The Lonely Hearts Club

First-Place Nonfiction
WallaceCover
Photo by Emilie Foyer.

The debutante to my right insists that I take her second Arby’s chicken patty. “You look hungry,” she says before bustling off to the bathroom, from which she will emerge in a blond wig and long white dress, its square neckline just low enough that she must continually tug it up with one demurely-gloved hand. As I peel the foil away from the limply steaming bun, a Roman noblewoman swathed in a scarlet and violet toga swans her way over and re-seats herself to my right, delicately watching the rest of the table pick at their plates of pale meat in mystery sauce. Across the room, a pirate wearing clicking armfuls of bracelets extends a rusty sword to a woman decked out in brass aviator goggles. The aviatrix begins to twirl the weapon, testing its weight and balance.

“Is it real?” someone asks, with understandable trepidation.

“It’s as dull as all get-out, but it’s real,” the aviatrix confirms, handing it back.

“I got it from the wall of my husband’s man-cave,” the pirate explains.

It’s lunch break at the Connecticut chapter of the Romance Writers of America, where today members participate in a craft exercise called “Speed Date Your Character.” Each author introduces herself as a character from her work, and the rest of the table asks her five minutes of questions, helping her to get acquainted with her own creation. Some of them may be in costume, but many of them also carry business cards. Never for a second doubt that they are dressed for work.

My emailed invitation to the meeting encouraged me to join the game. Though I don’t go for a wardrobe change, I feel like some cartoon version of myself: petite and sweet and maybe a little smarmy, dressed in feminine headband and Ivy League penny loafers — the girl reporter, writing down everything as if I’ve never heard it before. I introduce myself as the model student on a class assignment, in-character as a stranger to the publishing industry.

The story really begins in a literary agency in Manhattan, in the fifteenth-floor office where I was sealed off from the worst of the humidity. There I spent hours grimly slicing the mail open with a paper knife, most of it from hopeful authors seeking representation. The manila poured in from all fifty states and several foreign countries, from college kids and retirees, from veterans, aspiring actors, prison inmates, anyone with a narrative to hawk. I was their first, and often only, reader.

The poet Paul Valery called literature a delirious profession, trading on the hot air currency of reputation, and that summer I came to believe him. No matter how many presaged the doom of publishing, the temperature continued to ratchet up; I encountered a whole other species of fever, the kind that causes hallucinations. Writers continued to pound down the gates of all the usual gatekeepers. Their delirium arrived in envelope-sized increments, overstuffed and covered with postage, delivered daily to the office doorstep to await my scalpel, my reads, my reply.

Because we were an agency specializing in women’s fiction, a lot of mail came from a very particular breed of dreamer, the sort selling instant chemistry, long odds and a happy ending. People say that all romance novels seem the same to them, and in a way, that sameness first presents itself in the submission letters. These achieved a consistent level of crisp professionalism of which the other hopefuls could barely dream. Generally, the letters from romance novelists were concise and polished: letting us know the word count up front, hitting us with the selling points, never getting too mired in plot details. They were stunning. They passed smoothly from my hands to those of my supervisor, and then to the agents above. For all its reputation for froth and nonsense, romance is the calling for the largest and most organized association of professional fiction writers in the world, Romance Writers of America (RWA). And on the second Saturday of each month, in the Emerald II room of the North Haven Holiday Inn, one of their most active chapters meets up to teach each other the tricks of the trade.

 

In 1980, the national organization of Romance Writers of America (RWA) was founded by a group of thirty-seven disgruntled but determined writers in a Houston suburb. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for career advancement, they convened their first conference, inviting editors from New York to talk about how to break into the publishing industry. They expected 150 attendees; they got over 600. No fewer than sixty-five manuscripts were sold.

Today, RWA has 145 local and online chapters across the United States, Canada, and Australia. It is the central nervous system of the genre with by far the biggest market share in the book business — romance garnered $1.36 billion in revenue in 2011, nearly twice the $715 million generated by the next most popular genre, Religious/Inspirational. The RWA national conference each July draws over 2,100 industry professionals, who gather for three days of frenzied interaction in the form of signings, pitch meetings and cocktail parties. For the working writer, RWA nationals also offers over 100 workshops sorted into categories of CRAFT (“Seven Steps to Sizzling Sexual Tension”), CAREER (“Integrated Marketing Plans for Writers”), RESEARCH (“No More Secret Babies: A History of Contraception”), and WRITER’S LIFE (“But Can I Still Feed My Kids? Or, When Can I Quit the Day Job?”).

