In 2014 she won the ECO Romantic Suspense category, and in 2015 finaled in Pages from The Heart, Hot Prospects and the Heart to Heart contests.
She invites you to sit back, get comfy and prepare to drop into her stories.
The one piece of advice romance author Anna Richland gives me as she hands me her card is this:
"Please -- please -- whatever you do, don't refer to what we write as
She recalls a May 2014 story in The New York Times, about News Corp.'s acquisition of Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., a publisher of paperback romantic fiction. Even the East Coast's dignified Grey Lady, in an otherwise serious profile of a business acquisition, couldn't resist including the lightly mocking euphemism for the books in its headline. Or a paragraph or two of musings on whether The Wall Street Journal would replace its stock listings with steamy serialized fiction. The cracks could be argued as hitting harder on the Fox News owners' synergistic predilections than on those of a genre's readers and writers, but Richland says there's still a double standard at play.
"If it weren't romance, if it were another genre like mystery or science fiction, it would have been a straightforward article about a publisher merger," Richland says. "But because it's romance, it's a joke."
We're in the Bellevue Library after the close of the monthly meeting of the Greater Seattle chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Richland, a former officer who has written one novel with a military bent and two in a paranormal series called "Immortal Vikings," is one of nearly a dozen authors from new to well-published to leave their card.
With Valentine?s Day looming, I've set out to learn about the people who make their living manufacturing romance. And does the genre hold real-life romantic lessons? Or is fiction best left on the page?
The first thing you have to understand about romance is that it's big business. One of the biggest in the consumer trade sector of book publishing.
Providing Nielsen and BookStats self-reported publisher figures from 2013 (2014 figures weren't yet available as of this writing) the Romance Writers of America reported $1.08 billion in sales, or 13 percent of the adult fiction market (though the Library of Congress, in promotional materials for an upcoming conference on the genre, gives a more generous 21 percent estimate).
Romance has transitioned well into the digital age, as has genre fiction in general. E-books comprised the greatest proportion of sales at 39 percent, compared to 32 percent for mass-market paperbacks. Amazon, the largest seller of e-books, doesn't report its most popular genres, but a look at the website's Top 100 Literature & Fiction list for Jan. 19 showed that romance and erotica novels took up more than 22 of the coveted spots.
Anecdotally, think back to your last visit to a brick-and-mortar bookseller. If this was a chain retailer, genre fiction was probably presented on freestanding bookshelves in the middle of the sales floor. Concentrate: How much space was devoted to each category? Science Fiction/Fantasy probably commanded two-or-so rows, some of which was spoken-for by comics and graphic novels regardless of genre. Mystery would be about the same. Depending on where you live, even an increasingly niche category like Westerns might be wedged onto one or two devoted shelves next to another genre.
Did you notice the Romance/Erotica section? It was likely as large or larger than the other sections combined. Row after row after row of paperbacks, enough to overwhelm and consume the uninitiated reader. To the initiated reader, that's barely scraping by -- romance readers are among the most voracious of all reading groups.
Here's the second thing you have to understand about romance -- though, admittedly, it's just a hypothesis: It's unique among genre fiction in the payoff it offers to readers.
Genre fiction is defined by its payoff. For science fiction, the payoff is technological: Readers expect a 'what if?' scenario around the tools humans use to survive and thrive. For fantasy, the payoff is mythological: A rousing adventure in an unfamiliar world of magic and monsters. Western readers expect cowboys and frontier living. Mystery readers expect, well, let's not become repetitive here.
Regardless of the emotional highs and lows of their stories, each of those genres promise something cerebral. A certain setting, a certain structure, maybe a certain character archetype.
Romance, by contrast, promises the emotional. In the sense that it wheels and deals in the love instinct, it's the most fundamentally human of genres.
"Everyone loves a happy ending that a couple has worked hard to achieve," says clean romance author Sally Brandle. "A good romance should validate that none of us are perfect. It isn't easy to find the right partner to share life with and not to give up."
And by demanding only that a love story be front and center, romance constructs a large tent. Every genre imaginable has a subgenre within romance. Do you have a soft spot for America's colonial era? There's a book for that -- a library's worth. Do you like spaceships? Sci-fi romance is a subgenre on the rise. How about steampunk settings with vaguely Lovecraftian story themes? You guessed it.
