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The Fabio Problem

FabioSo recently Kristan Higgins blogged about a conference she attended representing a diverse group of writers: romance writers, poets, memoirists, other novelists. At one session, novelist Andre Dubus III made some slighting comments about typical romance readers. When one of the romance novelists took him to task during the Q&A (he’d never read a romance novel—surprise, surprise), he said he’d been put off “those cheesy covers with Fabio.”

Now you might simply dismiss that statement as an indication of Dubus’s ignorance regarding romance publishing (Fabio hasn’t been on a cover for a good many years), if these Fabio references weren’t so ubiquitous. John Havel, the blogger who stole a romance writer’s work for his own purposes, justified himself with a reference to “cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store”. Femsplain, a feminist website, wrote a snarky putdown of romance with the comment, “Anything with Fabio on the cover never mentions supporting local farmers and makers.” The Gloss headlined an article about makeup ads with “The Cheesy Ads For MAC’s New Collection Beat Out Any Fabio Romance Novel Cover.” References to Fabio seem to crop up whenever bloggers want to sneer at romance.

Many of these writers seem to be under the impression that all romance novels feature Fabio or a Fabio look-alike. But as Kelly Faircloth points out, Fabio wasn’t even on that many romance covers during his heyday in the eighties and nineties. And he’s not on a single cover being published today. And yet every time another “romance is dumb” article appears, you can be assured there’ll be a reference to Fabio somewhere in the text.

So the question is: what exactly does Fabio represent that gets these people so worked up? Any answer to that question is purely speculative. But considering how eager romance critics are to speculate about the nature of romance readers and writers, I’m perfectly willing to speculate right back.

Pulp coverFor some people, of course, lurid romance novel covers from the eighties and nineties are easy targets, ways of deriding the genre for being “cheesy” (the favorite descriptor). But these same people would never criticize detective novels for the lurid covers that were common during the forties and fifties. I assume that’s because they’re aware that those covers are long gone. But not having bothered to check current romance covers (because why bother—they’re all the same), these same critics demonstrate a woeful ignorance of the subject they’re supposed to be analyzing.

In terms of Fabio, most of his covers were for historical novels, featuring period outfits and settings. It’s decidedly easier to see historicals as fantasy than, say, thrillers. And of course Fabio, with his shoulder-length hair and gleaming pecs, fit into this fantasy easily. He was an appropriate subject for imaginary romance, sort of like Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is today.

Fabio coverBut the fantasy aspect of romance is one of the many things that romance critics find troubling. In their formulation, women romance readers use fantasy to escape from the reality that they should be facing—husband, home, and, well, ordinary sex. For these critics, romance creates unrealistic expectations. If women think Fabio is what they should want, they’re not going to be happy with their non-Fabio hubbies. Fabio is therefore responsible for women not appreciating the guy drinking a PBR in the recliner.

There are all kinds of problems with this claim (among them the idea that only women romance readers among readers of pop fiction have trouble separating fantasy and reality—male readers of thrillers are supposedly grounded), but to me there’s also a faint whiff of envy. In his prime, Fabio was one good-looking guy. Thus if you’re a man who’s already nervous about his partner’s “unrealistic expectations,” Fabio could become everything that scares you. And if you believe that women who read romances become automatically dissatisfied with real sex, then Fabio could symbolize your panic. Thus you deride Fabio and romance in general because he represents something you don’t really want to admit about yourself.

Now I’m not saying that people who criticize romance are actually victims of sexual panic. Well, actually, yeah, that is what I’m saying. That is, of course, a sweeping generalization based on fragmentary knowledge at best. Sort of like the kind of criticisms aimed at romance by people who have never read it. Go, Fabio, go.

Lost Authors

Serpent GardenSo I discovered this new-to-me author last week: Judith Merkle Riley. Her historical novel, Serpent Garden, is set in Tudor England and France, and it’s an absolute delight. Riley juggles multiple points of view, a complex mixture of historical fact and conjecture, ingenious details of her period setting, and a whiff of the supernatural. All this plus an engaging first-person narrator whose love story bounces along happily.

