The luncheon speech presented at the RWA Annual Conference, New York, July 2003

    Since I'm up here in this position of mighty power, I might as well make the public service announcement I mentioned in the program.
    Undetected anemia is a major problem in menstruating women.
    Nearly half the menstruating women in North America are below optimal blood iron and stores. In a study of female college students, those below this level performed less well on both physical and mental tasks.
    You can see where I'm going with this, can't you?
    This is not a whimsical diversion.
    Writing romance is not for sissies. It is certainly not an activity suited to the fainting couch.
    Writing romance is demanding and we need to be in the best possible shape, particularly mentally. Therefore, next time you have a checkup get your ferritin levels checked. Ferritin, not blood iron. It measures the iron reserves you have around your body.
    My obsession with undetected anemia arises out of my own experience with it. About ten years ago I was suffering from unpredictable weakness, palpitations, panic attacks, and eventually agoraphobia. Yes, I got to the stage where I couldn't bear to walk far from my house.
    My problem was variously mis-diagnosed as hypoglycemia, peri-menopause and even neurosis. Then a simple blood test revealed the truth. The amount of iron in my blood was low normal, but my iron stores were dangerously depleted. My body was pumping out enough iron to keep me upright but at the same time it was pressing every alarm button it could find.
    The cause, of course, was heavy menstruation. Month after month I was drawing on the bank and getting deeper and deeper into debt.
    Did you hear about the scientists who recently announced their wonderful discovery that would be a gift to women everywhere. What was it?
    A cure for breast cancer?
    A cure for hot flashes, even?
    No, they have -- wait for it -- found a way to safely delay menopause indefinitely. A way to keep women menstruating into their pension years.
    What were they thinking?
    As my husband says, if men had to cramp and bleed every month for thirty or forty years, there would have been a cure for it generations ago.
    At least that's one problem I no longer have.
    Let's hear it, my friends, for menopause!
    As my iron stores sank lower and lower, like a good soldier, I was trying to write a contracted book. Surprise, surprise -- it wasn't working. Months later, when I returned to it -- surprise, surprise again -- all the characters were so very, very tired.
    We romance novelists rarely write disguised autobiography, but still, our books are shaped by what we are, so we need to be as mentally strong and resilient as possible.
    I think we often underestimate the demands of what we do, perhaps because we make it look easy to others.
    It should look easy to our readers, because the best popular fiction slips down as smoothly as fine wine. How would you feel if the sommelier in a restaurant brought you a bottle of wine and said, "This is our most challenging vintage, madam. It will be hard to swallow and will probably give you stomach cramps and various mental disturbances that will linger with you for a long time."
    And if you tried to object, he said with a sneer, "Madam. We do not serve those trashy smooth wines here!"
    We create the smooth wines of fiction, but as with making a great wine, it is not a simple process.
    Writing any novel is a work of mental acrobatics. Writing a good romance novel is the mental equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil act. You know, the one who can juggle ten balls while standing on her head spinning a plate on each toe, probably balancing on a high wire at the same time.
    And smiling as if it was no big deal at all.
    Yes, our writing demands every scrap of brain agility, strength and stamina we have.
    You know the old saying about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels? Well romance writers do everything other novelists do, but while writing about the most sensitive, the most emotional, and for many the most nerve-wracking area of human existence -- dealing with the opposite sex and finding a mate.
    This is why we get so much negative press.
    Because we scare people. And so we should. We go where writers mostly fear to go. We write about the most sensitive and vulnerable actions and emotions -- and what's more, we don't take the easy out of cynicism. We shoot for the top, for the totally satisfying ending. We dare to say, "To hell with your biased and jaded statistics. Men and women can and do find love, and yes, it can last a lifetime.
    I enjoyed a talk here by Dr Pamela Britton, who has written a book called A Natural History of the Romance Novel. At last, an academic who truly understands our work.
     She nails it when she says that the triumphant ending that everyone reads romance for is a celebration of liberation and joy.
     I have fought, and will continue to fight, the idea that a romance novel can have a tragic ending, or even a bittersweet ending. Such a story can be wonderful, but it is not what we romance writers do. We, as Dr. Regis says, set the man and woman free of whatever bound them so that they can find true joy in one another, and then -- my addition, but she implies the same -- they build family and community. How can they do this if they've split. How can they do this if they're dead -- unless they're happy ghosts.
     Yes, we're the genre that invented the happy-ever-after ghosts! Even death does defeat our vision.
     And if that wasn't enough heroics, most of us write openly about S-E-X.
    We know how that terrifies everyone.
    It's no coincidence that the genre that deals most frankly and openly with sex is the one composed mostly of women. Despite many misconceptions, women have a more no-nonsense approach to sex than men.
    Where did men get the idea that women are coy about, or even afraid of, sex? That their wives and mothers, who certainly are not virgins, are coy about or scared of sex?