"I think people see romance novels as a quick escape," author Jennifer DeCuir says. "A way to decompress, unwind, and put yourself in the heroine's shoes. not everyone can say they are 100 percent happy with their lives, but sometimes just reading about someone else's happily-ever-after is enough."
Anna Alexander was an early blooming writer. She identifies herself as a major league fan of comics and comic book movies -- a trait borne out in 'Heroes of Saturn,' her debut series of steamy offworld novels about superpowered vigilantes. Hugh Jackman's abs and Christopher Reeves blue eyes are both listed as inspirations on her author bio. Lately she's diversified into the western sub-genre. The first book in her 'Men of the Sprawling A Ranch' series, "The Cowboy Way" was released in July.
We're speaking over the phone. It?' a Saturday, and Alexander is tired but riding on a personal high: She's just completed a two-week writing marathon to meet deadlines on three new novels.
"It was good and it was fun, but I don't know that I want to do that again anytime soon," she says.
Far from grousing about her tight schedule or collapsing into post-deadline exhaustion, she sounds positively chipper. After all, she's doing exactly what she wants to do. And she remembers how, not too long ago, she wasn't.
Alexander's origin story begins at 13, when a friend lent her a copy of "A Rose in Winter," by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss: a period romance full of betrayal, cruel fortunes, torn hearts and new beginnings. Alexander's imagination was unlocked. She felt like she had found the blueprint for her writing career. She wrote a short book of her own. Then another. And another.
In the made-for-TV movie version of this story, Alexander would have left school with bestseller in hand, ready to walk into a career as the next literary wunderkind.
But life happens. Somewhere between graduating school, marrying and pursuing a steady career, she stopped writing. She stopped reading too, something she says with a little bit more of a wince in her voice.
"I had a career path in mind before I entered the real world and I got sidetracked away from my plans."
A few years ago, Alexander rediscovered her love of reading. Her love of writing returned soon after.
This was around 2009. "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" had shifted the public interest in superhero films into overdrive and it looked as if the trend would only continue. Alexander knew she had the right interests at the right time in history so she made a decision and committed her fingers to the keyboard. By the time "Marvel's The Avengers" was a month away from theaters, Alexander's "Hero Revealed" had hit bookshelves under the paranormal Twilight line from erotic publisher Ellora's Cave. She hasn't looked back since.
Alexander's basic story isn't unique among authors. To a person, every writer who weighed in on this article began as an insatiable reader. But each had a different call-to-action.
Eilis Flynn had to see how the meat was made. She had always been a fan of the happy endings in romance. When she took a freelance job for a romance publisher in the 1980s, she found herself working with the books in their raw, unfinished stages. Today, she writes paranormal romance.
Brandle's tipping point was practically a personal dare. She devoured romance novels but found herself skipping past the explicit sex scenes.
"A friend and I share books," she says. "We were at her home and her husband picked up a romance novel from the coffee table and flipped to a page. he started reading a sex scene, and I started blushing. He refers to them as Ladies Home Erotica."
She became determined to write 'a great romance,' sans sex. Her work resulted in "Love Thrives In Emma Springs," a chaste romance adventure series for all ages.
DeCuir's tipping point was. well, light theft.
"Back in high school a friend and I would steal her mom's Harlequin romances and devour them; usually two per weekend," she says. "I always thought, 'I can do better than that.'"
"Fiction is where we can get in touch with our emotions," DeCuir says. "We read other genres for other purposes: To study history, to learn about particular figures, to learn a new skill. But when readers pick up a fiction book, I believe they want to laugh. They want to cry. they want to feel angry and elated. Romance, in particular, can draw out every single one of those emotions in one book. It's a roller coaster ride."
DeCuir keeps her stories rooted firmly in reality, specializing in romances that blossom in the fictional hamlet of Scallop Shores, based off her own childhood hometown of York, Maine. Her business cards are printed with the tagline "Fall in love in a small town!"
She recognizes that readers pick up romance novels for an escape, but she says a good one can also lend real life lessons in love.