After reading the first part of Serpent Garden, I did what I usually do when I find an author who grabs my interest—I went to Amazon to find what other books she had available. There were six more novels, three of them a YA trilogy. Interesting. I wondered what she was currently working on and looked for her website. And this is where things started to get, well, strange. Her website consisted of a single page, a list of her six novels with links to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Given the number of positive reviews Riley’s books had from major sources like Kirkus, I was amazed. Why didn’t she have a more developed website?
Then I happened to glance at the short bio for Riley that was posted on Google. The most important information was right there at the top, her birth date and her death date. Riley died in 2010. I had two reactions to this news: I was saddened, first of all. But then, selfishly, I was stricken by the thought that six novels was all we’d ever have.

We readers are voracious, and we always want more. Once we discover a novelist we like, we keep demanding product. Some writers, like Grace Burrowes, are remarkably productive, giving us book after book to feed our habits. Some, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, work more slowly, so that each book becomes a kind of event.

And some authors simply opt out. Julia Ross wrote wonderfully ornate historical novels a few years ago, including The Seduction, Clandestine, and Games of Pleasure. But after several years of turning out one novel after another, she hit the wall. She simply couldn’t write anymore, as she herself explains. Another of my favorite writers, Judith Ivory, simply disappeared after a bout of ill health.

So are we readers at fault when writers go missing? Nope. But it might be a good idea occasionally to think about those writers whose books you depend on. Maybe they need a little encouragement, or even a little gratitude. So please Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, Loretta Chase, and Mary Balogh keep writing—I love everything you’ve done. Please Anna Cowan, write a second book: Untamed was awesome. Please Karen Rose and Tess Gerritsen keep bringing those thrillers out, even though writing them must take a toll. And oh, Jane Haddam, please don’t stop. I need my Gregor Demarkian fix each year.

And Judith Merkle Riley I wish I’d found you a few years ago. I really wish I could have told you what a wonderful writer you really are. Now all I can do is leave a review on Amazon and feel sad.

The Scam Artist

Face PalmSo the romance world has another outrage to deal with, but this time it’s been perpetrated on us rather than by us. A writer named John Havel decided to “expose” Amazon’s bestseller list practices by plagiarizing a novel and then manipulating it onto the list. Havel justified himself by saying that all the profits he made through his project would be donated to charity. So even though his whole enterprise was based on theft of someone else’s labor, it was okay because he was both demonstrating Amazon’s dishonesty and not keeping the profits for himself. Kat Mayo has summarized this entire saga, and you can read about it here.

This whole project was, of course, ethically suspect from the beginning. But it might have been less so had Havel chosen a book that was truly in the public domain (Moby-Dick with a sexy new cover, for example). But instead, he chose a Harlequin Sensation, Untamed Billionaire, Undressed Virgin, by Australian author Anna Cleary. Cleary, needless to say, knew nothing about this since Havel didn’t bother to ask her permission or to explain his project. She only found out that someone had taken her book, changed the names of her characters and her title, and posted it online for his own profit when other writers informed her.

All of this is sordid enough, but the real source of the outrage (beyond outrage for Cleary and her stolen royalties) is Havel’s reason for choosing her book. It was a romance. Romance, we are told, “sells big,” is easy to scam, and is an object of contempt as far as Havel is concerned. Reading Mayo, you get the impression that Havel doesn’t consider romance novels to be “real” books. Apparently those of us who write in the genre are scam artists ourselves; therefore, our books are open to plagiarism without consequence.

Romance writers confront contempt frequently. It’s never fun, but it can usually be dealt with in one of two ways. First, you can say that reading is all about personal taste and that our readers enjoy what we write. Second, if the contemptuous one seems amenable, you can list a few of the many romance authors who might confound his/her expectations and recommend a little reading.

However, we shouldn’t have to argue that our books belong to us. That they’re real, and that it took a lot of effort to write them.

Havel’s ultimate argument—as Mayo points out—is that all romance books are the same, thus their readers are so gullible that they’re asking to be scammed. As Havel sneers, “Plus, don’t you remember seeing cheesy paperbacks with Fabio on the cover at the grocery store check out? How’s this different?” But the thing is, Mr. Havel, those “cheesy paperbacks” weren’t all the same. They were written by different authors with different approaches and levels of skill and different readers, as you’d know if you’d ever bothered to read a few. The fact that you didn’t like their covers doesn’t mean the books themselves were something you could treat as a joke. And it sure as hell doesn’t give you license to steal them.