    Probably from the same place that men got the idea that woman have no interest in the beautiful male form.
    Sure, we enjoy Wolverine, Legolas, and Spike for their minds alone.
    Men wish!
    Most writers, however, are scared of writing about sex, especially normal sex. They will explain their avoidance by saying that everyone knows about sex. That there's no need to go into detail.
    I find that very peculiar.
    Sex isn't the same every time. Even with the same partner, sometimes it's sublime and sometimes it's just okay.
    But add to that, the sex scenes in novels generally include that crucial first one between the two characters. Virgins or not, that has to be a special encounter involving all kinds of exploration, adjustment, and character growth, not to mention the distinct possibility that it won't work out well at all.
    That scene is crucial to the relationship and fascinating to the reader. Why on earth think there's nothing to write about?
    Yet most writers outside our genre are scared of writing about sex..
    I don't want to get at men here, but it does seem that when most male novelists try to write a sex scene, they reach for metaphor, perhaps as a way of distancing themselves.
    I offer an example from a winner of an award called The Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
    No, as Dave Barry says, I am not making this up, folks.
    This is from a novel called Rescue Me by Christopher Hart, in which the author took flight on images of polar exploration.
    Here it is with some incidentals edited out.
    "Her hand is moving away from my knee and heading north. Heading unnervingly and with steely will toward the pole. Ever northward moves her hand, and when she reaches the North Pole I think in wonder and horror, "Oh, she will surely want to pitch her tent."
    Another winner, Sean Thomas, had this bit from his novel Kissing England. "She is so small and compact, and yet she has all the necessary features. Shall I compare thee to a Sony Walkman...."
    Honestly, I am not making these up. I assume that polar exploration and micro technology are less scary than live humans, touch, smell, and sweat.
    We, however, boldly go where other novelists hesitate to go without the protection of metaphor or the bizarre.
    Yes, we are literary warriors -- or perhaps these days it should be we are kick-ass heroines! -- because to write romance well we have to leave our safety zones in so many ways.
    We have to write books knowing that many people will not understand our art at all.
    Also, in order to bring back the gift of new worlds to others, we have to be willing sacrifice to insanity. Yes, insanity. The greatest risk, the one most others shrink from, is to let the imaginary become real to us.
    They lock people away for that, you know.
    We have to let imaginary people take up residence in our minds. We have to believe in them, listen to them when they talk, and even talk back.
    They definitely lock people up for that.
    We have to believe in the integrity of our imagined universe.
    This is a mystery, in the sense of magic and alchemy, and non-writers often don't understand. Non-writers -- I like to call them Muggles -- will think we can change a detail without difficulty. They don't understand how in any worthwhile creation, one change will set up a ripple effect that changes everything.
    Even a character's name can be crucial. I've had characters who sulked in a corner until I found their real name.
    Non-writers will say, "But these people aren't real. Make them do what you want."
    What do they mean, not real?
    Of course they're real.
    Some Muggles even make it into a moral issue. We're spineless weaklings for not being in control of our imaginary friends.
    Given the challenges, it's a wonder we do it at all, especially when the rejections are piling up.
    But I know why.
    The muse makes us do it!
    You don't like the idea of a muse? Does it sound airy fairy? More to do with dreaming than doing? That's a confusion of two different words.
    In the artistic and scientific sense the word muse comes from the Latin musa, meaning to learn, to turn the mind toward in order to create. From that we get museum, a center for learning, and music, a scientific art.
    The other muse -- as in bemuse and amuse -- comes from the word muzzle.
    I'm not making this up, folks!
    It all starts with a hunting dog, the sort of hunting dog that is supposed to keep its nose to the ground as it pursues its quarry. If it has its muzzle in the air it's goofing off instead of getting on with the job.
    That muse comes from the archaic French verb muser, meaning daydreaming or drifting without a purpose.
    I promise that's the only etymological analysis you're going to get in this talk, but it is fascinating, isn't it, and words are our business.
    Shakespeare knew his muse from his muse when he wrote, "Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!"
    That's no wimpy daydreaming muse.
    Call it what you will, we all have one.
    We're all hooked on the heady magic of creation.
    Hooked? As in drugs?
    Oh, yes. That's what the muse feeds us.
    Our muse doesn't always reward us with riches and awards, or even with publication. What she does supply is the creative high that makes our obsessive insanity seem rational. That high has us finishing manuscript number 4 and plunging right into number 5, even though numbers 1, 2, and 3 are still getting rejection slips.
    The high enables us to block out the thought that we're working on page 30 of a 400 page manuscript that will take us a year to finish. That like every other book we've written, this one will have us tearing our hair out, and even at some point being sure that this time it won't work.
    But we go ahead anyway.
    For the high.
