The Times, They Have Changed, I Think–I Hope

Recently, the Smart Bitches had a posting on the rules and boundaries of the romance hero’s conduct—namely, is he allowed to sleep with other women in the course of his love story, once he has met the heroine, or even once the reader has cracked open the book?

This, of course, is but a corollary to the much older, much more pervasive, blood pressure-raising, and probably never-going-away debate on whether the romance heroine is allowed to have—and enjoy—sex with other men once we are past the dedication page.

I frankly don’t care about the hero’s chastity. If he’s pure as the driven snow, great. If not, I’ll judge his action—and any action he might enjoy with someone other than the heroine—in the context of the story. The rules—or stricture, I should say—about the heroine’s conduct, however, have chafed me more than a little over the years, precisely because such rules existed, unspoken perhaps, but very much adhered to and demanded from authors.

Schemes of Love, the first novel I sold, is, in a way, the first novel that I ever wrote. It got me the attention of my first agent. She saw some potential to the story. But she did not hesitate to tell me that the manuscript, in the shape and form as was presented to her, was unsaleable.

The basic premise of the story has always been girl meets boy, girl loses boy through her own misdeed, and many years later, girl meets boy again. My first agent gave me three pieces of advice on the book. One, she said, you can’t write the story in a linear fashion. Start the story when they meet again and not a minute before. Two, you can’t have the heroine do something morally wrong and then somehow vindicate her. Wrong is wrong. Three, you can’t have the heroine take lovers, even if she did it off stage, during a very long separation, with the hero having made it abundantly clear that he would never come back to her.

The majority of romance readers live below the Mason-Dixon line, said my very liberal New Yorker then-agent (those were her exact words). They would not tolerate the heroine’s unfaithfulness, she added, particularly not from a debut author.

That was in the earliest months of 2001.

When I returned to the story some four-and-half years later to rewrite every last word from scratch, I took her first two pieces of advice to heart—and rejected the third one outright. It would have been out of character for my heroine to mope for ten years and save herself for a man who has rejected her unequivocally. It would have been out of character for me to submit to the whim of some mythical, disapproving reader when I’m not even writing for her, but for me.

For good measure I emphasized in the first chapter that neither of my protagonists has been sleeping with only his or her feather pillows.

And then, of course, came the hand-wringing, as I waited for reactions to this heroine who is utterly unapologetic about her lovers—and to this couple for whom the lovers, his and hers, aren’t even an issue compared to what really divides them.

The contest judges were unfazed that neither the hero nor the heroine remained celibate during their long separation and I know for sure that some of them live below the Mason Dixie line (hasta la vista, stereotype). My agent has never said a thing. My editor at Bantam is resolutely unbothered.

Maybe the times have changed, thanks to the authors of erotic romances who have managed to smash a lot of rules while making money hand over fist for their publishers. Maybe the readers have become more accepting of heroines who differ rather dramatically from the old, agreed-upon feminine ideal. Maybe I’ve improved enough as a writer that people get absorbed in the story and don’t care about such peripheral distractions.

We’ll see by next year this time what reader reactions would be. In the meanwhile, I have a story to pitch to my editor in which, gasp, there is sleeping with other people again–and this time not quite so peripheral to the story.

A little side note. A reader inquired some time ago in the comments about the use of profanities in romances. It seems that in historical romances the f-bomb is still largely unwelcome (both my former and current agents have asked me to avoid them if I can, though I am trying again in DELICIOUS to sneak a few in by having the hero drunkenly comments on the fate of a particular piece of legislation—he’s a politician). But in single-title contemporary romances I don’t think those are frowned upon at all, especially when used by men. So go ahead, f-bomb away as you write. Take half of them out before submitting and leave the rest to the gods of obscenity.

The Theory of Accelerated Karma, it seems, needs to marinate some more before it will be ready for the grill.

11 thoughts on “The Times, They Have Changed, I Think–I Hope”

  1. I just read another Judith Ivory–ohhh, I love her–in which the hero sleeps with his mistress (who is not the heroine) throughout much of the book, while trying to convince the heroine to fall in love with him. And he sleeps with his mistress onscreen, not off. I loved the whole thing. It’s so interesting to see how he has sex/makes love with 2 different women. The quality of their sex is completely different, based on the emotions between them, what their agendas are, even what the 2 different women’s bodies are like.

