Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.


To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.

The WFWA Writers Retreat 2016 (Or, The Enchanted Hotel)

A lot of conferences are held in fairly personalityless hotels that drain your energy by their very sameness to every other hotel out there.

Not so a retreat.

A retreat is meant to help you relax, rejuvenate, reconnect.

It’s not overscheduled.

It’s not attended by people you feel pressured to impress.

It’s a time to grow.

It’s about great food…

…great conversation…

…great views.

A time to nurture the friendships you already have…

…and a time to make new ones.

If you’re lucky, it is held in a place with admirable weather…

…attention to detail…

…and a sense of history.

For two years now, the WFWA Writing Retreat has been held at the marvelous Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town.

For four days I’ve lived outside — most of my meals and all of my writing time has been spent under sunny blue skies, with the occasional 2-minute sprinkling of rain, followed by soaring rainbows. But the inside’s gorgeous too.

The party may be over for 2016, but I’m not too sad.

Because I know that in one short year I will be back.

My New Mexico Writing Retreat in (a Few) Pictures

From late Wednesday night to late Sunday morning, I had the very good fortune to be at the first (hopefully annual) Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat, held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town in New Mexico. I wrote the first five chapters of a new novel, took notes for a short story that was inspired by a very kind and attentive member of the hotel staff, and prepared my workshop for the Breathe Writers Conference coming up in October. I met dozens of lovely, talented, and dedicated women (and one charming man) who write women’s fiction, some of whom I have been online friends with for a couple years. I felt the spell of the Southwest come over me like invigorating sunshine. And on this cloudy, rainy Monday morning back in Lansing, I’m fondly remembering a truly marvelous weekend. I didn’t bring my good camera, so these are just from my phone. Next time, I’ll know to bring the camera. 🙂

Getting Ready to Write

I wrote on this patio from this corner every day.

Friday night's BBQ dinner was set up here.

This is where I ate most of my meals.

The hotel itself was the only obstruction to the pure blue sky, but a lovely obstruction it was.

group

Happily heading home to my boys, but vowing to return as soon as possible to Albuquerque.

 

My Big News This Week (aka, How I Got My Literary Agent)

If you follow my author page on Facebook, you already know…

I signed with a literary agent last week: Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. What does this mean? It means that I now have an official partner to push me toward excellence, bounce ideas off of, and, most importantly, to get my novels in front of the right editors at the right publishing houses. She’ll negotiate contracts, guide me as I develop marketing strategies, and step in to advocate for me when problems arise.

If you’re not a writer, this may be of only passing interest to you. Great! Now the books she talks about writing on this blog will eventually wind up on the shelves. But if you’re a writer, I know that the story of how someone gets an agent is always of interest. So here’s mine.

In 2002, I started working at a publishing house, first in the editorial and subsidiary rights  area, then in marketing. I read a lot of books that were not for English majors–commercial fiction, genre fiction, and plenty of nonfiction. Reading these reminded me that I had always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write.

In late 2005 I moved from West Michigan to Lansing, where I didn’t know anyone except the man who moved with me. Hence, ample free time. I started thinking again about writing as something I should actually do rather than just talk about. Then in 2006 I started as a docent at the zoo (super fun, made some friends, developed my speaking chops, handled awesome animals, took up lots of my time) and as a graduate student at Michigan State University (super fun, made some friends, further developed my academic writing chops, theorized about interesting stuff, took up lots of my time). Then in 2008 I had a baby (super fun/hard, made a new tiny friend, developed my “being patient” chops — these will be important later — took up almost all of my time).

In 2007, I dropped out of graduate school. The program was great, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to focus on. In 2012, I quit being a docent at the zoo. The time commitment was big, I had a young child, and I really felt like if I was going to ever get serious about writing, I had to make the time to do it.

Leading up to 2012, I was working on a manuscript. I also started this blog, which is actually my second or third blog. (Some of you have been with me from the very beginning in 2008.) I had called that MS A Beautiful Fiction and I decided to give that name to the blog. That old manuscript will never see the light of day, but it was important to me because it was the first one I actually finished and the first one I ever queried and sent to literary agents to read. I was initially disappointed that no one seemed to think it was publishable, but the process of querying it helped me see some of its flaws and some of my own flaws as a writer. So I scrapped it and thought about what to do next.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that in 2013 I gave myself the challenge to write one short story every month and publish each for Kindle. I had a lot of ideas but I wasn’t ready to tackle a novel again right away. So that’s what I did. I also submitted a number of stories to contests and magazines. One, “This Elegant Ruin,” finaled in the 2014 Great American Fiction Contest from the Saturday Evening Post. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me creatively. Maybe my writing was worth publishing after all.

