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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Owning the Romance

I've been reading a lot of romance lately. This is not news. What is news is that I'm finally starting to shrug the unapologetic shrug, smile the I-have-a-secret smile, and own the fact that I've become a romance reader.

The part I have trouble with is the idea that I'm somehow a romance writer.

I didn't invent this idea. A couple of my friends did, to explain why I needed to join them at an author signing event next month. An event filled with writers whose books I've read, whose books I want to read, and even a couple authors whose books I devoured with the kind of binge-reading frenzy normally reserved for full seasons of Homeland or Game of Thrones. Penny and Elizabeth, you know who you are. Or maybe not, and now I'm on a watch-out-for-that-one-she's-crazy list.

I couldn't belong at that event. How could I possibly fit in?

When I talk about my book, Marking Time it's a YA urban fantasy, or maybe just urban fantasy without the YA since the vast majority of its readers (and fans) are adults: women mostly, but some men too (the men seem astonished that they actually liked it, which always makes me grin).

True, there is a little romance in the book. Because frankly, what fun is anything without something to hope for, yearn for, or imagine? Especially when it's first love that happens to be with someone who loves like it's not a dress-rehearsal. Everyone should be loved like that.

One of the reasons I love writing my seventeen-year-old heroine is that she thinks she knows everything all the time, and everything that happens to her points out, in glaring technicolor, exactly how much she doesn't know. That exploration between arrogance and humility, confidence and soul-crushing insecurity is how I remember my first love, and it's what I spent the next ten years trying to pretend I had handled. Kind of like Saira, the moment I admitted I didn't know what the hell I was doing was the moment I had the right combination of humility and confidence to meet my husband.

Despite wandering down a romantic path or two as I write the second book, Tempting Fate, the story is still full of time travel, historical mysteries, bad guys, great friendships, action scenes and enough mayhem and destruction to satisfy and astonish even the most tentative reader. Therefore, I resist the idea that I have any business whatsoever at an author's table in a book signing event like Authors Under the Lights, where some of the biggest (and most fabulous) names in independent romance publishing will be. I do great in high schools talking to teens about reading and writing and all the amazing fantasy books that helped inspire my novels. I do okay at book clubs full of soccer moms, surprised that they enjoyed a book about a free-running tagger falling through time. But put me in a room full of authors...

Confidence is something I've worked very hard to earn, some of which comes from towering over every other female in a room, some of which comes from being just too lazy to be insecure. But in the face of a room full of accomplished, talented, successful women, that confidence runs away screaming like a panicked little girl. It's happened before, at fundraising events, professional mixers, or those kinds of luncheons named for the richly-dressed women who attend them. It's even been known to happen at PTA meetings, though I'm getting better at those. When I dissect the insecurity, which I do because I'm a writer and its what we do to the things that scare us - dissect them and then feed the pieces to our characters, I realize it's just a simple case of feeling like I don't belong.

And that makes me feel about fourteen. Then I was 5'9" tall and the last boy who admitted out loud that he liked me was in Kindergarten, when apparently height didn't have quite the same intimidation factor. I fit in when I sat at my desk because I was confident and smart and the teachers liked that I spoke up in class. And I fit in on the basketball court because I could shoot and rebound and my height counted for something. But with my boy-crazy friends, or in a regular PE class (way down on the team-picking list for anything not basketball), or especially (gulp) a school dance, I most emphatically did not belong.

Cut to...


Eighth grade graduation dance. I wore a peach-colored dress (it was the eighties) and sandals with a one-inch heel (on my size-ten feet, thank you very much). My grandmother had said out loud that no boy would want to dance with someone with such hang-nails. Really, Grandma? Hang-nails were not my problem. I had become one with the wall, blending into the pale wood in a way that made the peach seem on-purpose while the boy-crazies were dancing with the basketball boys. Van Halen and Flock of Seagulls thrummed through the multi-purpose room and I tried very hard to pretend that I'd been specifically requested by the Principal and maybe even the President, to make sure that wall stayed up.
But then Bobby Thomas came up and asked me to dance.

Bobby Thomas lived a neighborhood away from me and was a year older. When I was in second grade my best friend and I sometimes walked home from school with Bobby and his older sister, and more often than not I became the object of ridicule and laughter. I don't remember what I was teased about, or why I was targeted, but I know that from second to eighth grade, Bobby Thomas was front and center in the "I-don't-belong" conversation that stole my confidence and turned 'tall' into 'enormous, awkward and geeky.' Of course it didn't help that Bobby Thomas was short, athletic and popular.

But Bobby asked me to dance. And he was awkward and shy and so happy when, in a moment of stunned gratefulness, I said yes.

It was a defining moment in the psyche of a 14-year-old girl and one with a ripple effect Bobby would have been shocked to realize he'd caused. We're facebook friends now, Bobby and I; not close enough for me to explain, without sounding pathetic and stalkerish, how that one act of kindness in eighth grade gave me the confidence to be myself. Tall and geeky, good at some things, ridiculous at others. Because somehow, to Bobby Thomas, I was interesting enough to ask to dance.

When my lovely, lovely friends (authors and readers and book-promoters) tried to convince me that I belonged at the Authors Under the Lights book signing event, I resisted and argued and kicked and screamed, even as I finally put my name in the hat. And then S.C and Dani, the lovely event organizers, accepted my application and suddenly I was in among romance authors and romance book models, anticipating the feeling of being as out-of-place and un-belonging as if it was a fundraiser full of size-two Ladies Who Lunch having a PTA meeting. In diamonds and Manolos. While I'm at school in my underwear. And they're peach-colored.

So I think it's time to shrug the unapologetic shrug, smile the secret smile and admit I don't know what the hell I'm doing. And maybe by coming out in all my YA urban fantasy, tall-girl geekiness, among writers whose work I admire, I miraculously gain the right combination of humility and confidence to own the romance. Because maybe Bobby Thomas is right. Being interesting enough to be asked to dance might be all the belonging a person needs.

*There truly are some AMAZING authors who will be at the Authors Under the Lights event on March 22nd. I've read their books and look forward to meeting them in person. If anyone will be in LA then, please come, hold up a wall with me, and I'll save you a dance.