Studying Romance Novels

During three decades of part-time university studies, I developed an interest in the social, industrial, and technical forces that shape the content and understanding of films. Various aspects of the subject continue to fascinate me, which explains why I still research and write about film classification systems, why I recently bought a Laserdisc player, and other eccentricities. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Although reading and writing romance novels is a pleasure, I can’t help but consider the academic film theory I learned and how it might apply. Since much of the theory in film studies originates in literature studies, this is not a stretch, but rather than re-inventing the wheel, I should look at what has already been done. Step one completed: I ordered Janice Radway’s classic work, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature.

Meanwhile, I’ve just acquired a copy of Genre: The Musical. I obtained this for an essay by Richard Dyer: “Entertainment and Utopia.” To give credit where credit is due, this essay was brought to my attention when Linda Williams used Dyer’s theoretical approaches to musicals in her work studying narrative pornographic films.

Dyer notes that entertainment pleases us by showing utopia – a simple world where people have agency and intense feelings, and there is abundance, honesty, and community.

Richard Dyer’s categories and definitions of utopian aspects in entertainment. “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Genre: The Musical, edited by Rick Altman. Routledge, London, 1981, 175-189. Originally printed in Movie #24, Spring 1977, 2-13.

Sounds good, though he also notes that entertainment typically disregards issues related to race, class, and sexuality. We’ve made little progress, except perhaps on sexuality, since he wrote that in 1977. He adds that since our entertainments take place in a capitalist society, they promote consumption and the notion that capitalism can lead us to utopia.

For people to accept utopia in a story, there needs to be a connection to the present reality – without drawing too much attention to how the present is not utopia. That might make us question capitalism. Dyer proposes three approaches for how musical films attempt to connect reality and utopia without dwelling on the gap:

  • Separated, where the musical numbers present the utopia, and the story takes place in the present. This is typically a “backstage musical,” such as 42nd Street. The musical numbers eventually take over the film. It occurs to me that this is similar to romance stories where an ordinary person meets a billionaire (typically successful in business). Their world is the utopia, seen in isolated scenes before the ordinary person crosses over to it.
  • Integrated, where the musical numbers introduce the problem or the solution to the problem, in an effort to distract, and make both the problem and the solution literally upbeat. Mamma Mia, for example, resolves finding your father through a series of ABBA songs. This is like contemporary romance and especially romantic comedy, where meet cutes and misunderstandings are key parts of the plot. Suspense, faith, or erotica are other distractions, and there’s often a subplot of achieving business success. Like musicals, the lead couple may have several ‘solos,’ the supporting cast may have some numbers, and we end with the lovers duet.
  • Dyer describes the third form as the least common: Dissolved, where the film is somehow distanced from the present day. This is often done by setting the film in a past, which, no matter how grim it seems at first, works with our sense of nostalgia to evoke a glorious utopian era. Oliver! comes to mind as a musical film example. The distance is also a distraction. This category would apply to historical romances, as well as stories involving modern royalty, the paranormal, and even Amish stories, and may be the most popular form of romance novel. Utopia, or a happy ending, is easier to achieve in a more refined, magical, or simpler time.

These categories are not necessarily exclusive. An historical romance with a wealthy duke and comic misunderstandings gives us utopia that is primarily dissolved from our present realities, with elements of separation and integration. It could be argued that not all films, or even all musicals, present utopia. However, romance novels, with happy endings by definition, do give us utopia.

I find it useful, when reading and writing romance, to be aware of the tensions between presenting relatable characters and situations and presenting a happy ending, and ways to address those tensions. I also find it useful to recognize how entertainment utopias may ignore social issues. Modern romance novels are often good at addressing issues of sexuality, but race and class are less frequently addressed. Agency (including sexual), intense feelings, abundance, honesty, and community are common to most happy ever after endings, but there’s room to add more utopian aspects. That would be good for everyone – and might help sales too!

There Must be a Better World Somewhere

A couple of months ago, I justified spending time writing on the grounds that the world needs positive stories (Pondering the Pandemic). Since then, things have gotten worse. We appear to be recovering from the pandemic, but there is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19. There’s no vaccine and treatments remain uncertain. Meanwhile, I’ve learned I have a cancer that probably won’t kill me, but does compromise my immune system. I’m more likely to be a carrier, and more likely have complications if I develop COVID-19.

But the pandemic has become old news, replaced by stories of racist murders, the protests those killings have sparked, the riots that follow some protests, the trampling of protest and press rights, and the escalating authoritarian madness coming from the American president.

With all this going on, I still believe we need positive stories, though in the last few months I have done nothing to contribute to that pool. My first romance, Ocean’s Lure (new title!), was with beta readers (the comments were mostly supportive). I could have been working on another story, but I started a new day job, and my editing sideline saw three projects originally to be done in sequence all come due at the same time. Another few weeks, and Ocean’s Lure will get its last revision before publication, coming late summer or fall.