During 2013 I was also reading voraciously, researching for a book I wanted to write that would tie together events in three different centuries that were heartbreakingly similar. That research became the foundation for The Bone Garden, which I drafted in two months in early 2014. I started querying that book after doing a couple revisions, back in April 2014. In hindsight, that was a bit too early, but some of the early feedback I got from agents rejecting it was really helpful in revising. I continued to work on it and occasionally sent out another batch of queries.

In August 2014, there was some interest in it from two agents, both of whom suggested revisions. I kept working on it, sure that once these revisions were done I should be golden — at least one of these agents would want it. However, with one of these agents we discovered that she had two other manuscripts she was shopping for clients that contained some similar themes and there was a conflict of interest. With the other, it just wasn’t there yet and she passed. Boo. Cue depression.

But no! There was no time for moping, because by then I already had another idea for a new manuscript. I wasn’t just going to sit there. I was going to take more of the lessons I’d learned and channel them into this new project. I was sure this third manuscript, I Hold the Wind, would be “the one.” So I wrote. I wrote during National Novel Writing month (and made it to 50,000 words in that one month to be a NaNoWriMo winner) and continued into the winter and even into the spring. That first draft took six months.

[Let’s pause here for a querying interlude…Even as I was writing I Hold the Wind I continued to work on and query The Bone Garden. On a particular day in February 2015, I got on Twitter and watched the #MSWL hashtag. For those of you who’ve never heard of that, it stands for Manuscript Wishlist. I found a few more agents who were looking for women’s fiction with particular parameters and sent off a few queries. This will be important later…]

In June 2015, sent the MS of I Hold the Wind out to a few beta readers for feedback. In that same month, the shooting at the Charleston church occurred. And I was swept back into The Bone Garden. If you need a little background as to why, you can read this blog post I wrote while I was researching for the book in 2013 and this one I wrote soon after the killings in Charleston. I realized that part of my story — the present-day storyline — needed a rewrite. I worked hard on it for a short time and then decided to re-approach one of the agents who had really loved the story but thought it still wasn’t there yet. Was it there now? That agent was happy I contacted her because she and a colleague at her agency had both individually been thinking about that manuscript they had rejected months before. Yes, they would read it.

Back to I Hold the Wind. I did revisions in August, worked on my pitch in September, and was ready to start the querying process all over again on September 9th, when the Women’s Fiction Writers Association was holding an online pitch event with five agents. Around that time I got an email from Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. She wanted to set up a phone call to chat about The Bone Garden, which I had originally queried back in February as part of Twitter’s #MSWL day. I’d sent her fifty pages back in April and the full MS during the summer. I also, out of the blue on the same day, got an email from the other agent who was rereading the manuscript after I approached her with the revision. She was ready to talk about it too. I scheduled some phone calls and did the pitch on the new manuscript.

During our phone call, Nephele offered representation. After talking with the other agent, who also wanted the weekend to read the new manuscript I had for I Hold the Wind, there was talk of more revision needed and no clear offer of representation. I slept on it, and in the morning I had clarity. I wanted to go with someone who was ready to commit to me and my work, who would walk alongside me, who was enthusiastic, who was easy to talk to. Nephele was all of those things. We scheduled another phone call and talked about possible revisions to The Bone Garden before sending it out on submission. That second phone call assured me we were on the same page and had the same goals. I accepted the offer, got the contracts later that day over email, signed them, and sent them out for countersigning at the offices of The Knight Agency.

Yesterday, the signed contract appeared in my mailbox. So it is official. I now have a literary agent and I’m eagerly awaiting her detailed notes on The Bone Garden so that we can move this story along down the road toward publication. Thanks for coming with me on the journey. I’ll be sure to share milestones with you along the way. If you want to be sure not to miss any publishing news, follow this blog (there’s a button on the sidebar) and follow my author page on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter @ErinLBartels or on Pinterest.