More astonishing are the myriad local ways that RWA pulls aspirants away from their lonely, surreptitious toil. They emerge from behind laptop screens, from within office cubicles and idling minivans parked outside of soccer practice, drawn almost magnetically to an accessible, legible membership structure. To become a General Member, you tick the box attesting that you are over eighteen years of age and seriously pursuing a career in romance fiction. Then you mail in a check for $120 dollars (including $95 in dues, a $25 processing fee, and a subscription to Romance Writers’ Report, their trade mag). The next step up is the PRO Community of Practice, open to anyone who’s finished her manuscript and submitted it to a professional agent or publishing house. Next is the Published Authors Network (PAN), open to anyone who has made at least $1,000 on at least one sale of fiction. The uppermost echelons are the RWA Honor Roll, for those who’ve appeared on the best-seller lists, and the Hall of Fame, for those who have won multiple RITA awards, RWA’s highest honor. Affirmations accumulate.

Membership benefits include access to online forums and classes, eligibility for writing contests, even a discounted health insurance plan. Even more attractive is the promised access to all the secret wisdom a wannabe writer could ever want, like trend data, quick tips, editing services charging by the page, some deeply-buried cipher which might help her decode this inscrutable industry. But RWA’s greatest gift is more abstract: empowerment through professionalization. It infects members with a bewildering can-do spirit, instilling an absolute conviction that any deficiency can be compensated for and every obstacle overcome with just a workshop and the willingness to try. RWA sets an encouragingly-low barrier to entry, deep in the pits of creative purgatory, then provides secure, well-defined rungs defined by small accomplishments  —  submissions, agent contracts, awards — leading right up to the light of day, to publication, to paradise, to the writing life.

 

The women (and three men) of CTRWA do not have time for shyness. They say yes of course you sit with us sweetie, and resume their shop talk. I clutch my Styrofoam cup of hotel coffee. The woman pulling out the chair beside her is Stacy Werner, wary and wiry, a contemporary romance writer who is nobody’s fool. Werner speaks a fast and aggressive clip; later, I find out that by day, she’s a lawyer for the city of New Haven. She assures me that “this” — she gestures towards where the costumed writers are posing for a group photo — is not what a typical meeting looks like. She swears they’re not crazy.

Werner asks me what brings me here, and I explain to her about my writing class.

“No offense to your alma mater — or to mine,” she says preemptively, “but creative writing classes aren’t doing shit. All of those free-writing exercises, they’re nice in academic circles, but school is useless for teaching you how to write a book.”

Werner majored in literature at Binghamton University, and after graduation, was disappointed by how poorly her lessons mapped onto the real world of publishing. CTRWA taught her more than any of her college courses ever did, starting with how to write a first chapter, and a first sentence. Then the group taught her about subgenres and how to choose hers. When she did, they gave her reading recommendations of authors she might like. They did not allow her to flounder. She was willing to work hard.

“This is homework,” says Werner. “Are you serious, or are you not serious? You can’t go in without knowing the rules.”

How much is college these days, she asks. And how much is the cost of RWA national, and the local chapter — ninety bucks, plus the thirty-five? That’s chump change. Do Yale professors even read our newspapers, our stories? The world is different now. She loved Charles Dickens in college, but even the writer who could successfully emulate Dickens wouldn’t make it today. Ditto for Joyce, whom she hated. She swears that no Joyce would ever get published today. She doesn’t care what I’ve heard: literary fiction is dead, it’s a small market, and there’s no money in it. My attention wanders, because haven’t we all heard this before? And haven’t we each resolved that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make a difference to real writers, because what matters is the work, and that it’s out there? And aren’t these amazing times to be read in? But what Werner says next threatens to hurl me into an abyssal darkness from which there is no return:

“You are not a writer because no one is reading you.”

The other writers, wrapping up a debate over the royalties offered by an indie e-book contract versus one with a Big Six publisher, ask what we’ve been talking about.