Oh and by the way, John, Fabio hasn’t appeared on a romance cover since the nineties. But compared to the other things you seem ignorant of, that’s probably a minor point.

Finding Mr. Right NowSo Finding Mr. Right Now is out of my hands now. It’s been on the shelves since June 3, which marks the beginning of the final phase of the book’s life with the author: sales and reviews. I don’t have much influence over sales (and for a lot of reasons, I won’t really know much about the sales for a few more months). I do have some influence over reviews—at least I can make sure the book gets into the hands of potential reviewers.

Most authors have mixed feelings about reviews. In the old days, you only got reviewed by a few sources: Romantic Times magazine was the biggest, but there was also Affaire de Coeur and less specialized publications like Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Needless to say, the internet changed all of that. Now there are dozens of review sites out there, from
Guilty Pleasures
to Harlequin Junkie to Long and Short Reviews and beyond. But those are the professional and semi-professional reviewers. These days you also have the people who post reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and Goodreads. The possibilities for reviews have grown by quantum measures, and so has authors’ agony.

A lot of authors I know say they don’t read reviews, but most of us do, whether we like it or not. The only way to read your reviews is to make the words “nobody can please everybody” your mantra. Because there will be blood, probably yours. You’ll get negative reviews because everybody does. Even authors I idolize, like Sherry Thomas and Joanna Bourne and Loretta Chase, get negative reviews (although when your reviews number in the hundreds, the negatives tend to get buried). But they still sting.

The worst thing you can do, of course, is argue. Or even comment. The net is full of stories (sometimes they seem to pop up weekly) of authors who become unhinged by what they consider to be unfair reviews. From The Greek Seaman controversy to famous authors misbehaving, we now have multiple examples of what not to do when reviewers hurt your feelings. This is even true with manifestly unfair reviews (of which there are now multiple examples). I read one of Sherry Thomas’s books during a single day’s drive from Lubbock to Denver, pausing only to wipe my tears. It was one of those incredible reading experiences against which other books can be measured. Later I checked the reviews and found that most readers agreed with me—it was a stunning book. Except for one jerk who not only wrote a snarky review but illustrated it with animated gifs. I was appalled, but the lesson is that even superb books get slammed. Also, of course, jerks will be jerks.

So Finding Mr. Right Now is on its way for better or worse. Go to it, book. Have a good life. Look for Love In the Morning, book 2 in the trilogy, come January. And the whole process begins again.

Finding Mr. Right NowAs a writer, I find waiting for release day tough. I want to talk about my book, shout about my book, gloat about my book. But until release day, I won’t know if other people enjoy my book as much as I enjoyed writing it. But now the wait is over, at least as far as Finding Mr. Right Now is concerned. My book is finally available at all the usual places, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Samhain Publishing, and All Romance eBooks.

So let me give you a quick taste of my book. First of all, here’s the blurb:

Reality can be hotter than fiction.

The Salt Box Trilogy, Book 1

Monica McKellar, associate producer of Finding Mr. Right, is desperate. One of the show’s bachelors has bailed one week before shooting starts. She not only needs a replacement ASAP, he has to get the temperamental bachelorette’s stamp of approval.

Fortunately there’s a hot guy right under her nose who’s a perfect fit. Unfortunately, he pushes all her hot buttons. Until the show’s over, her hands—and every other part of her body—are tied.

When Paul DeWitt signed on to write for the reality show, “Bachelor #10” wasn’t supposed to be in his job description. He fully expects to be cut early on, which will free him to focus on the real object of his attraction. Monica.

Instead, he’s a finalist, and they’re all packed in an SUV climbing the Continental Divide, headed for Salt Box, Colorado. Where stampeding horses, vindictive tabloid editors, and one capricious bachelorette’s waffling over suitors may conspire to end Paul and Monica’s romance before it even starts.

Warning: Contains hot sex on the sly, cold nights, creaking wicker couches, and a gypsy wagon that gives a whole new appreciation for the pioneers.

And here’s a quick excerpt. The production team at Fairstein Productions is in a tizzy–one of the bachelors for their Finding Mr. Right show has gone AWOL. They need someone new immediately if not sooner, and their choice turns out to be one of the show’s writers, Paul Dewitt. In this scene Paul learns his fate from the reluctant assistant producer, Monica McKellar.

