appreciation. We’ll see. I’m no Nostradamus.

LLB: How did you end up being a senior editor working w/romance writers? What are your aspirations? What is your background?Chris: I grew up in Michigan wanting to be a writer. I wrote a couple of plays and a Fantasy novel (Woodsmoke) that were thankfully never published. After graduating from New York University back in ’95 with a degree in creative writing and English lit, I answered an ad in the New York Times that got me a job as an editorial assistant at Dorchester. I think they called me in because I wrote the worst cover letter ever: cheesy, purple, and cocky. Despite that, I had a head for constructive criticism and was a hard worker. When my direct superior, Joanna Cagan, left back in ’97, I applied for her position. I’d done work on manuscripts before that, in conjunction with the other editors, and so they considered me. I think they tossed a coin. I’m not sure whether I won or they lost. I guess we both won, because 7 years later, I’m still there.

Aspirations? Someday maybe I’ll write Woodsmoke II: Up the Chimney. Or not.

LLB: Dorchester is known for finding new talent. This is rather a double-edged sword. By this I mean that many consider Dorchester a “second-tier” publisher, finding new talent, but losing it to other houses with more prestige. It is also known as a house that doesn’t focus heavily on editing; the belief being that you simply buy books and throw them out to the public w/out cultivating the author. How do you respond to readers who believe this to be the case?Chris: Hm. Well, I agree that we’re known for finding new talent. It’s a function of being a smaller house: a certain flexibility that our bloated competitors don’t enjoy. We look at unsolicited manuscripts they won’t even consider, and from those piles we find people who aren’t trying to fit into the Romance machine of cowboys and secret babies. Along with the crazies who send in their manuscripts written on blue paper with orange crayon are some first-time authors with a lot of talent. I bless those authors every day.

Of course, our larger competitors get to profit from our method – when things go right for us, they notice and swoop in with larger advances. Or they copy what we’re doing. If a writer is particularly successful, they get lured away with money. I don’t necessarily think any of the people who have left us in the last 5 or 6 years did so for “prestige.” It was more about the moolah. And who can blame them? A huge corporation is often going to be able to offer larger advances than a smaller one – it’s simple logic and understanding of cash flow. Does that mean Dorchester can never become a prestigious house? Only if you’re basing prestige on advances. Give us time. We’re working our way up. Slowly but surely. I’m very proud of the authors we have right now, and I think readers are fond of them too.

As for “buying books and throwing them out to the public without cultivating the author,” I think anyone who believes that needs to speak to my authors. Some of them probably think I “cultivate” them too much.

LLB: Leisure and LoveSpell covers are notorious among romance readers as being over-blown and often overtly-sexual. In my mind there are two schools of thought when considering romance covers. One is that the over-blown covers easily advertise the book’s genre. Someone can literally spy a romance novel from across the room and know it’s a romance. On the other hand, they do seem to perpetuate the idea that romances are “women’s porn,” totally frivolous books undeserving of any serious discussion. I’m not here to argue that romances are literary fiction, but will there be a time when the covers can “grow up?” Do you think they should, or should critics simply lighten up and enjoy them as fun?Chris: Yes, I think critics need to lighten up. Of course, I also think most of America needs to lighten up. I won’t argue that some clinch covers are tacky and awful, but some are quite beautiful. I think most objectors are projecting their own discomfort regarding sexuality. (They don’t want to read them in public because of what other people will think.) Think about it. Romances are about sex to some degree, right? They’re about love and romance – things that eventually lead to sex. Generally, the whole point of men and women coming together is to propagate the species, isn’t it? It’s about finding a perfect union so that people can reproduce and have happy little spawn. It’s tough to represent that more obviously than with a clinch. I find it interesting that doing so blatantly causes such discomfort in some.

Of course, there are plenty of women who like the clinch, who like to see what the hero and heroine look like.