“Miss Smarty Pants is writing an article about us,” Werner introduces me, not un-fondly.

 

At eleven o’clock, Vice President Gail Chianese calls the meeting to order so that the members can go over some business. Earlier in the morning, I’d helped her set up, distributing name tags for the speed-dating, and she told me that she’s nailed down a system for submitting her inspirational Christian romances to agents: she mails one out, marks the date on the calendar, then goes to work on the next book. She files, but will never re-read, the replies sent back to her in the thin envelopes.

“Every now and then you think, why am I doing this?” she sighed.

But now, up at the podium, Chianese is sunny. She explains that the group’s president, Jennifer Fusco, is away giving a lecture on marketing techniques at the mystery writing convention up in Boston. Kristan Higgins — “our patron goddess,” Chianese twinkles — is also otherwise engaged, addressing another romance writing group in New Hampshire. She sends her love.

The vice president reminds everyone that the December meeting will be the end-of-year holiday party, to be held at the Mill on the River Restaurant in South Windsor. This will be the occasion of their awards ceremony, honoring the worst prose they’ve written that year. Winners get a good stiff drink, on the group. Submissions are looking a little thin in the categories of Dirtiest Sentence, Most Deliberately Horrible Sentence, Most Technically Difficult Sex Scene, and Best Euphemism for “Junk.”

“It’s fun! We like to end the year on a light note and make fun of ourselves,” she says, adding gaily, “We’re not all F. Scott Fitzgeralds!” As people laugh and someone calls out, “Hear, hear,” Werner mutters in my ear, “There’s a good line for you.”

Business is over, and now comes time for Member News. Standing up, one member announces that after nine months in publishing purgatory, she has officially sold her novel to Hachette, and, fingers crossed, it might turn into a three-book deal: “This means a new car!” Now she’s on the hunt for an agent, but since she’s successfully fenced a manuscript on her own, I suspect she won’t have too hard a time. Bob Bonitz, retired psychotherapist and grandfather of twelve, tells the group that A Little Bit of Baby, sequel to his debut novel, A Little Bit of Blackmail, has been released on Amazon. Someone else has decided to change over to writing Westerns, and fashioned a newer, folksier penname for the job: Jessie Hayworth. Each triumph gets a small burst of applause.

Chianese takes her turn last. “I got my first win in a contest!” But before the congratulations get a chance to swoop around the room, she rattles on, “And just to keep my feet firmly on the ground — I got an agent reject three days later!” Her fist punches the air, her smile widens and trembles. “Woo-hoo!”

Murmurs percolate through the awkward silence. Frantically, I think back to my summer — didn’t I get a couple of envelopes from a woman named Gail, in Connecticut? The agency maintains their own collection of old letters, but I cringe at the thought of making some other intern comb through the fat accordion file just to assuage my sudden guilt. It might not have been this particular Gail, but it was some Gail, somewhere. And if the intern hadn’t been me, it would’ve been someone else — someone else writing NO on the manila envelope, sending off the form reply, keeping the paper moving.

“Jeez … ” someone shakes her head, “This business.”

 

Jennifer Iszkiewicz hasn’t dressed up for the speed-dating, but she does wear a pendant in the shape of a bright red chili pepper, dangling just above her décolletage. She introduces us to the twenty-something protagonist of her erotic novel, Jessica. Jessica is a social worker affianced to an older man, a successful lawyer named Daniel. For some convoluted reason I don’t quite catch, Jessica is sleeping with Daniel’s archenemy, Mitchell.

“They’ve turned me into a bad, bad girl,” Jessica sighs, giving into a coy grin that makes me think back to sophomore English — didn’t Chaucer say something once about women with gap teeth? — and her voice slides upwards into a drawl of a higher register. She bats her eyelashes, making the rest of the table grin. “I love Daniel, but what Mitchell and I have is totally … glandular.”

“Ooh, that doesn’t sound too healthy,” the member next to me enthuses.

Then the group fires off a volley of questions. What’s Daniel like? How did you meet him? Do you love him? Who’s better in bed? What toys do you use? Do you like anal?