Paul followed the two of them into Glenn Donovan’s office. He sank into a metal and leatherette chair at the side. “What’s going on?”

McKellar pushed her hair out of her face again. Butterscotch. Her hair was the color of butterscotch. It made her skin look like cream, very lickable. Lickable? Jesus.

She took a breath. “Okay, I told you we were missing a bachelor, right? One of them took off for Ohio yesterday.”

Paul nodded. “Right. But you said you were going to find somebody else.”

“Yes.” McKellar grimaced. “Well, Ronnie had an idea. And apparently Artie thinks it’s a good idea.”

Sid narrowed his eyes. “Artie likes something Ronnie came up with? That’s like one of the signs of the Apocalypse.”

“Be that as it may.” McKellar sounded like she was gritting her teeth. “They both think Paul here would be a good substitute for Bachelor Number Ten.”

Paul stared at her blankly. “Me? One of the bachelors? But I’m supposed to write the damn thing.”

“Right, well, we’d be down a writer for this show. They’d have to transfer somebody over from Finding Miss Right or one of the other shows. But look at the bright side—it would give you some really good insights into what the bachelors and bachelorettes go through when they’re doing the challenges. It might help you with the writing.” She gave him a very bright smile that didn’t go any further than her lips.

His stomach felt as if he’d swallowed a dozen ice cubes. “And if I say no?”

McKellar pushed her hair back again. “Look, I don’t know what would happen if you didn’t take the gig, but knowing Artie it wouldn’t be good.”

Sid nodded. “If you don’t do it, I think you could probably kiss off your chances of getting another contract with Fairstein. But look at it this way—if you do go through with it, Artie will owe you, big time. That could be a good thing.”

Paul tried to pull his tumbling thoughts back into some kind of order. “But the thing is, I don’t even like Ronnie Valero.”

One of McKellar’s butterscotch eyebrows arched up. “You don’t think the other bachelors are interested in a real, long-term relationship, do you? I mean, you’ve been with Finding Miss Right for a while.”

His jaw tightened. “No, of course not. But—”

“The bachelors and bachelorettes are all in it for something other than a great romance. A lot of them want the screen time. Some of them want the money. Some just want a paid vacation. You’d be in it to keep your job. It’s not that different—maybe even a little more honest. Everybody in the production crew would be on your side.” Those pink lips edged up into another faint smile.

Paul’s stomach twisted again. “But I…”

McKellar gave a little huff of exasperation. “Look, let’s be blunt here. You’d be Meat. That’s all. One of those people who fill out the list. After a couple of weeks, you’d probably be gone, particularly if you didn’t want to stick around. If you don’t come across as interested, Ronnie will probably reject you. Then you could go back to working on Finding Miss Right. No harm, no foul.”

Paul’s chest clenched tight. Meat. Well, at least she was up front about it, which was more than they probably were with the other guys. Still, the thought gave his ego a solid kick. “I see.”

“Right.” Sid nodded encouragingly. “Probably wouldn’t take more than a month of your time, tops. And you could get a trip to Colorado out of it, assuming you get through the L.A. challenges.”

Colorado. Paul’s gut twisted again. His folks would find out. His hyper-romantic mother would probably see the show and start planning for a wedding. Hell. “Seems like I don’t have much of a choice here.”

McKellar leaned back against the side of the desk, extending one shapely leg. “It won’t be that bad. And like Sid said, Artie will owe you. He’s pretty good about paying his debts too. You’d probably have a chance for a long-term commitment from the production company.”

Paul considered his possible options, all of them lousy. He rubbed his eyes, then sighed. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Bachelor Number Ten.” Sid gave him a relieved grin. “Welcome aboard.”

Finding Mr. Right Now is now available. Enjoy!

Going Back

Meg at Hondo's

Visiting Hondo’s in April

It’s not much of a secret that Konigsburg, Texas, the setting for my Konigsburg series for Samhain Publishing, is loosely based on Fredericksburg, Texas, a premier vacation site in the Texas Hill Country. I find it a lot easier to write about places I know, mostly Texas and Colorado since those are the places where I’ve lived the longest. My hubs and I visit Fredericksburg once or twice a year since we go to Texas regularly to visit our kids and Fredericksburg happens to be in the heart of Texas wine country.