Happy Reader Mascaron & a Sprinkler Alarm (New York, NY)
Some rights reserved by takomabib No changes made.

When I talk about writing positive stories, since I am writing romance, the key aspect is they demonstrate people finding supportive and healthy relationships. Within the genre, that’s the HEA – happy ever after. That does not necessarily mean the relationships are always a straight white man marrying a straight white woman. And even if that is the primary relationship in the story, I may sneak a less conventional relationship into backstory or subplot, and frame it in a positive manner.

However, there are other things I like to promote in my work. I believe every story is a political statement – it expresses what is good and bad about various power relations, group decisions, use of resources, and so on. So I try and show my characters, or at least my good characters, as respecting the environment, being concerned about poverty, achieving satisfying work, enjoying creative expression, appreciating (and representing) sexual and racial diversity, and so on.

It is easy to say that none of this is realistic. People end up in lousy relationships, with lousy jobs, and racism and sexism persist. Yes, that may be the reality, but stories can tell us what is possible. Writing and reading stories that portray optimistic solutions to social problems is itself an act of optimism, and a first step to resistance and change, leading to a better world.

How to Create a Shorter URL for your WordPress.com Blog Post

When you create a new blog post, WordPress automatically creates the URL slug – the last part of the post’s direct link – based on your post title. This means the link to the post will be your site name plus the date plus the blog post title.

That’s a perfectly functional link, but, particularly if you have a long title, you get a very long link. You may not care. Twitter automatically shortens links, Facebook does not show them, and people who view the posts from your blog page don’t need to see the link.

However, it’s easy to create a shorter link, which looks better when the link is visible, either on a page or in the browser address bar. It’s easier to copy a shorter link, and long links may fail in some applications, including email. And you might want a URL slug that describes the post more accurately than the title of the post.

Follow these steps to create a custom URL slug, when creating or editing your post:

  1. In the right-hand settings column, click the Document tab. If the settings column is not visible, click the gear icon in the upper right.
  2. Scroll down to Permalink, and expand that section. You can see the existing slug and URL.
  3. Type the new slug in the URL Slug box. Use hyphens or underscores instead of spaces and periods.
  4. You’re done!
Default link for this post
Custom link for this post

It’s best to create short URLs when you create the post, before publishing for the first time. You can change the URL slug of a page or post anytime, but, depending on how your site is configured, some internal links may stop working when you change it. Any external links you or someone else has posted will stop working if you change the URL slug.

If someone attempts to view your site with an invalid page or post link, they’ll get a blank page on your site, with the chance to search for what they are looking for, as well as your usual menu options, so all is not lost, but it’s a good idea to always test a link that you post.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like assistance with your WordPress.com site.

Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 12

Completed a style edit, and now working on a grammar edit. Progress is slow, and I’m blaming the pandemic for new distractions. However, making progress. I haven’t done the grammar edit on this chapter yet, but sharing it anyway. This is first part of chapter 12, and takes place the morning after the road to the campground, and Darwin’s tent, were washed away. Comments appreciated.

Darwin woke with the sun warming his face. He opened his eyes, registered that he was in Marianna’s spare bedroom and the sun was shining, and closed his eyes again. This was much more comfortable than the previous night in the truck, and the night before in the tent. The cotton flannel sheets were soft and smelled of salt. The house was quiet, and he could hear the waves through the open window. It was the same sound he had fallen asleep to last night.

Last night he’d kissed Marianna. He still was not sure why. No, he knew why – he was attracted to her. She was smart, hardworking, tough, and beautiful. But she lived 1400 km from Toronto, in the middle of nowhere, and now was not a good time to start a relationship. Especially with someone he planned to steal land from. No, it wasn’t stealing, he reminded himself. It was business. She knew the terms, she’d signed the document. And this was the deal that would secure his future.

He’d grown up in a house where the mice and rats scampered through gaps in the stone basement walls. His sister probably still lived in a house like that. His first apartment in Toronto had mice running from one radiator to the next. It wasn’t the specks of mouse shit on the counters, annoying as it was, or the need to keep all food in rodent-proof containers, that made mice annoying. It was what the poverty they reminded you of. Being too poor to fix your house, or being too tired from working long hours to fix your house, or not owning the property to fix, and knowing that you might spend money on it and be moving out a month later. Money was security.