“There are children at the table!” A woman named P.J. Sharon exclaims, mock-scandalized. Heat creeps up my neck. She goes on to say, “I’m only sixteen,” and I realize that it isn’t Sharon talking, but Lily Carmichael, the protagonist of her young adult novel. Sharon is still in-character, and I am so totally out of my league.

Then Iszkiewicz laughs, dispelling Jessica’s sugar-baby phone sex voice.

“I’m sorry!” she says, sounding not at all sorry, “All of my dirtiest lines are from this manuscript!”

“That’s all right,” a maternal woman dressed in a floral prairie dress responds, “I made Tracy say the word ‘cock’ five times in a row last month.”

“How did she react?!”

“Oh, I mean, she couldn’t stop laughing, and she went bright red,” the woman says peaceably, “But she did it.”

This is Jamie Schmidt, mother, technical writer, soon-to-be-published novelist, and the president-elect for the upcoming year. When I call later to ask her about her goals for her administration, Schmidt replies,

“I want everyone in the chapter to have PRO status.”

On my end of the line, I gape. She wanted everyone to have written a novel by next year?

“Oh, yes. Only about fifty out of our hundred members haven’t yet.  I want to find out what’s stopping them.” Schmidt continues breezily, “The only thing stopping me was that I never thought I had enough time.”

Now that she knows better, Schmidt says, she has sixteen novels going. I grope for a response. How is this possible? Does she do National Novel Writing Month?

“Oh, I do NaNoWriMo every month. I started in 2004.”

I’m sorry?

“I write 50,000 words a month,” she clarifies.

Every month.

“Every month.”

Twelve months, 50,000 words each, and romance is short, so — nearly eight novels a year. Didn’t she get writer’s block?

“No, not really.”

My laugh must have acquired a slight manic edge, because Schmidt adds kindly, “You know, I might be writing 50,000 words of absolute garbage. But,” and her tone seems admonishing, “they say you can’t edit a blank page.”

After her online writing circle disbanded a year and a half ago, Schmidt found herself in need of new support structures. When she walked into her first CTRWA meeting, she felt immediately that she had found “her people,” and a more senior member took an interest in her work.

“She loved it. She became my Yoda,” Schmidt recalled. Schmidt’s Yoda introduced her to her agency, which eventually led to a three-book deal with Entangled, a major e-books publisher. Schmidt’s Yoda was Kristan Higgins, the chapter’s patron goddess.

 

Kristan Higgins, New York Times/USA Today best-selling romance author, writer of “down-to-earth romantic comedies,” two-time RITA award winner and self-described “Grande Dame” of the CTRWA, is stunningly easy to reach. She answers all her fan mail, physical and electronic. She tweets back. Over the phone, it’s immediately apparent just what it is about her that keeps readers coming back for more, at the rate of two novels a year. Higgins’ voice is smooth and buoyant, poised to laugh. It glows warm with the deep serenity of the improbably successful.

Kristan Higgins gives a great interview. She is gracious and self-deprecating. With nary a pause or hitch, she serves up line after shining line about how much she loves her job, about how well publishing has treated her. She confides that she has found it harder to write now, under contract, than when she was just starting out. She argues that the surge in the genre’s popularity has proven that the critics had underestimated how much people need comfort food in their lives. She feeds me a few “universal truths”: it’s very difficult to write a book. Writing a story requires a commitment to breaking your own heart.

Despite her position as CTRWA’s patron goddess, Higgins did not rise from among their ranks. Rather, she joined the group already a successful novelist — she and her first book debuted at the 2007 national convention. Others lose years to their efforts, joining the organization for structure and guidance. What Higgins sought was community, a band of comrades who would make the labor of writing a little less lonely. Today, some of them are her closest friends. She calls her attitude towards romance writers at large “stupid but cheerful.”

“If there’s unpleasantness or gossip, I try to avoid it. That way I can cling to my illusions,” Higgins says blithely, hastening to add, “But I don’t think they’re illusions! We’re all in the same boat. That’s what I really, truly believe — that’s why I’m so happy to help other writers if I can.”

