I bet you’re ALL so desperate to know about a day in my writing life. Hands up. Who thinks cookies and coffee play a part? Hop on over to the RWAus blogand see more and find out if you’re right.
Let’s give a good coffee fuelled morning to Sandra Antonelli, whose book Driving in Neutral is out now!
In one or two sentences, please tell us what genre you write in and what made you decide that particular one is your calling. I write contemporary, smart-assed romantic comedy for grown ups who aren’t really very grown up at all, which is due to my smartassed nature. Although, I do have a dark side…
I’ve been waiting to do this post. I mean REALLY waiting. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before someone made mention of a lead character’s less-than-stellar behavior in Driving in Neutralonce it was published.
I’ve been waiting because this book has a history, and not just a 75 days long blog series on fear history. Yes, kids, I spent 75 days focused on phobias. As a lead-in to the release of Driving in Neutral, the romcom I call my ‘love story about claustrophobia,’ guests dropped by to talk about their fears. For 75 days.
Bear with me. I’ll get to the history bit soon.
The 75 Days Series should have highlighted that I like writing about fear. I like using fear as the key to hindering or unraveling a relationship, but I also like that a character eventually triumphs over fear, after all, I write romance where love triumphs over all. Love is a scary thing. Love can make a person feel vulnerable. Love can make a person act impulsively, and do dumb things. Love is primitive, emotional. People may be unable to filter their actions because love has jacked up their hormonal system. Everything is overloaded. So, let’s backtrack to the bit about vulnerability because like love, fear has a similar effect on a person. Fear is primitive, emotional. A person may be unable to filter their actions because fear has jacked up their hormonal system. In both cases, the amygdala, the centre of emotional behaviour, is doing all the work, while the pre-fontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates behavior, that is, the part of the brain that tells you what is right and what is wrong, is sort of on hold.
Fear can make people act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a character pushing the boundaries of behavior, what crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible response to fear? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within a character’s behaviour? Or is revenge always just plain wrong? This is what I wanted to explore.
Lead characters in romance fiction are often held to a higher standard of behavior; they are perceived by many readers to be a ‘better’ form of a human being, one who frequently rises above petty or malicious behavior. As a result of this, when a romance hero or heroine acts in a primitive way, when impulsivity gets the better of them and these good people do bad things, some readers will protest and deem that character to be unlikable, un-heroic, and unworthy of being a romantic lead. Other readers don’t care.
I wasn’t sure which lead character would push the boundary for some readers, since both the hero and heroine in Driving in Neutral behave quite badly. Getting trapped in an elevator brings out the worst in claustrophobic Maxwell. He raves and verbally abuses Olivia, the woman trapped with him. His reaction is completely childish and base. He is overwhelmed by his fear, is unable to filter, and works from a primitive space. He’s all amygdala function.
When Olivia’s fear surfaces she, too, is in amygdala overdrive. So jacked up is her response to her fear she misbehaves. Terribly. There are 4 reasons for misbehaving: attention, power, inadequacy, revenge.
Olivia feels aggrieved, exposed, and acts impulsively, which, at that moment when it all spins out of control, is her best way of coping with being vulnerable. Her reaction is completely childish, and base. What she does to Emerson is cruel, and, just as he feels remorse for abusing her, she feels remorse for her behaviour…eventually, once her hormonal system is back at a normal operating level.
Now the history bit. A while back, I entered Driving in Neutral in a writing contest. A judge took issue with Emerson Maxwell’s verbal abuse of Olivia, particularly with name-calling. I was scolded with, “A hero would never call a heroine names.” In case you’re wondering, those names were ‘wet rodent’ and ‘waterlogged hamster.’ Not exactly ear-scorching or profane, but I knew, based on that reaction, that Maxwell and my writing had crossed the line for that reader-judge.
What I want to know is this: Does the context for a character’s bad behaviour matter to you, or is bad behaviour always a no-go zone for romance leads, because romance heroes and heroines must maintain that ‘better’ form?
Fear can make a person act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a romance hero or heroine pushing the boundaries of behavior, what, to you, crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible behaviour? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within the circumstances of a character’s behaviour? Or is name-calling and revenge always just plain wrong?
So what do I think, where do I stand on all this behaving badly stuff? My friend Swell, a longtime romance reader, sums up how I feel about lead characters behaving badly in a romance novel. Swell says that if the “reaction is realistic and a part of the character, and the reaction is used to complete the relationship between the hero and heroine, then I will feel that the response was appropriate for the character.” Amen sister.
I feel something quite sad about the passing of a childhood icon, actress Ann B Davis. Besides playing Schultzy on the Bob Cummings Show in the 60s, for many of us Post-Baby Boom TV kids, Ann B will always be a much-loved character on a 70s sitcom. Ann B will always be Alice Nelson, the housekeeper on The Brady Bunch.
I readily admit Alice had a huge impact on my life. Alice is responsible for my bizarre love of housekeeping, my affection for wearing aprons, my preference for wearing little white canvas Keds, and my fascination for stories about middle-aged love.