He thought of his condo, peaceful and rodent free. He could leave a chocolate bar on the counter, half-eaten, and it would be untouched the next day. This was the happiness money bought. Carla had liked the condo, and loved the view of Lake Ontario, visible in a gap between the waterfront towers. He wondered what Marianna would think of that view, compared to her property. He imagined showing his place to her. Would she appreciate the double size shower and the soaker tub? He closed his eyes and imagined her there. Relaxing in a bubble bath. He’d come in, and she’d put down her book. He’d offer to wash her back. She’d sit up, her breasts emerging from the bubbles, and as he stroked her back with the cloth he’d lean down and kiss the top of her breasts…. Damn morning wood, he thought, and threw off the covers. His attempt to cool his feelings with chilly air failed in the warmth of the room. Why was his first kiss with Marianna – his only kiss, not his first – more comfortable and yet more exciting than kissing Carla, even after all their time together? That thought was enough to distract him.

He put on the baggy sweatpants and tight shirt from yesterday, padded to his door, and opened it. He could hear Marianna in the kitchen, calling Cerebus for breakfast. Marianna’s bedroom door was closed. He resisted the temptation to look into her bedroom, and stepped through the landing’s open door to the bathroom. She’d filled the jug of water on the counter for hand washing and toothbrushing, and added another note to the tips and reminders from last night. This one invited him to shave in the kitchen if he wanted hot water. He brushed his teeth, then picked up a towel and cloth. She’d also left out a couple of disposable razors and a bar of shaving soap. Always thoughtful.

As he came down the stairs the temperature increased. In the kitchen, something sweet was cooking on the stove, and cool warm air breezed through an open window. Marianna was setting the table, for two, he noticed, unsure how he felt about that.

“Good morning, Darwin. Did you sleep okay?”

“Yes, thanks. And you?”

“Apart from letting Cerebus out to pee at two in the morning, yes. He didn’t wake you with his barking?”

Darwin shook his head. “You’re sure you don’t mind me shaving at the kitchen sink?”

“As long as you clean up after yourself.” She poured steaming water from a pot on the stove into a bowl, and set it beside the counter. “The first cupboard on the left has a mirror inside.”

Darwin opened the cupboard. “All mod cons.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Darwin shaved, deciding he did not want to ask what that meant. In the mirror he watched Marianna move about the kitchen, then position herself at the stove.

“Whatever you’re making smells good.”

“Thanks. Just oatmeal. But I’m heating some maple syrup to go with it. Also boiling some eggs for our hike.”

Her hips were swaying as she stirred the pot. Darwin shifted the cupboard door, so the mirror no longer reflected her. “Our hike?”

“I started the generator earlier and was on my radio. The storm was nasty all over the island. Lots of power lines down, and several road washouts. A couple of motels flooded, and the boardwalk is damaged in Sydney. It will be some time before the road out here is repaired – maybe a week.”

“A week? With no power?” Darwin finished his ablutions and came over to the stove. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine. I’ve got the generator, I can run my laptop on solar, I’ll have internet once they get the cell tower fixed, which could be before or after the road, I’ve got the woodstove for heat and cooking, and I’ve got food. I wouldn’t survive winter here if I couldn’t go a week on my own. Put that on the table, please, and take a seat.” She indicated a small pot. “We just need to get you home.”

“Right. I’m stranded here.”

Marianna brought the pot of oatmeal to the table and spooned some into the bowl in front of Darwin.

“Don’t panic, city boy.” He caught her grin.” One of the guys from Bay St. Lawrence can get you out by boat. Say when.”

“That’s good, thanks.” Carla had never cooked breakfast for him, but then he’d never stayed for breakfast. She spooned oatmeal into her bowl, took the pot to the sink, and came back to the table. He waited until she had poured some maple syrup, then poured some on his. “This is superb.” He’d had maple syrup flavoured instant oatmeal, but this, cooked in a pot and with real maple syrup, tasted so much better it was like a different meal.

“Thanks. But no one can come today – tomorrow at the earliest. They’ve got cleanup there too. It’ll be few days before anyone could drive you into Baddeck or Sydney.”

“Can’t I rent a car, or get the bus, from the village?”

“No. Not anywhere around here. Someone might be able to put you up in there, but Mike said you’re better to stay here if I’ve got room.”

She took a spoonful of oatmeal, swallowed, and continued. “Meanwhile, you’ve been here two and half days, two of which have been heavy rain, and had all your stuff washed away in a flood. I hate to see what the online review will look like. It’s a gorgeous day today, and one attraction of this campground is the hike up the mountain behind us. For you, guided, lunch included, just to make it more attractive.”

“Your company is more than sufficiently attractive without food and guiding. But the exercise will help take my mind off other things we could do to pass the time.” He shouldn’t be flirting with her, he thought, but he liked her plan to spend the day together.

Marianna blushed. “Darwin, you are a great kisser. But as I said last night, it was just a kiss. It’s not going to lead to anything. I’m not interested in a relationship, and even if I was, you’ll be heading back to your downtown Toronto office soon enough. Let’s keep things as friends. Okay?” She held out her hand.

Darwin was about to say he’d just been kidding, but he hadn’t and she knew it, and she was right. He shook her hand.

“Agreed Ms… I don’t know you last name. Agreed, Marianna.”