I’d be interested to see a study of which women like what, and why. I find it fascinating how some readers find the idea of sex being a focus of a Romance as something detrimental to feminine power. It seems doubly ironic considering the roots of the genre. We could go into a whole discussion of the rise of romance and the art of Courtly Love as a counter-cult designed to oppose the male-dominated Christian power structure of Europe, but that might be going a little off-track….

Personally, I think covers should reflect content. When Romance started, you saw those bodice-ripper fronts because that was what was going on inside the books: violently sexual themes. Publishers saw those covers worked, so they latched on to them. Fine. They’ve evolved with the books – you don’t see too many bodice-ripping covers anymore. Yet the stigma remains.

It confuses me a bit. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a clinch. A cover with two people together against a historical (or futuristic, or whatever) backdrop tells us – as you suggest – exactly what readers are looking for in such a book. Such a cover indicates a grand scale (very similar to Fantasy covers) that will end in a fulfilling sexual relationship. I’d like to see, rather than focusing on how “childish” the clinches are, our society figure out why it’s so disturbed by the overtly sexual nature of one of its favorite genres. And I’d like to see us “grow up” before the covers.

LLB: Can you let us know how the litigation between Dorchester and Dara Joy stands at this point?Chris: Not really. To be honest, I don’t know much about it. She’s not my author and never has been.LLB: What can you say about the Susan Grant/Wal-Mart situation?Chris: Isn’t it over? I’m only thinking about getting Sue’s next book in there. I don’t know much about the last situation, being on the editorial staff and not in sales – and not being able to determine what Wal-Mart thinks its customers want to buy – but I’m hopeful they’ll like her next book.LLB: Dorchester has been innovative in terms of creating sub-lines, such as the fairy tale re-dos, the new Gothics, and in publishing so many paranormal romances. Where did those visions come from, and what does the future hold? I know the B.L.I.S.S. books will be coming out in the new year… where did that idea come from?Chris: We, Dorchester’s editorial staff, usually come up with our sub-genres, but those sub-genres are based on the work of our current authors. They all come to us with ideas; then we figure out what they’ve got in common. We try to imagine ways to try to get readers excited, as well as distributors. It’s worked so far because we have good authors with good ideas.

B.L.I.S.S. was actually one exception to this – it was my concept. I just felt like readers were ready for something different: action-oriented funny romances. With Austin Powers out, and James Bond… And a year after 9/11, I figured people would be ready to laugh at spy stuff. Of course, Homeland Security’s a little scarier than I anticipated, but what can you do…? Still, the authors writing our first three books (Nina Bangs, Lisa Cach and Lynsay Sands) are all top-notch, and they all put together exactly what I wanted. Each book (From Boardwalk With Love, Jan.; Dr. Yes, Feb.; and The Loving Daylights, Apr.) is different, and each is wonderful in its own way. I encourage people to check them out.

LLB: What do you find over-done in the genre these days? What are the trends as you seem them developing over the next couple of years? Which are the authors you’ve signed, and what do they have in the works? What led you to sign them?Chris: Unfortunately, I can’t really give you a market report. I’ll tell you what I tell everyone at conferences: It’s almost impossible to predict trends. I’m constantly looking for the new “thing,” so I’m not shutting myself out to any ideas. Stories that you call “over-done” are just not written well. Any idea, even an old one, can be entertaining with a new twist or skillful narrative. It’s all in the handling.

As for my own people, I can go on and on for days about how good my authors are and what made me want to buy them, but I don’t want to snub any in the attempt. I guess if you want to know the types of authors I like, I can give you a short list. Some better known people whose first books I bought and whom I’ve continued working with: Lisa Cach, Susan Grant, Melanie Jackson, Julie Kenner, Catherine Spangler, Susan Squires, Ronda Thompson. Some new authors you can all look forward to: C.J. Barry, Cheryl Howe, Bonnie Vanak.

I haven’t mentioned a ton of authors whose books I’ve worked on and enjoyed, and they’re each going to kick me after they don’t see their names. I probably deserve to be kicked – they’re all excellent.