It was in that spirit that Higgins threw herself into the organization, which at the time was nearly defunct. When she joined, the chapter had only twelve members, six of whom were on the board. Higgins determined that the group needed to be a little less of a lunch club and a little more focused on improving its members’ writing. She started the mentorship program, which paired older members with newer ones to offer them guidance. She led a critique group, where she encouraged writers to complete their manuscripts and helped them craft query letters with concise taglines and loglines. Today, CTRWA boasts over 100 members. When I spoke to her in November, she said that within the last year alone, five of them have gone PAN.

When it comes time for me to ask Higgins about how she came to be a writer, I do, and she doesn’t miss a beat.

“Well, here is the story,” she says easily, “My number one goal in life was to be a mommy, and to be a good one.”

When her second child turned three, the public relations firm where Higgins had worked before becoming a mother asked her if she wanted to return. Reluctant to do so, Higgins asked herself what kind of job would bring in the income of a part-time position while allowing her to stay home. This was when she decided to become a novelist.

“Ignorance was my bliss,” she acknowledges.

Higgins assigned herself a deadline: by the time her son entered the first grade, in three years’ time, she would either sell a novel or go back to work. Each day, she set aside one or two hours to write her story, about a Cape Cod doctor with a cute cottage and a cute puppy, on the hunt for a cute man to match. (Every Higgins heroine has real estate, Rover, and eventually, Rugged n’ Handsome, an unstoppable triumvirate of wish fulfillment.)

“One of things that was helpful, was that I didn’t know about conventional wisdom,” Higgins says, “The market was going vampire, historical vampire. Regencies were huge. I was writing a contemporary romance in a small town. Those things were considered the kiss of death.”

Within a year, she had finished her manuscript, signed with an agent, and sold her novel to Harlequin, where she’s been writing ever since. Title: Fools Rush In.

Suddenly she asks me, “So, what are your aspirations?”

I feel cornered. I stammer a little. I admit that I haven’t written a short story since freshman year. I don’t pursue fiction without a class and its attendant deadlines and grades, the expectations of my professors and peers. Nonfiction sets out a clear and defined task. The essential facts demand to be told. With fiction, everything is blank, a sheer rock face. Does she know what I mean?

“Uh-huh.”

Higgins recommends me three romance writers she thinks I’d like: Eloisa James, Lauren Willig, and Julia Quinn, Ivy Leaguers all. Before hanging up, she wishes me good luck with my career, and with my class.

 

One night after dinner, visiting relatives asked me the casually bone-chilling question that haunts every college student: what are your plans for the future? In my ears, this line of inquiry is never idle. It seems tinged with suspicion: of my big-box education, my half-hearted summer internships, my seemingly-desultory progress towards a degree in English, a language I’ve read since age four. I made small pained sounds and wilted. Oh, you know. I was keeping my options open. Man, this economy, am I right? Then my mother interceded, matter-of-factly: “She knows what she wants to do. She wants to write. She just doesn’t know how she’s going to get there” — and I felt like I’d been let off some invisible hook, one that I myself had nailed to my inside walls.

It’s the simplest, purest expression of my status: “She wants to write. She just doesn’t know how she’s going to get there.” But to say it aloud is to officially enter into the delirium, at which point you only have two options: to throw yourself upon the mercy of others, whose perceptions will measure the progress of your rudderless life — or to turn inward, dismissing any standard of success or failure but your own; you choose self-possession and feed your fever privately.

Before I left the meeting, the outgoing director of publicity, a large, jovial man named Gerard Chartier, asked me, “So, have we convinced you to give up your journalism career and start writing romance instead?”

They’re real seducers, these romance writers. They find 50,000 words a month in themselves, and never complain about not having enough hours in the day, even with part and full-time jobs, even with kids to drive around or put to bed. They write furiously, furtively. They write at a volume seeming to defy any metrics of quality you might try to collar them with. It’s the kind of productive creativity that says, what do you mean get there, sweetie? I’m going, I’m going, I’m already gone.

And on the second Saturday of every month, they meet at a budget hotel to talk shop with each other, meeting in the spirit of solidarity, and of enterprise. This is not a game to them, or a silly costume that can be shed. What’s a girl reporter to say? They are committed. They will do what it takes. They will inhabit the very skins of their stories. Theirs are dreams with determination and direction. They have properly ordered their affairs of the heart.

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