Why Write Romance?

When people ask me what kinds of books I write, I struggle a little with the answer.

Romance? Women’s Fiction? Romantic comedy? Romantic suspense? Suspenseful romance? How on earth do I categorize these things?

I used to not want to say “romance”—I tried to place myself in some other category. Saying “romance” raises eyebrows. Creates a cloud of disdain. Makes my parents shudder when we’re in a public place. There’s still some stigma, is what I’m saying. I thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer. People would say, “THIS is what you did with a graduate degree?”

But here’s the thing: I love a good romance. I love stories about people falling in love—from the awkward first moments, to the part where you can’t get that person out of your mind, to the part where you go from hiding secrets about your deep dark self to making yourself completely vulnerable and finally letting that person into your world.

And then being let into theirs.

I love the clumsy, messy, hilarious moments that collide with the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching times that make you feel like you’ll surely vomit on your shoes.

After some awkward conversations at family dinner tables, a few friends who said they skipped over some key pages, and an uncle who said, “I try not to think of you as the narrator,” I’ve come to this conclusion:

I’m proud to write romance novels. I will happily write funny, messy, complicated love stories all day long. And if someday, I do get to do that all day long, I’ll consider myself pretty damn lucky.

We could talk for hours about what separates “romance” novels from “women’s fiction” novels (and why is it “women’s fiction” and not just “fiction”? And how do you categorize these stories, anyway? Where is the line? And does that even matter any more?), but when I think about the books I’ve enjoyed the most, they all have one thing in common: at their heart, they are a love story. I have a lot of favorite go-to romance writers. I’ve got a soft spot for the paranormal (I’m looking at you Jeaniene Frost) and for comedies (Hi, Jennifer Crusie and Alice Clayton). I love reading about some swoon-worthy heroes that set my cheeks on fire. I’m picky, though, I’ll admit: I have a high bar. There are a lot of tropes out there that I don’t want to read, and a lot of red flags that will make me close a book faster than you can say, “cliche.”

My brief list of horrors includes but is not limited to: ditzy women, helpless heroines, misogyny, cruelty for entertainment, woman as object, and woman who falls for man who perpetuates any items on this list. Jennifer Weiner wrote a fabulous piece for the New York Times called “We Need Bodice-Ripper Sex Ed” that encapsulates a lot of my thoughts, and she’s much more articulate that I am.

So why do I write romance novels?

To write against those horrible tropes, of course. Romance, as a genre, is constantly changing. I’m delighted every time I discover a new writer who’s penning smart-mouthed bad-assed heroines who aren’t afraid to tell their partner what they want, who won’t settle for being some prize to be won, a wild creature to be tamed. I don’t look for that in my real life (see above terrible tropes), so I certainly don’t fantasize about them.

I want to see women save themselves. Sure, I like to read about women finding their heroes and stumbling into love, and I like some old school swept-off-her-feet action (yes I wrote a scene where my heroine is thrown over the hero’s shoulder and taken away in a fireman’s carry, by an actual fireman—but she was being a doofus and needed to be stopped from making a terrible decision, and damn, was she stubborn). I like to see a guy come to the rescue to a point—because yes, we all need a little help sometimes, and if a dashing man does it once in a while, I’m happy about that—but in the end, I want to see a lady save herself and solve her own problems. The best relationships are partnerships, after all, so sometimes she needs to save the fella, too.

And for heaven’s sake, enough with the alpha-holes. I get so aggravated by this trope: a guy who’s an absolute asshole, alpha-male taken to the extreme. (I can appreciate a take-charge attitude, but let’s not go off the deep end to the point where there’s malice and degradation, please.) These always involve a woman who swoons over him and is helpless to bend to his will—and enjoys the blatant misogyny. This one doesn’t compute for me. I get the bad-boy thing, I do—I am hopelessly in love with Wolverine—but why fawn all over a man who treats you badly? A bad boy with a heart of gold? Okay, sure—I can get behind a good redemption story. A bad boy with an iron fist? No thank you. Why perpetuate cruelty? Why make it seem like that’s acceptable behavior—or worse, desired behavior in our male counterparts? We expect more from our lovers, spouses, and partners. So why not raise the bar in our fictional men, too?