I guess the elements that are first and foremost for me are a sense of humor, insightful characterization, and a willingness to push boundaries. I’ve been pretty lucky in all of the people I’ve bought – whether they’re historical, futuristic, or something that defies categorization.

LLB: Do you accept manuscripts only from agents or have you read through the slush pile? How many manuscripts do you read in a week?Chris: I read both agented manuscripts and slush. How many depends on the week.LLB: What components make up the best romances? What is the best romance you’ve ever read?Chris: Hm. Since I didn’t read a lot of Romance before I got to Dorchester, you’re going to get me in trouble with my authors, trying to make me choose among them. I’m not going to do it, though; I’ll dodge the question. What makes the best romance? Strong characterization and a solid plot. The best romance I’ve ever read not by my authors? A pair of books: The Winds of War and War & Remembrance by Herman Wouk. Check it out. (And then we can talk about whether or not it’s a Romance, and if you get the 1980 Pocket edition of War & Remembrance, we can discuss the purple cover with the clinch.)

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Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

Did you have any “book-related” goals in 2002? If so, what were they, and did you achieve them? Do you have similar goals for 2003?

In what year did you became an adult, reading fiction for adults? What were some popular books of the period that you read and enjoyed? Were you reading genre fiction at the time, mainstream fiction, or something else altogether?

 Does it seem as though mass market fiction is more fragmented than it used to be? Are there works of mainstream fiction everybody seems to read nowadays, or has fiction reading gone the way of cable TV, with different categories for different tastes?

What are some mainstream fiction novels from the last couple of decades that hold up well for you? What are some that disappointed you when you re-read them?

Do you read Women’s Fiction? How many types of Women’s Fiction do you think there, and which, if any, do you enjoy reading? How, if at all, has the move or romance novelists into Women’s Fiction changes WF?

When I mentioned that, whatever flaws a romance novel has, at least I can look forward to a romantic HEA, does that at all sum up for you your feeling about reading non-genre books that are disappointing?

Many of AAR’s review staff read traditional Regencies and yet as far as the overall romance reading public, few readers read in this sub-genre. Are we over-doing it, doing just fine, or have we perhaps opened your eyes to a sub-genre you wouldn’t have normally tried?

 If you don’t read Regencies, is one of the main reasons because they are very limited in how explicit the sex can be?

Is there anything in the Donna Simpson Q&A that particularly struck you? That you found interesting, odd, or nice to read?

What did you learn about an editor’s job in reading the Q&A with Chris Keeslar that you didn’t know? Did his answers about his day-to-day job surprise you or confirm what you already knew or suspected?

Had you ever considered Fantasy as the male counterpart of Romance? One question I didn’t get the chance to ask Chris was how differently a man might edit a love scene given that men are supposedly aroused by the visual while women are said to respond to the written word. Any thoughts? (Read Chris’ response to this question, originally posted on our ATBF MB.)

Chris had some interesting comments about covers. How do you respond to them?

 I came away from the Q&A with Chris more apt to try a romance published by Dorchester than before. Did reading his answers do the same for you? If so, why, and if not, why not?

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Chris Keeslar answered this question on our ATBF MB: “How differently might a man edit a love scene given that men are supposedly aroused by the visual while women are said to respond to the written word?”

“In regard to your question, Laurie, I do think I sometimes approach sex scenes differently than my authors. At the very least, I have different needs. I remember once working on a book with Lynsay Sands–an author whom I was not fortunate enough to discover myself, but whom I’ve worked with and enjoyed for close to 10 books now–when I said: ACK! Here you have the heroine going off like gangbusters, firecrackers everywhere, and then you cut to the next scene. Please, please, please give me a sentence where the guy finishes. (Prudish people skip this next sentence.) In porn, it’s called the money shot. “Hm. Now that I think about it, I don’t know if that means Lynsay and I were thinking of the sex scenes in Romance differently or the same.

“And as for the written word affecting men differently than women, I suppose you can judge that for yourself as well.”