    For the sheer bliss of writing.
    She's a stealth invader, the muse, and she mostly seduces rather than overpowers. Can you remember how she snagged you?
    Perhaps it was an item in the newspaper about a writer's group. Or did a friend ask you to go with her to a talk on writing romance? Probably that friend is off doing something else. She was just the muse's tool.
    Or the muse might have been even more subtle than that.
    One day we're dreaming up what happens after the end of other people's books. Anyone else used to do that?
    Before we know it, we have cute scenes about characters of our own popping into our heads.
    And suddenly we have this crazy idea of writing a novel ourselves.
    If anyone asks us to explain why, we have a hard time coming up with something reasonable, don't we? Because really, it isn't. It makes about as much sense as if we sat up one day and said we were going to walk to the North Pole.
    Perhaps I shouldn't mention the North Pole.
    We can usually come up with some explanation of how we started, but it often doesn't make much sense.
    I really wish we could ban the line that goes, "I read a romance that was so bad I knew I could do better." It gives people the wrong idea about our genre, but still, that was the muse at work.
    But it doesn't make sense. Do most people who read an unsatisfactory book become writers? No, they just grump about it and look for a better one. Just as most people who have a bad meal at a restaurant don't immediately decide to open their own eatery.
    We're just trying to rationalize our muse dementia.
    Or perhaps she hooked you with the line, "Anyone could write one of those little books. In six months you'll be able to quit your day job...."
    That's a cheap shot, but a muse has to do what a muse has to do. She knows that once she'd got us hooked, she's got us for ever.
    What about other reasons?
    Stephen King said something to the effect of, "I realized that I could pay a fortune to get rid of this stuff, or I could write it and make a fortune." Now that was a clever muse!
    The novelist Dorothy Dunnett put it this way. "I was complaining about running out of books of the sort I wanted to read and my husband suggested I write one."
    I think I might rationalize my writing career like that, but think about it.
    No good books left to read.
    Wander down to the New York Central Library and go into the fiction section.
    Look around.
    No good books left to read.
    That's the muse making the ridiculous sound reasonable.
    The truth is the muse's seductive whisper in our ear. "Your book isn't here for you to read," she says. "The one in your head. The one you're going to write. The one only you can write. If you don't write it, it'll never exist...."
    Admit the truth here now, fellow writers. Isn't the most exciting book in the world always the one we're writing at the moment?
    I tell you, the muse is as cunning as a dealer in crack cocaine, but she does feed us great juice.
    Doubt that?
    Try going cold turkey.
    Sometimes we're aware of the high we get from writing, but over time we can begin to take it for granted and only realize its power when we're deprived of it for a while.
    A few years ago my husband and I went to England for three weeks. We've done that many times. I don't write when I'm traveling and I enjoy the break.
    In this case, however, there were a few other things going on both before our holiday and after and the time without writing stretched. My husband, who is not a stupid man, looked at me warily one day and asked if anything was wrong.
    I hadn't been aware of the problem but the words came of their own. "I haven't written a word in two bloody months!" By then, I was desperate for the simple act of creative writing.
    For the fix.
    Ask writers what they'd do if they won millions in a lottery and most get this dreamy look in their eyes. "Servants," they'll say. "Lots of servants, so I'll have more time to write."
    I've never met one who said, "Oh, thank heavens. I'd never have to write another word."
    Still not convinced?
    Tell me then why most writers don't stop. Writers don't stop when the work is piling up unsold, but more telling still, they don't stop when they have more money than they know what to do with.
    Why are the mega-bestsellers still writing? Terry Pratchett, the wonderful bestselling English fantasy writer, says that he has more money than he could spend in two lifetimes, but new books keep coming out.
    JK Rowling is now richer than the queen. We'll have to wait and see what she does after book 7, but my money's on more books.
    The muse never stops dangling tempting stories in front of us, and we have to grab them to get the juice.
    That isn't the only reward, though.
    We also receive the blessing of creating magic for others.
    Writing fiction may not seem peculiar to you. It doesn't to me -- it seems stranger that other people don't. But most people can't create imaginary playgrounds. They're trapped in the mundane unless other people open portals for them. That's why people love to read popular fiction, which does this so well.
    I know this from some of the reader mail I get. I'm sure other authors get similar letters, but listen to these quotes.
    "You write so well, it's as if the characters are real."
    "Thanks for letting me travel through lives with you."
    "God bless you for such a fertile mind."
    These readers are pointing directly to the pleasure they get from going places with me.
    I really like this one.
    "Thank you for the delight I receive from your novels, and may you continue to create magic through the gift of your imagination."
    Yes, what we do is magic.
    Yes, what we have is a gift. A very precious one, and one that requires, demands, that we give it everything.
    Writing romance is not for sissies. And it is not for the half-hearted, either.