We were there again just last month and decided to have dinner at a restaurant I actually used in the books. I based the Faro, a former dive now turned into a first-class restaurant and music venue (see Brand New Me, Don’t Forget Me, Fearless Love, and Hungry Heart), on Hondo’s in Fredericksburg. We used to eat there before it was Hondo’s, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was called then. All I really remember were the many stuffed animals on the walls and the terrific southwestern Cobb salad that used to be on the menu.

Well, like they say, you can’t go home again. Hondo’s is now mostly a bar and music venue. Their menu is largely barbeque and burgers. No more Cobb salad. And the inside is radically different—the buffalo head with earrings is no longer a fixture.

More seriously, I was amazed at how much smaller the place was in reality than it was in my memory. When I changed Hondo’s to the Faro, I fleshed it out with pool tables, a bar, a beer garden and lots of space for dining. Hondo’s does in fact have a beer garden, but it’s not the spacious place I remembered. In fact, I’m beginning to think I may have conflated the outdoor spaces at Floore’s General Store and Gruene Hall with the relatively modest outdoor area at Hondo’s.

So my visit was a disappointment, but I’m not sure it should have been. The Faro, after all, is my very own creation. Yes, I thought of Hondo’s when I was writing it, but obviously I thought of a lot of other places too. I wanted a space that would fulfill certain requirements—a bar, a restaurant, a music space, a place where lovers could meet unexpectedly. The Faro was and is all of those things. Hondo’s probably is too, but it doesn’t match the place I created in my mind.

I’d argue that authors shouldn’t be held to closely to account for their created spaces.

If I were trying to describe Buckingham Palace, then I could be brought up on charges of misrepresentation (and that may well be another reason why I’ll never do historical novels). But the Faro is mine—I’m sole owner and proprietor. Thus I’m not really answerable to anybody but my characters. And they seem to like it fine. As Janie Dupree Toleffson remarks in Brand New Me, “I can’t believe what Tom Ames has done with this place. It’s really nice.”

Tom Ames and me, Janie. Tom Ames and me.

Finding Mr. Right NowIf you write, sooner or later someone will ask you where you get your ideas. It’s a logical question, particularly for people who’d like to write but who aren’t sure how to go about getting started. Unfortunately, for me it’s a tough question to answer. Sometimes I remember how I got an idea, but most frequently I don’t.

Take Finding Mr. Right Now, my next book from Samhain (released on June 2 and available for preorder now). Finding Mr. Right Now is about a reality show, Finding Mr. Right. It’s (very) loosely based on the bachelor and bachelorette shows. But I have to admit—I don’t watch those shows and never have. The closest I’ve come is reading articles about the bachelors and bachelorettes in People and Us magazines (although once I started writing the book, I did check out some episodes on Hulu). Still, I sort of remember wondering what would happen if the bachelor or bachelorette happened to fall in love with the wrong person during the course of those shows.

That would be interesting. However, it’s not the plot of Finding Mr. Right Now. My problem was that as I considered the contestants on those shows, I just couldn’t figure out how to make them the heroes or heroines of the book. Being the bachelor or bachelorette requires a certain “willing suspension of disbelief.” Face it: trying to find your one true love among a group of strangers in front of millions of people isn’t exactly a romantic situation. It requires either a certain degree of naiveté or the willingness to pretend to be naïve about the chances of finding Mr. or Miss Right under those circumstances. Neither possibility appealed to me much for a hero or heroine. I didn’t really want to deal with either a naïve protagonist or a deceptive one.

So I started modifying my original idea. What if the hero wasn’t a willing bachelor at all? What if he got dragged into the whole thing against his will? And just to up the ante a bit, what if he fell in love with the wrong someone while he was being an unwilling bachelor? That was the germ of the story that became Finding Mr. Right Now.

I made some other adjustments along the way. For example, I’d originally thought I’d make the bachelorette at the center of the show a villain. But once I started writing, I discovered that I really liked Ronnie Ventura, even though she was a little too naïve to be the heroine of the book (she grows up, though—look for her in book 3 of the trilogy). But the original idea still worked. An unwilling bachelor, his unexpected true love, and the town that supports them.

I’m still not sure where the idea came from, though. Maybe I’ll just blame my muse.

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