“It’s Beecker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Beecker.” Darwin offered his hand again.

Marianna swatted it away. “Marianna, please.”

Pondering the Pandemic

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has had little impact on my daily routine. I’ve worked from home for years, and my day job continues unchanged, as does my work as a freelance editor. I’m preparing a journal article for publication, and the journal contacted me three times in the past two weeks to remind me that the deadline for requested reference formattings had not changed.

Social media is full of suggestions for things I can do at home or online. I’m happy not to have the time to take advantage of these. I’ve had precarious employment often enough to be grateful for good work at any time, and especially now. I spend most of the day in my room, at my computer, as usual. The only thing I miss is almost daily trips to a food court or coffee shop for dedicated creative writing time, but I’d been trying to reduce that anyway (the going out, not the writing).

Photo of typewriter with sheet of paper in it. "Pondering the Pandemic has been typed on the paper."
Testing backup blogging.

Movies about a disease sweeping through the population feature cinematic demises – people stricken and collapsing in the street. Science-fiction stories promise mass chaos and/or orgies. Instead, we have a disease that spreads silently, appears at first not much different than a cold, and results in people dying in hospitals. People are staying at home, largely following public health department guidelines when venturing out, and generally aware that mass activities of any kind are a bad idea. It’s easy to underestimate how serious this is.

It will be weeks or months before we know the full extent of this disease, but preventive steps are necessary now. Hopefully the steps taken and preparations are sufficient that governments are accused of over-reacting, though thousands have already died, and the numbers may be under-reporting. As for the long-term impact, some are predicting a return to business as usual, while others are suggesting we may see permanent changes in how governments and society operate. My guess is that this will be like the oil price hikes in the early 1970s. At first, there will be support for better public and social health, just as there was a interest in reducing energy use in the 1970s. And after a decade, people will have forgotten what they were concerned about, and vote for anyone who promises lowers taxes and fewer regulations.

Meanwhile, since current events have dated my contemporary romance work-in-progress, I may have to give a specific date setting of a few years ago, to make clear it describes life before COVID-19. How can I think of writing at a time like this? It’s not easy, but the world still needs positive stories – and writing gives me something do beside read the news and worry.

The Price of Rice in China

Some years ago, if I made what was considered an irrelevant or pointless remark at the dinner table, the response was “What does that have to do with the price of rice in China?” At the time, I was not acquainted with the butterfly effect, or chaos theory, so I could not make the only appropriate response: Everything.

As I slog through editing my romance novel, I’ve pondered the point of the work. This round of editing is checking grammar – weeding out flaws such as adverbs. There’s an undeniable (and undeniably nerdy) pleasure in finding a specific verb that eliminates an adverb. But it takes a lot of time. And on every re-read, I find new errors. This week I discovered a character’s clothing was inconsistent. She runs out of the house without a coat, and a few chapters later she comes in and hangs up her wet coat. It’s not as simple as fixing the first and last reference. I need to check for mentions of coat or no coat during the time she is out, and later references to the coat being wet or her being without a coat. Sorting this out is satisfying, but again time consuming. Is this editing – indeed, the whole novel writing project – a good use of my time?

There’s a lot of unhappiness in the world, and a lot of good, important causes I could support. I could be fighting to protect the environment, improve equality, or elect more responsible government. Instead, I’m flipping through a thesaurus trying to find a better way to say ‘walked carefully.’ That seems callous. It’s not as if I do nothing else but write. I vote, which should not be noteworthy, but many people do not. I make the occasional donation to various causes. And I have a second job, so the time spent writing is not a big part of my week. Still, is writing a romance novel going to make the world a better place? Will it affect the price of rice in China? Yes.

Photo of rice field terraces.
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Fiction takes reality and re-arranges it to show us what is possible. We read stories where the crimes are solved and the couple fall in love because we like to see that it is possible. Stories not only declare it possible, but can show us the way, whether it’s through new ways to identify unknown bodies, or by providing examples of good and bad proposals. We have many stories – do we need more? Yes again.

First, we need to know what is possible now. And second, the population is growing. There are another 83 million people every year, and they all need something to read. Something that shows what is possible. In my writing, I show what is possible. I promote caring for the environment, equality, and responsible government. The reading of this novel might dramatically affect the price of rice. I remind myself of that, and dive in to sort out my character’s coat, and finish the rest of the editing.

Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 4

Revisions are never-ending. Since I posted Chapter 1, I’ve added over three thousand words while making plot and character fixes. Now I’m working on style, replacing passive verbs and reducing wordiness. It’s a slow process, but the story is improving, if I do say so myself.

This is short chapter, taking place at the end of the first day, after my couple have had some close time together. It is intended as a break between two longer and more dramatic chapters. Comments appreciated.