    We must never forget how special romance fiction is not just to us, but to our millions of readers many of whom we never hear from, on-line or through the mail, but who tell us through their purchases just how special romance novels are to them.
    Most people are trapped in their day-to-day unless muse-possessed people like us open doors for them. I don't necessarily mean dark lives, though we all get letters from people surviving terrible times by reading the joyous stories we tell. I mean ordinary lives. Good, solid, ordinary lives but still ones where a holiday is precious -- a holiday to a magical other world that we provide.
    Think how extraordinary fiction writing is. We only get 26 letters. Those 26 letters arranged into words can form a textbook on economics, the incomprehensible instructions for your VCR, or the income tax guide.
    Or they can create Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, or the wonderful book we're each in the process of writing.
    By our magical powers those 26 letters create in the reader's mind a world that has never existed before, a world peopled with believable characters doing fascinating things.
    Yes, we can do magic.
    We can create something out of nothing.
    But it's magic, not mechanics, and magic is not supposed to be hitched to a plough and pointed at a straight furrow day after day.
    We are allowed to play with our magical gift.
    We are allowed to have fun.
    We are supposed to have fun. If we lose the magic of fun, how can we weave it into joyful stories for others? If anemia makes for weary characters, what does misery create?
    Most of us started out writing for fun. A story idea was bubbling and fizzing in our head like a potion in an alchemist's bottle, and we were impelled to write it down. Perhaps longhand in a lined exercise book as I did in my boarding school an sixteen.
    Think back to your first real fiction writing. Wasn't seeing your imagined world take shape in words, words you could share with a friend, a sister, a teacher, or even with yourself alone, one of the biggest highs you can remember?
    When everyday writing loses that magic, we need to recapture it. For sanity's sake, we need that. For a little while, we need to shut off focus on markets, daily page goals, or even that deadline, and run free.
    What neglected ideas do you have jumping up and down trying to catch your attention?
    Perhaps it's something entirely different. In fact, it probably is. That's why you've been ignoring it for so long.
    It might be a different genre -- a mystery story, a children's novel, or one set in another universe. It might be a romance story you've been pushing aside because you "know" it won't sell.
    That ballet dancer hero. The heroine who had an abortion. The historical about the sewing machine salesman in Wyoming.
    And you know what, it might not sell, and that doesn't matter. We all want to see our work published and in the hands of many readers, but publication isn't the only measure of success.
    You know the Meatloaf line, "Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere."
    Be a bad girl writer now and then. Give the supposed rules the finger. Tell the voice of common sense to take a hike. Don't let anyone tell you "you can't."
    When people tell you you're stupid to write that story because it'll never sell, write the damn book anyway.
    You may never sell it, but that's not the point. Go on a writer's holiday -- for a day, a week, a month, a year. Whatever you feel like and can afford. As creative, muse-inspired artists, we must explore all that we can do, because if we don't, how will we ever know?
    If you're a published writer, especially if you're the breadwinner, your ability to do this might be constrained, but your inability to do this might be slowly choking you.
    And you know what, if you're unpublished, sister, you're in writer heaven! I'm serious. You can do what the hell you like.
    To paraphrase the wonderful Mae West, "I've been published and I've been unpublished, and published is better." But even so, like most authors, I look back with some longing to my unpublished days when there were no external constraints.
    You may want to be disciplined and write toward a viable market. There's nothing wrong with that, but you are free in a way your published friends mostly aren't.
    Free like a kid in the summer holidays. Free to run wild and crazy whenever you want for as long as you want. Don't let anyone steal that freedom from you. Don't let people tell you that writing anything not tightly focussed on the market is a waste of time.
    No joyful writing is ever a waste of time.
    Never let anyone scold you as if you were a good girl who was dirtying her best dress. Don't let them tell you it's stupid to write that. That real writers stick to the rules, and focus on markets, writing only to sell.
    Be bad girl.
    Play in the mud.
    Get scratched climbing trees.
    Go skinny dipping with the boys.
    You're a big, bad girl and you can do whatever you want. The worst that can happen is that you return to your more focussed writing relaxed, sizzling with energy, and with a big smile on your face.
    The best thing that can happen is magic. That you create something truly magical, something you and only you were supposed to write. Something so fresh that editors will be fighting to publish it. Something that will make a lot of readers very, very happy.
    Can you do that?
    How will you know if you never try?
    It is a sin not to explore the true scope of our gift, especially when it is given to us so that we can create joy for others. It is hiding our talent under the bushel.
     We are called upon to be greater than that, to assert with every romance novel that men and women, even when struggling against dire barriers, can and do form loving couples. That mating love and joy are real, not fantasy. And we must do this in the teeth of a disapproving world.
     Writing romance is not for sissies.
     So get your ferritin level checked.
     Let your muse out to be naughty.
     And remember. Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.

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