"A well-crafted hero can show a young girl that she doesn't have to settle for the jerk who only wants one thing from her," she says. "A strong heroine can give a reader something to aspire to. A reader might discover something lacking in their own relationship that they can fix based on what they have learned in a novel. Or they might gain the courage to leave a relationship in order to find someone more deserving of their love. Books are powerful tools."
"[The genre?s] absolutely full of real-life romantic lessons," she says. "It should be full of romantic lessons.
"In our stories, the couples aren't perfect. But together they realize 'We can be better people.' Why can't that be a real occurrence? I don't see why it can't."
Alexander says she sees romantic novels as a revitalizing experience for readers. Like people, relationships grow old. They become more mature and more capable against life?s challenges, but they also tend to lose their youthful abandon. Through fiction, readers can experience a return to innocence again and again.
"One of my over 80-year-old readers once told me that parts of my story reminded her of when her husband was 'courting' her,? Brandle says. "What she felt when they first held hands."
From her perspective as an editor, Flynn says the best romance novels accomplish the same thing the best novels, period, accomplish -- they reflect who people are. Though the genre has its formula, good novels can't be formulaic.
"I've had dozens of romance writers -- almost 60 in the past two or three years, in fact -- as clients," she says. "I've found the best romances. Keep in mind that it's not an artificial point-to-point story; those aren't worth finishing. [Romance is] the oldest story in the world, because it's how we humans evolved and thrived."
DeCuir is the only author in this article who wholeheartedly identifies herself as a romantic person. Brandle says she grew up a tomboy. Alexander and Flynn each describe themselves as inhabiting the middle ground between hopeless romantic and hard-nosed pragmatist.
Richland, the military romance author from the beginning of this story, provides some insight as to why that might be.
"Writers are business owners," she says. "I run a business."
Would that they could spend all their working time dreaming up stories and pounding away at a laptop. But the reality is, successful authorship requires surprising amounts of time away from the keyboard. Time spent picking book cover designs, pitching new stories to publishers, attending conventions. In the Internet age, blogging and maintaining social media accounts have become a necessity.
That's why many authors flock to the Romance Writers of America, a guild and support organization for genre writers. After forming a sizable collection of rejection letters from magazines and Harlequin, DeCuir says her local chapter directed her to other publishers that might be interested in her brand of small town romance. That list led her to Crimson Romance, which accepted her Scallop Shores series under its Contemporary line. Her fourth book with Crimson, "Trapped in Tourist Town," came out in January.
King County, Wash. is covered by two chapters of RWA: the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America -- for which Alexander serves as president -- and the Eastside Romance Writers of America.
Sitting in the first GSRWA meeting of the new year, members are elated as they file into the room. Many group together with friends they haven?t seen since the prior month. Some who meet regularly to bounce ideas off each other pick up where their last conversation left off.
"Next to the word 'supportive' in Webster's should be GSRWA and ESRWA as examples," Brandle says. "No back stabbing, conniving members in these groups " [It's] so different from the climate of any competitive field I have experienced."
It's a small marvel watching Alexander run through the chapter's organizational housekeeping. She rattles off a list of upcoming organization events, reminding the unpublished writers in the room to submit their manuscripts to the Golden Heart Awards and the published writers to send cover art into the Judge A Book By Its Cover contest (sitting next to me, country romance author Nancy Radke of Kirkland lays out a half-dozen options she's considering). She reminds everyone to submit their writing goals for the month to the group to keep themselves honest.
"The publishing world is crazy," she says from the front of the conference room. "No one understands, but we do."
The meat of the meeting comes when children's author Lois Brandt gives a presentation on the structure of short story. This comes with an assignment: Write about a memorable break-up. This elicits a series of groans (Mostly in jest -- one woman shouts ?Oh no,? before breaking into giggles). But when Brandt started the timer, everyone -- unpublished and published alike -- began scribbling furiously in their notebooks. Because they know the learning process never stops.
I'm not the only outsider in the room. After the meeting, I'm approached by Skip Ferderber, a technology journalist who recently decided to take a crack at writing a novel. His subject matter isn't romance, but he was drawn to the RWA because they're one of the most organized writers groups in the area.
"I was on the fence for a long time, because of the romance aspect," he says. "Finally my wife tells me 'Stop being an idiot. These women are writers.' And she was right."
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