Marianna sat at her desk, waiting for the slow internet connection to retrieve email. He had seemed interested. She’d noticed his pupils enlarging as he spoke to her in the kitchen, and she’d caught him checking her out more than once, his eyes wandering over her body. She’d had a few good looks herself. But after the dishes were done, he had turned down her invitation to stay for a drink, claiming fatigue. She reminded him that WiFi was only available by the house, and added that it might be slow if he was planning to facetime a sweetheart back in Toronto. It worked. He mentioned that he’d broken up with his girlfriend. Before she could offer sympathy, he added that it had been almost a year ago. So, he was straight and single, though if he wasn’t over someone from a year ago, maybe she’d be wise to keep her distance.

The computer beeped, an unhappy tone alerting her to a send/receive error. The internet connection seemed okay. She tried again, and went to brush her teeth while waiting. Heading back to the computer, she stopped to look out the window. Darwin’s tent was dark. “Should we do a little searching,” she asked Cerebus, “and see if we can find out more about Darwin?” The dog looked up from his bed in the corner, yawned, and settled down again.

“I’d take that as a yes, but the internet is lousy tonight.” The send/receive failed again. “We’ll check him out tomorrow.”

***

Darwin could not sleep. He considered going for a walk, but a glance out the tent flap let him see a light on upstairs at the house. It was absurd, but he did not want her seeing that he could not sleep. She already knew too much about him, and he had learned little of about her. Except that she was smart, hardworking, and attractive, and the latter did not have anything do with her ability to fight the loan demand. He picked up his book, read a few pages, and put it down again. Weren’t books sold in airport bookstores supposed to be light and entertaining reading? The third chapter had nothing to do with the bank robbery in chapter one, or the sex scene in chapter two. It introduced a family with small children, going on a picnic in a park. There was far too much description of the wicker basket and  melamine plates.

Darwin’s family had never gone on a formal picnic, but they’d had dinner on the beach several times most summers. It was fun, though less fancy than tonight’s dinner had been. The plates had been paper, not melamine or fine china. His dad and some of the neighbours would build a bonfire, and everyone would roast hot dogs over the flames. He wondered if his sister took her children to dinners on the beach.  

He hadn’t bothered telling his sister he would be in Nova Scotia. There did not seem to be any point. She still lived on the south shore, five hours out of the way. They weren’t close. He’d never seen her kids or met her partner. They all signed the dollar store cards they sent for his birthday and Christmas, but for the money he sent every holiday, that was the least they could do.

Wondering about beach dinners gave him the urge to let his sister know he was in the province. He picked up his phone and checked the time. Too late to call. A text might have an alert tone, unless she silenced them, but he did not want to risk that. He could use data, and connect to email, but the cell service, at least in his tent, was weak. He’d call in the morning or use the campground Wi-Fi then.

A gust of wind pushed in the side of tent. The poles sagged and rebounded. Hope it doesn’t rain, thought Darwin.

Time out of Joint: Season of Love Book Review

This review includes spoilers.

Season of Love is a 2019 Mirabooks (Harlequin) release. It contains two previously published novels, Thanksgiving Prayer from 1984 and Christmas Masquerade from 1985. Both are by Debbie Macomber. Last year I read her recently republished book, This Matter of Marriage, from 1997, and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to these novels. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Before I rant about everything I did not like in these stories, I must point out that these stories are thirty-five years old. They are from the beginning of the author’s career, and presumably written for the audience at the time. I’ve had enough involvement with publishing to know that the final content may not have been her choice, and the decision to re-release these novels, slightly updated, in a single book, may have been made without her involvement.

Claudia is a medical student in Seattle, living off a trust fund. She meets Seth, visiting from Nome, where he runs an oil company. He is instantly smitten with her and proposes in less than a week. He expects her to drop out of medical school and move to Alaska. She refuses, and then a few months later she accepts. When she arrives in Alaska, she discovers he is planning to marry someone else.

From the title, I should not have been surprised that Thanksgiving Prayer was a Christian romance – Harlequin calls them inspirational, but the ones I’ve read have all been Christian, usually vaguely protestant. Typically in Christian romances the characters pray, go to church, and don’t have sex before marriage. In Thanksgiving Prayer, religion plays a larger role.

The main characters appear to be born-again Christians, her five years ago and him six months ago. Their meet involves her anonymously leaving him an encouraging bible verse she senses he needs, and him tracking her down. He’s taken her note as a sign that she is destined to be his wife, and he quotes a biblical passage in support of that. Initially she disagrees with his interpretation, but her character growth arc is changing her understanding of the passage.

Trying to be open-minded about this, I imagine the story has a fantasy setting, where she has the mysterious urge to leave a secret message for him, he interprets it to mean she’s his fated mate, and at first they disagree on the meaning of an ancient prophecy. Okay – that’s a fine plot. But he’s still a short-tempered stalker who shows warning signs of being abusive, and no willingness to compromise in a relationship.