So yes, I write romances. I write about people stumbling into love, and getting all sweaty, and falling apart, and coming together, and going head-over-heels stupid for each other. But I also write about people making each other better. Connecting with each other in ways that extends beyond where the parts fit together. Because that’s what happens in the best relationships—and dare I say the ones we dream of and fantasize about. So I’ll continue to write novels with steamy seductions and strong-willed women who find men who know how to treat the the way the deserve.

We need more stories out there where women save themselves—where sexual satisfaction comes because a lady feels valued and respected, and not in place of it.

There’s a lot of ugly in the world. We could use some more love—like, the real kind that lasts.

How to Talk to Birds

cardinal

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge bird nerd.

This spring I set up two new bird feeders (ok, I totally MacGyvered two of them with some duct tape and caps from spray cans, but they do the trick). They’re right next to a bird bath that our stray tuxedo cat keeps knocking over, and right by the bedroom windows. I felt this was a selfless move, because it meant my fella could watch birds all day while he works from the “home office,” which is a big desk by the windows.

What I didn’t take into account was how the birds’ pleasant twittering would quickly turn to raucous squalling when the territorial disputes began. Now when the cardinals start chirping around the time my alarm goes off, it’s not uncommon to find my fella covering his head with pillows and muttering something about closing windows.

This idea was 95% genius.

It might mean a little less sleeping in, but it does allow me to get my fill of cute little bird habits: like the way titmouses hop along the edge of the birdbath searching for just the right spot to dive in. Or the way that pairs of cardinals traipse in the flowers and carefully feed each other the prize seeds they’ve found. Or the way that magnolia warblers burst out of the trees long enough to swipe a seed in a fly-by. I think I understand why cats sit by windows now.

So all of this birdwatching was bound to give me a new idea for a book.

I signed up to be a vendor at Asheville Zine Fest, which meant I really needed to make a couple of new zines to take with me. I make these every now and then—miniature books that fold out like maps or fit together like puzzles. I don’t get to do a lot of letterpress printing these days, but events like the Zine Fest give me a good reason to sit down and make some things by hand.

 

carving woodcut

 

So of course my yard full of peeping, twittering visitors inspired “How to Talk to Birds,” a miniature book that includes 6 birds that have been visiting my yard this year. I was itching to do a woodcut again, so I carved a 7 x 10 inch block and printed it using my baby Vandercook printing press. I experimented with some digital printing on handmade paper for the book covers, and stitched these together with thread. They were a hit at the Zine Fest, and I think my favorite moment was when a lady carefully unfurled the whole book to see all of the birds, and then realized their corresponding bird calls were printed on the back side of each page. Then she read it out loud and made the bird sounds, like the “purty-purty-purty” of the cardinal and the “ankh-ankh-ankh” of the nuthatch.

 

 

“My friend just had a birthday,” she said. “She’ll love this.”

That’s one of the best compliments in the world, you know, to have someone buy something you made to give to someone they love. It sort of makes this whole process worthwhile. That might have been just the thing I needed to kick me out of my retrograde funk—getting my hands dirty, smelling some ink, and making a stranger smile with a tiny book of birds.

Want to see more of this? Check out my page at Patreon.com, where I post videos, tutorials, works in progress, desktop calendar (sometimes with birds) and more. And of course, you can find bird prints and this mini book in my Etsy shop.

 

 

Top image (cardinal) is courtesy of Pixabay.com. A huge thank you to the folks at Asheville Zine Fest—thanks for all your hard work, and I can’t wait to see you next year.  

This is What Retrograde Feels Like

 

My fella: How do you feel?

Me: (in pain, in slug pose, melting into couch) Like a dingbat.

Fella: Why a dingbat?

Me: Because I hurt myself planting a flower.

Fella: Well, when you put it like that…

True story. This is me today. I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed lately—with work, and family, and life in general. This is one of those periods where it all is just feeling like too much, and I don’t know how to keep my head above water anymore. I feel like I don’t have time to do the things I really love anymore, and that’s not a good feeling. Time feels like it’s racing by, and it’s just passing between one work obligation and the next, leaving no time to relax or do what brings me joy.

This happens. It’s cyclical. But I’d like it to not happen.

So I’ve been trying to find ways to carve out time to write, to make art, to get more exercise, and to breathe. I started doing a little Pilates and yoga, just 20 minutes each day to relax, and give my mind a break, and stretch out these muscles that hurt so bad. (I go to a masseuse who is magical, but she always makes somewhat disappointed sounds when her fingers dig into my shoulders. “Your shoulder blade won’t move,” she said to me a few weeks ago, and I thought seriously about buying one of those little wooden meat tenderizers and asking my fella to try it on the most offending parts.) I had to MAKE myself step away from work for these 20 minutes (when did I become a workaholic??) and it’s already making a big difference. My shoulder blade almost moves again.