    And I’m from below the Mason-Dixon line…

    As for cussing in books, I love it. 🙂 I cuss all the time in life so I put it in my books too. I think cuss words are expressive in ways that you just can’t substitute.

  2. I loved Black Silk by Judith Ivory as well. But I understand that there are lots of people put off by the fact the hero does keep his mistress for 3/4 of the book and sleeps with her onscreen.

    I’ve heard it said that if Henry James were alive today, a woman, and writing romance, he’d produce Judith Ivory books. 🙂

    The thing is, Graham Wessit (hope I remember his name right) was not a man who lived by the normal rules. And everything he did with his mistress was an illustration of his character and part of his character arc.

    I can’t personally write a hero like that, but I totally bought it. And that’s the magic of stories. In the hands of great writers, stories bring to me–and make dear and near to my heart–characters I would not have met in real life and would not have associated with in real life because on surface they seem so different from me and what I’m used to.

  3. I always thought the seemingly strict genre conventions of Romance quite off-putting and I’m very pleased they seem a little less strict in these days. I love authors like Robin Schone, to name one, who’s broken quite a lot of them.


  4. In the context of your book (10 years apart), I think it’s not only reasonable but I would say it would be completely unreasonable if the heroine remained chaste. Sorry to hear the book isn’t coming out until April 2008. When I read the excerpt on your website, I was sooo looking forward to getting my hands on it. I love the plot and you have a very nice writing style.


  5. Glad to see you posting again. I always find your blog very interesting to read. Thanks for the comments on profanity and the chastity issues in romance. I think you made a good point that the most important thing is the story, the overall power of it, how it’s all tied together. Things must fit and belong there, and if they do, they do.

  6. I also have the vibe that times are changing, and I hope it’s true. I get tired of those perfect heroines who heal the sick, feed the hungry, take in orphans and never do a thoughtless or selfish thing in their lives. A few days ago I wrote a review(scheduled to go up Wednesday morning) in which I referred to the mythical Middle American reader. I used that same word, too. Because I do think it is a myth. Readers come in all stripes and spots… and I for one love a flawed heroine.

  7. LOL, Janine. So true.

    In fact, the whole story of SCHEMES OF LOVE evolved out of my frustration with the overabundance of “good” girls in romance. You have tons and tons of stories where the hero thinks the heroine is all kinds of nasty and immoral, only to have her turn out to be as pure and beautiful as the beginning of Creation.

    So one day I asked myself, what if I had a heroine who actually did do something that was unambiguously wrong? That there was no misunderstanding at all, that the hero left her for good reason? How do a man and a woman who otherwise love each other deal with such a breach?

    I’m sure when the book comes out there would be those who wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. But I’m not too worried. Because there are far more imperfect women than perfect ones in real life, from what I’ve seen, and they are the real readers.

    Let the mythical readers worship the improbably good heroines.

  8. Welcome back Sherry!

    I loved Katherine Stone’s “Twins” (I read it back when I was like 14!) and one of the big plotlines is that one of the heroines sleeps with both twin brothers (and eventually gets pregnant) but the way she wrote it was this desperate emotionl reaching out for something the heroine thought irrevokably(sp?) lost. It was so important and the story would not have been nearly as good without it.

    Boinking a bunch of people just because, well that’s not so good, but not for moral issues. It’s no good because anything big a character does should have some sort of motivation behind it. Whether it’s boinking your third cousin’s ex-husband or deciding not ot slip that gun into your handbag. You gotta have a good reason for it.

    Sorry your publication date got delayed, but hopefully this will give your publisher a little more time to hype it!!!


  9. Sara, Bev, Adrian, and Maprilynne, nice to see everyone.

    And M., you are so right about having a good reason for important character action.

  10. Sherry — I just stumbled upon your blog courtesy of Kristin Nelson. I’m very excited about your coming book and will be standing in line to snag me a free ARC! Your story about how PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS came about is very interesting to me. I’m kind of in a similar boat with a current wip.

    Congratulations and hope to meet you in Dallas!


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