Curiously, an effort has been made to update the novel. A supporting character suggests the heroine exchange letters with the hero, so they can get to know each other better after the initial whirlwind week and proposal. “And I’m not talking email, either.” There follows an explanation why hand-written letters are better than email. However, by this point in the story we’ve already figured out the early-1980s setting. No mobile phones, no internet, and no email. Yes, technically all three existed at that time, but it was another decade before they were common in households. I can only assume the email reference was added in an effort to avoid the story seeming dated, but instead it’s an anachronism that emphasizes the age of the novel.

There’s a Thanksgiving Dinner in here somewhere near the end. Claudia nurses Seth after he’s injured, and then she has a serious flu, so there’s lots of drama in addition to resolving Seth’s plans to marry another woman, but it all works out, and in the epilogue we learn that Claudia has stopped working as a nurse, because “she was ready to settle into the role of homemaker and mother.” Not my idea of a happy ending, but I guess it suits the character’s values, and her wealth means she doesn’t need to work.

The second novel in the book, Christmas Masquerade, does not have the same strong Christian overtones. In fact, it may offend readers who enjoyed the spiritual emphasis in the first novel.

Jo Marie is in danger of being assaulted by three men during a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. A handsome stranger comes to her rescue. So far, so good. Then the stranger demands a reward. “His warm mouth settled over hers, holding her prisoner, kissing her with a hunger as deep as the sea” [emphasis added]. This “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rescue is more suited to horror than romance.

After the kiss, Jo Marie is pulled away by enthusiastic dancers, and they lose each other in the crowd, but she doesn’t stop thinking about him. A few months later, Jo Marie sees him again, and learns his name. Andrew is unenthusiastically dating his old friend Kelly. Kelly is Jo Marie’s room mate. Andrew continues to pursue Jo Marie, and long before we (or she) learn that he’s in a fake relationship with Kelly, he and Jo Marie are making out, but that’s okay because Kelly is making out with Mark. Mark is Jo Marie’s brother, who Kelly really wanted all along.

I’ve nothing against the fake relationship trope, though doing it to make someone jealous rarely works – I learned that from The Brady Brunch and/or The Love Boat. However, Andrew and Kelly keep Jo Marie in the dark, on the grounds that she is Mark’s sister. Andrew courts Kelly publicly and Jo Marie privately, and Kelly seems to be encouraging his behaviour. They are gaslighting her. And Andrew’s aggressive possessiveness when Jo Marie reasonably dates someone else sets off abuse alarms again.

This is a romance where the heroine spends most of the story feeling miserable, including at an office Christmas party that takes place somewhere near the end. Macomber is apparently famous for her Christmas themed romances, but I suspect this is not one of them, since the holiday does not play a significant role.

In both novels, I find the heroes creepy rather than attractive (however handsome they may be), and the heroines passive. The overt Christianity of the first one conflicts with the apparent cheating in the second one, making these an unlikely set. Macomber is prolific, you can’t argue with success, and I enjoyed the other book of hers which I read, so I can shrug off Seasons of Love as early work, perhaps for a different audience. Maybe there’s still an audience for romance with jealous, possessive men. But it might have been best to leave these stories in the past.

How do you know?

Later this year I hope to publish a romance novel. After considering many factors, I’ve made the decision to self-publish. My novel is unlikely to be purchased by a traditional publisher. The story, through firmly in the romance genre, is not ‘written to market,’ which is, in any event, apparently both over-saturated and dead. I’ve been told that no one will read a romance written by a man, but it would be wrong to use a female pseudonym. I’ve also heard writers praise self-publishing as it allows the author to have control over their work, and make more money. Self-publishing is more work – I have to do my own editing, marketing, layout, cover design, and so on – but it seems the more likely path to publishing, and a better one for me. (In theory, more profitable too, but I’m realistic about sales.) But who is going to pronounce my work ready to share?

A non-deluxe typewriter, suitable for a non-deluxe story.

I’ve had the good fortune to have published short pieces in various places, online and in print (check the menu options fiction and non-fiction). With those publications, someone else made the decision that my work was ready to share. With self-publishing, it’s up to me.

I post stories and essays (and blog posts) on this site without worrying if they are ready to share, but a novel is different. It’s not quietly sitting here, getting a few views a month. It will be available on book selling websites, and I’ll be asking money for it. It has to be …perfect? No. How good does it have to be, and how will I know when it’s there?

There’s always room for improvement, in any work. Even when you really enjoy a novel, if you work at it you can find something to improve. And the quality of a story is subjective. Every reader is Goldilocks, deciding whether that scene was too hot, too cold, or just right (notice the odds are in favour of it being disliked). I’ve noticed this with beta readers, where I’ve received positive and negative comments on the same thing. At some point I need to decide the story has been improved enough, and I’m never going to please every reader. In other words, I’m going to publish the story knowing it is not as good as it could possibly be, and it won’t please everyone.

