Those of us who write about love face a new dilemma. According to the 2013 judging guidelines for the Oscars of the romance writing industry, the RITAs and the Golden Hearts, the romance of a story is now twice as important as plot, character, and writing.
Where does that leave women’s fiction writers who cross over into the category of novels with strong romantic elements? Confused and struggling to define ourselves. Women’s fiction may be a shape shifter, but tell us romance is the most important part of our novels, and we're likely to give you the evil eye.
As publication day loomed, I was terrified that my book baby would be shelved under romance. Relationship stories, which are my thing, have always fallen between the thinnest of cracks. To complicate the definition, my characters find hope and love in the darkness of mental illness. Think Silver Linings Playbook with woodland garden settings.
The Unfinished Garden—TUG—sold to MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin, as women’s fiction. Despite various incarnations, it has always been the story of Tilly, a young widow whose grief has begun to twist into relentless guilt. Enter James, a charismatic, brilliant obsessive-compulsive who recognizes that Tilly is trapped in the world of obsessive thought. TUG is Tilly’s journey because of James. Without James—no life-altering epiphany for Tilly.
Before publication, I adopted the mantra, “It’s a love story, not a romance.” Then TUG launched—as an August romance pick at Barnes & Noble. My worst fear was realized: My debut novel was destined to be labeled romance.
I told myself it didn’t matter, but I was faking. Until I read my first romance novel and had my own HEA—happily ever after—moment. I consumed that novel in one weekend. “Go away,” I told the family. “I’m working.” And I was, because I was learning how the pros craft page-turning love scenes. It was like binging on English candy, which I do every summer within 24 hours of returning to England. (I miss wine gums something rotten.)
There’s no sex in TUG, there’s only one kiss, and because my hero is phobic about soil and my heroine is a gardener, it takes him a while to hold her hand. But from the moment they meet, Tilly and James have sexual chemistry. Their mutual attraction does not define the story even though it does help drive the plot. For at least one chapter, they’re on different continents. Tilly is wading through heavy-duty family drama, and James doesn’t enter her mind. In the romance novel I was reading, however, the sexual tension was up front and center on every single page. I was awestruck.
I learned something else, too: this romance writer was a master in the art of pacing, and boy, had I been struggling with pacing in novel two. After finishing her novel, I ripped apart my first nine chapters, which had been filled with introspection, backstory, and lovely descriptions of the North Carolina forest. “Back to the story,” I kept muttering.
The one complaint I had with this romance novel was the writing. It was littered with coursing and throbbing. But then again, I’ve read mainstream novels chock-full of chuckling. (Chuckle is my trigger verb. I detest it.) Writing is super important to me. I agonize over sentences and word choice. When I read Jodi Picout—whom I think of as the queen of women’s fiction, although she’s a genre bender—I am constantly collecting sentences that scream, “This is how you do it!”
So. Am I going to morph into a genre romance writer? No. But six months out from pub date, I have a new mantra: “I am one with the romance label.” Hand on heart, I no longer care how readers classify TUG—provided they enjoy the story. Much of my life echoes through my first book baby. I thought I knew every theme and every thread, but then it bounced out into the world and surprised me.
Two weeks ago, I had the biggest surprise of all. Simply Books, the Harlequin Reader Service magazine, declared TUG number one in their list of Most Romantic Books of 2012. Tilly and James had even earned a rosy pink heart for being sensual. I was thrilled. I celebrated by toasting my favorite couple with Bombay Sapphire gin. And I’m pretty sure they approved.
Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden (Harlequin MIRA, 2012), a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt. You can find her on Facebook.
“White…conveys the condition of OCD, and how it creates havoc in one’s life and the lives of loved ones, with style and grace, never underplaying the seriousness of the disorder.” Romantic Times 4* review
“Barbara Claypole White gives us a moving story about the challenges of OCD and grief combined with the power of the human spirit to find love in the most unlikely of places.” Eye on Romance.
“A fabulous debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN easily earns Romance Junkies’ highest rating of five blue ribbons and a recommended status for its unpredictable originality! So good!” Romance Junkies