Yes, The Brady Bunch was a sitcom, yes it was unrealistic because what family of nine in a house that size had one bathroom for six kids? But the realism expressed in The Brady Bunch hinges on the portrayal of the adults and their relationships. What I learned from the Brady Bunch, despite it’s idealised-sunshiny-everything-is-rosy-sit-com-prefect-blended-family, was that grown ups got divorced, grown ups got remarried, grown ups who were older than my parents STILL WENT ON DATES, and STILL LOOKED FOR LOVE. Okay, Sam the Butcher wasn’t exactly what you’d call hawtt stuff, the fact was he was middle-aged Alice’s boyfriend, and what this showed me was that middle-aged women had middle aged boyfriends. Divorced gown-ups and middle aged grownups looked for love. That was the message I took away from Alice and The Brady Bunch. That was the message I accepted as reality.
And guess what? This IS REALITY. Grown-ups, Middle-aged grown-ups and grown-ups who are older than my parents STILL GO ON DATES, and STILL LOOK FOR LOVE. Middle-aged women have middle aged boyfriends. There are some films and TV shows that buck the love-is-for-the-young trend (Enough Said, Last Chance Harvey), but why do you think we don’t we see more of this reality portrayed on TV or in movies or in books–in romance fiction?
Does it have something to do with more people wearing Converse and Vans than Keds?
Oh, and one more thing. Alice is also the reason the pre-renovated kitchen in my grown up romance novel, A Basic Renovation, resembles the orange and brown Brady Bunch kitchen, where Alice spent so much time.
Yesterday, I was in Sydney (yeah, that big city with the big harbour bridge and opera house in the southern hemisphere) for the Launch of Harlequin Escape. Quite frankly, it was the most amazing party I have ever been to. For years I’ve been told, “Harlequin sure knows how to throw a party.” That was no lie. This party was huge. It was wall-to-wall people and authors and food and drinks and noise and high heels and handsome goateed men in suits… It was like the sort of party you read about or see in a movie. And I was a deer in the headlights of an oncoming a eighteen-wheeler of holy-crap-this-is-really-happening and… stayed tuned for more about Harlequin Escape, Kids, because I have exciting news that makes me wanna ‘esplode like Ricky Ricardo.
I know when you write about romance fiction romance is supposed to get a little r. The capital R is reserved for use when referring that literary genre of high culture with quests, brave knights, ladies, courtly love, and all that jazz. I think the use of a small r for romance fiction (and pink and hearts and clinch covers) is a reason modern romance novels are denigrated. Well, here’s another. Some of us romance writers are up in arms today over this little story about how romance fiction poses a threat to women’s sexual health.
Read it and you might agree we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to romance novels and research. Annie, Aretha and Oldbitey are cheesed off because “research” like Susan Quilliam’s, says, women who read romance novels are getting life and love and sex all wrong. Romance readers are making a mess of their lives because romance novels are not good role models. Sisters are not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it to themselves.
Hang on. Didn’t I blog about something “to ourselves” yesterday (See What Do We Want)
Here’s an idea. Can we stand up for one another rather than knock down and reduce romance readers to little r’s again and again? How about showing some respect for your fellow sex? If you can’t, at least wear a condom or a dental dam-like device when you undertake this sort of poorly investigated research. And crack open a 21st Century contemporary Romance novel before you start typing up your notes.
Swell agrees with me. Someone left freshness seal open on contemporary romance novels.
Walk into the romance section of any book store. Pull a contemporary romance off the shelf. You know exactly what you’re going to get, don’t you? Big city girl returns to her small-town roots. Small town good girl goes bad to get the city bad boy to go good. If it’s not the return of the Andy Griffith Show crossed with Northern Exposure, it’s a reissue of an 80s Janet Evanovich, or, as Swell put it, Lori Foster, AKA an author who’s jumped the shark.
The Contemporary is as stale as last year’s Christmas sugar cookies. No, wait. As stale as week-old white bread–the soft, squishy kind that’s laden with preservatives. I’m talkin’ Wonderbread stale.
Screw the small town. I don’t give a rat’s about "character driven small town romance." Bring back the character driven romance. Period.
I’m not alone in pining for a contemporary. Carly Phillips is too. On the Romance University Blog, Carly said:
As a reader, over the last year when I would go into a bookstore and look for a good, light contemporary romance, they were few and far between. Yes, the staple authors of the genre put out their contemporary romance novels, but for fast readers like me, there weren’t enough contemporaries to sustain my appetite.
There aren’t enough contemporaries to sustain or satisfy my appetite and you know what? I’m BORED.
No. I don’t want another paranormal. Sorry about this, Swell, but am I REALLY the only one disappointed that Contemporary GODDESS Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer chose to go paranormal with Wild Ride?
Well, am I?
Where, oh, WHERE have the freshly baked contemporary goods gone? Look. I am not a fan of white bread. It’s spongy and bland, just like the few contemporaries I’m finding on the shelf. Where is the caraway rye? The pumpernickel? The cinnamon swirl?
Enough with the cookie cutter stuff. As much as I love cookies, I’d really love it if a publisher, some AGENT would wake up roll out some new contemporary romance. I have money and I will buy.
If you need some starter dough, I have a nice one. It’s yeast free.