I’m encouraged to take this seemingly foolish action by hearing established authors, with dozens of books to the their name, talk disparagingly of their early works. I know I am not as good as she is, but maybe I am as good as she was. On the other hand, I’ve heard authors talk of their first novels as being learning attempts that will never see the light of day. Are they too critical, or am I not critical enough?

I enjoy reading stories, particularly romances, even when flaws are obvious. Some 99 cent eBooks have a lot of flaws, but books that cost ten times more are rarely ten times better. Not every meal out needs to be fine dining, and not every live band needs to be Queen. Greasy fries and a tribute band at the local dive can be fun night out. I’m not trying to win a Giller prize – just tell a simple story, like the many I enjoy reading.

I started this novel in 2012. It’s gone through several false starts and a complete rewrite. It will soon be going for its second round of beta reads. I think it’s as good as it’s going to get, and since then I have outlined or completed first drafts for several other stories I’m keen to work on and polish. So, assuming there are no major concerns from the beta readers, I’ll publish the novel this summer, knowing it’s not as good as it could be, hoping people feel they get their money’s worth (it will likely be more than 99 cents, but not much more), and hoping at least 1/3 of my readers find it just right and forgive its flaws. And then I’ll know if it was ready to share.

PS: I can’t say ‘how do you know’ without thinking of this song, which has little to do with the topic of this blog, except the reference to the romance genre.

Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 1

In a month or two I’ll be looking for beta readers for this romance novella (about 48,000 words). Meanwhile, here’s chapter 1. Have a look, and let me know if you find it a) interesting enough to finish, and b) interesting enough to see what comes next. Looking forward to your comments. Thanks!

“It’s going to be that kind of day, isn’t it?”

Marianna turned the kitchen faucet off, then on again. No water flowed. She tried twisting it from hot to cold and back, not expecting that to help. It didn’t.

“Great, no water,” she said to herself. “Lunch will have to wait.”

The day had started badly, with an email from the Wilsons, cancelling their reservation. A weeks’ stay would have been a good boost to her campground’s October income. Then she’d received a loan payment overdue notice in the mail. When she phoned the finance company, they had assured her the notice was a mistake, and all the payments since April had been received on time. Hopefully the water problem was minor. She had bottled water for herself and the campers, but no water meant no showers. She glanced out the side window. Sheila and Barry, her only guests last night, were approaching her house. They did not look happy.

She went out to the porch to meet them. Working face to face with customers, especially unhappy ones, was Marianna’s least favourite part of the job. During the summer, Wendy dealt with customers. Now Wendy was down in Halifax at Dalhousie, and Marianna had to deal with customers herself. She reminded herself that the customer was always right. Especially these customers. Barry was a prolific Trip Advisor reviewer, under his own name, and Shelia had a large Instagram following. They didn’t demand discounts, but never missed a chance to gently remind Marianna of their followers. The usual conversation was compliment, complaint, reminder.

As they drew close, Marianna put on her best ‘how can I help you’ smile, stepped onto the porch, and waved. Cerebus, Marianna’s Airedoodle, rushed past her and greeted the couple with his tail wagging.

“Good morning Sheila, Barry. Did you have a good night?”

“Wonderful,” said Sheila. She petted Cerebus. “I fell asleep to the sound of the waves. No better way to sleep. Well, almost no better way.” She kissed her husband of three weeks. “The morning hasn’t been so good though. The water ran out during my morning shower. I’m hoping that will be fixed before I post pictures of myself looking like this. My followers would be shocked.”

Marianna thought Sheila looked like she just stepped out of spa, but just nodded. “I’m looking into the water now. It should be back on soon.”

“Your location is fabulous,” said Barry, “and the fall colours are amazing. It would be a shame if something like unreliable water detracted from an otherwise positive review.”

“After tonight’s dinner, I’m sure the review will be great.”

“Yes, we are looking forward to that,” said Sheila. “Hopefully the rain holds off until tomorrow, after we’ve packed up.  Can we take Cerebus for a beach walk?”

“Sure – he’d love that. Go with them, Cere.” She watched them walk away, Sheila beside Cerebus, and Barry walking behind them. He stopped and took a picture of the tree covered hill at the back of the campground. Shelia glanced back but kept walking. “So much for the honeymoon period,” she thought, and then decided she was being too cynical. It was better than those couples that would not let go of each other, as if a strong gust of wind might end the relationship. She thought of Troy, always taking her hand when they walked together, saying he never wanted to miss a chance to touch her. Which would have been charming if he had managed to see her more often, or not been so keen to touch other women. I don’t like not holding hands, and I don’t like holding hands. There’s just no pleasing me, she thought. Oh yes there is – she smiled at a memory – just not in relationships.