This weekend I had the bright idea to do a little gardening. Don’t let me mislead you: I am no gardener. I have no green thumb. I wing it with flowers. I buy what’s pretty and smells nice, and depend greatly on the lovely Kathy at my local greenhouse (who is like my fairy godmother for planting), who gauges the likelihood that what I’ve selected will survive in my shade conditions.

Planting things helps me breathe. It gets me away from my desk, it gets my hands in the dirt, and it makes me happy when things actually grow and thrive. It makes me feel more like a human and less like a part of a machine.

So I collected some flowers from Kathy, planted them yesterday until a thunderstorm rolled in, and finished the last few pots today. And as I planted something that looks vaguely like a dahlia, I turned the wrong way, heard a snap, and was frozen for a second in sharp pain. Did I really just snap my back out of normal by planting a flower? Is some planet in retrograde again?

Nope. This is the universe telling me to slow down. I know it.

For the rest of the day, I tried to relax. I read a little. I edited a manuscript. I thought about ways I can carve out a little more time for myself again. I think our bodies let us know when they need a break—when we’re pushing ourselves too hard and need to take a step back. We really do need balance, and our bodies remind our brains sometimes, when our brains are saying “GO, GO, GO!” at 100 miles an hour.

I got the best advice one day, from my dental hygienist, and it pops into my head at times like this. My dentist had determined I ground my teeth at night, and that I had done severe damage. She said, “Honey, stress will take you right out of this world.” And I know, she’s absolutely right. We have to find balance, and we have to make time for ourselves. We have to make time for the things we love, and the people we love.

I feel like my body had to put me in time-out to remind me of that. But I’m on board again, body. I hear you.

My Patreon Project has Launched!

 

This week I’m excited to start a new project over at Patreon.com.

If you haven’t heard of Patreon, it’s an amazing site that lets you support artists on a subscription basis and get rewards every month. (It’s a little like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but SO much better.) 

I love connecting with people—other artists, fans of my work—you name it. Once upon a time, I went to craft shows like Kentuck and the Chattanooga Zine Fest and had a blast meeting people. I sold some prints, and that was cool, too. I made a little extra cash and it helped me buy nicer woodcut tools, or take a class at Penland. But it takes a lot of time and money to travel and go to shows like that. Sometimes I had to take days off from work, and lose that pay. Sometimes I had to stay in motels, or pay a booth fee, and sometimes I just broke even. Sometimes I didn’t even make the booth fee back. There was no predicting how much work I’d sell, and pricing my work is like my least favorite thing in the world. 

That’s where Patron becomes a lifesaver.

It creates a direct line between me and my fans—and it goes both ways. Fans can contact me anytime (and please do, because I love to hear from you. Want me to draw your brother-in-law as a woodpecker? Email me.) Patreon lets me show you all what I’m working on, share my process, get feedback from fans, and share the finished work. And it gives fans a bigger window into my creative processes. I can share tips about how I carve blocks, or rig up my little tabletop printing press to make my new block print—or I can share tutorials that might help someone else, too. 

And all of that can be happening each day—it’s not just a flurry of activity that happens over a day or two at a big art show. (Sometimes that’s overwhelming, and I forget 80% of what happened, and what I talked about with people.) This way, there’s some constant contact between me and my Patrons, and that means they get to see more from me, and I get more inspiration from them. 

I love this idea. It makes me feel like making is interwoven into my day, and not just something I do in fits and starts to meet a deadline for a show.

(Because that’s sometimes how it feels when the creative part of me is fighting against my day job for my time and energy and attention.) I like this idea of Patrons letting me make more cool stuff more often, so it becomes more of a daily process again for me. 

If you like that idea, too, check out my Patreon page. I’m sharing all kinds of stuff, from digital downloads, to exclusive blog posts, to letterpress prints and books. There’s something for everyone, and subscriptions start at just $1 a month to get some digital wallpapers (like the swallows pictured at the top of this post) and special blog posts. You can cancel anytime, and you can share with your friends. I made this Patreon page because making art brightens my day, and I like sharing things to brighten your day, too. So check it out—I’d love to see you on my team and send you cool stuff, too.