She climbed the hill to the well house, hoping the problem was minor, nothing else would go wrong today, and that tonight’s dinner for Barry and Sheila would be a success. She reviewed a mental checklist of the supplies and preparation required. Apart from the logistics of transporting everything to the beach and back, the dinner was relatively easy. As for weather, the morning sun was warm, and the sky clear. If the forecasted clouds came in as planned, that would keep the day’s heat into the evening. Too early, and it would rain; too late, and it would be cold. I can’t control the weather, she reminded herself. 

The well house was on the highest point of her land. Before going in, she turned to look down across the campground and out to the open ocean. After two years she still found the view breathtaking. Her mother had said she was crazy to leave Toronto for the northern shore of Cape Breton Island, but she knew this was where she belonged. In the country, on this property, by herself.  She watched as an eagle swooped down from a nearby tree, flew out over the ocean, dived into the water, and flew up again with a fish in its talons.

***

Darwin stopped the truck when the road turned into a wharf. He was lost. He could not possibly be lost in a town with five streets, but none of them were Johnson Hill Road. His phone had guided him to Bay Saint Lawrence, on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, but now it said he had arrived, even though he was clearly not at Sandcastle Rock campground. He looked out the window at a street sign. He was on Government Wharf Road, apparently on the wharf section. The phone said he was on Main Street. A few fishing boats were parked, or docked, or whatever the proper term was, on one side, and an aging warehouse was on the other, all doors closed. No one was around. Darwin reversed until the road widened, made a U-turn, and drove back to the Co-op store. There was no sign of Johnson Hill Road, which should have been next to the parking lot. The directions on his phone were clear – turn right onto Johnson Hill Road, just past the Co-op. However, there were only driveways for the houses, spaced irregularly on the large lots.

He pulled into the Co-op parking lot, climbed out of the rental SUV, and walked across the hard-packed gravel. From the outside, the Co-op looked like an old-fashioned general store. The inside confirmed that impression. In addition to shelves of food and snacks, there were local carvings and hooked rugs hanging on a wall, and rakes and snow shovels by the door. Darwin looked over the section of camping supplies but didn’t see anything else he needed. He had stopped at a Canadian Tire and a Sobey’s on the way from the airport and purchased everything he needed to look like a camper for three days.

The store had a food counter beside the cash, with an empty pizza warming cabinet, and a sign promising Fresh Sandwiches Made to Order. That, and the smell of roasted chicken, reminded him he hadn’t eaten lunch, he’d been up since five, and it was almost one in the afternoon. He rang the bell on the counter, expecting a grizzled, tobacco-chewing old-timer to appear.

“Be right out.” A teenager, with blue hair and Pink Floyd t-shirt, slipped through the curtain behind the cash. “Sorry to keep you waiting, sir. What can I get for you?”

“What sandwiches do you have?”

“Sorry, just chicken today. It’s still warm, if that’s okay. We could do an egg sandwich too. Or tuna.”

“Warm chicken would be great, thanks. To go, please.”

The teen turned and yelled back through the curtain, “Chicken sandwich, ma.” She turned back to Darwin. “It’ll be right out. Can you pay cash? Machine’s not working.”

He paid and asked for directions to the Sandcastle Rock campground.

“Just turn right onto Johnson Hill Road and keep going. You can’t miss it – the road ends there, but it’s about twenty kilometers.”

“Where’s Johnson Hill Road?”

“Just after the parking lot. Right there.” The teen pointed to the parking lot.

“That’s not a driveway? It’s not paved.”

“Nope. That’s the road. It looks like it goes to McNeil’s garage, but the road goes left just before that.  Marianna wants to put up signs up for her campground, but there’s new rules about road signs, and she can’t. Here’s your sandwich.”

A woman Darwin assumed was the teen’s mother came through the curtain, holding a paper bag. She handed it to Darwin, smiled, and said “Here you go, dear.” It was the third time he’d been called dear today, and he had this odd feeling of coming home. He’d left the province ten years ago, hadn’t been back, and never missed it. Even when he lived in Nova Scotia, he’d never been north of Truro, and then only once when he hitchhiked to Toronto. Cape Breton, at the north end of the province, was as unknown as whatever was north of the last subway stop on the Yonge Street line.  

“Thanks.” The bag was surprisingly heavy. He opened it, and saw the sandwich, made with a bun, a large dill pickle wrapped in plastic, and an apple. “I just paid for a sandwich.”

“It’s all included,” said the older lady. “Enjoy your visit, and tell Marianna Susan says hi. You’ll like Marianna – she can be prickly at first, but she’s a lovely young woman.”A few minutes later, Darwin was driving along Johnson Hill Road. He realized he never got around to asking why there was no street sign. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Marianna was a lovely young woman, either. He was here to do a job, which would make a lot of money for his company and secure his future. Marianna wouldn’t be happy, but she knew the risks when she signed the loan agreement.