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This week I heard from a reader. I do not often hear directly from readers, but the ones who have written up until now have sent good news: they enjoyed Dance for A Dead Princess or Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. Until this week, the ones who didn’t like my books, either left words to that effect in Amazon reviews, or remained silent. No one took me to task in a long, personal email.

But this week, a reader not only left a negative review on Amazon, she wrote me a long email outlining everything she thought was wrong with Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. And I could immediately tell that she didn’t “get” the story. She had received a free copy as part of a Read and Review program, and I’m sure she was under the impression that Ride was a formula romance novel. And, reading between the lines, she was upset, outraged might be a better word, because there were no explicit sex scenes in Ride and because Ride is an honest look at how difficult love can be and how we sometimes find lost pieces of ourselves in the people we believe we love and hang on at all costs. Ride is a complex book. It does not say hot sex equals undying love. I know that is theme of formula romance. But I was not writing formula romance in Ride, to the chagrin of Unhappy Reader.

I have come to feel that, as a female writer, all of my work has to overcome the presumption that because a woman wrote it, it is formula romance. When I set up promotions on the various ebook promotions sites, I often have the Hobson’s choice between “Romance” and “Contemporary Fiction.” I consider both of my books to be “Women’s Fiction” although even that label does not immediately remove my novels from the formula romance presumption. While Dance for a Dead Princess does have some elements in common with formula romance, as Diane Donovan of the Midwest Review observed, it goes far beyond formula fiction.   In my day job, as an attorney, I deal with the presumption of innocence, which, frankly, is more akin to a presumption of guilt. And I have come to feel, in my night job, as a fiction writer, that any book for a female audience carries the formula romance presumption.  And when it doesn’t live up to that presumption, some readers, like Unhappy are, to put it frankly, outraged.  Hence her personal email critique.

What is formula romance, you are asking at this point. Good question. The roots of formula romance have impeccable literary credentials. The unforgettable Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and the equally charming Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin are the ancestors of the modern romance novel. In both books, a heroine of little fortune marries a man of means for love and not for pure social advantage.  In archetypal terms, the Cinderella trope.   The plots of both books center around the barriers between the hero and the heroine and how these are ultimately resolved. Jane Eyre attempts to resolve a moral issue, a married man in love with a young women of little means but great love and virtue. Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, poking subtle fun at the mating conventions of the day. The hero overcomes his pride of position to marry the young woman of great love and virtue but little fortune. From these outstanding beginnings, modern-day formula romance has evolved (or devolved) into predictable plot lines, which are resolved in fifty-thousand words or less. (Unhappy complained that Ride, at 100,000 words was just too long, and she was sooooo bored. My advice: if a book bores you, stop reading it.  It’s like  hitting yourself in the head:  it feels so good when you stop.)

In the modern formula romance, Hero, with six-pack abs, which he miraculously unveils within five pages of the opening, (and which are always on the cover), has sex with Heroine in Chapter One. Notably, they are both strangers. By Chapter Two, the glow of orgasm has faded, and they realize they have made a huge mistake. Like two mature adults, they immediately fight and vow never to see each other again. Then, for twenty-something more chapters, the two vacillate between their determination not see each other and their determination to have more sex, which is described in excruciating detail in alternating chapters. Fight a chapter, F– a chapter. (You get what I mean.)

On this solid and mature foundation for a marriage, Heroine winds up with a very large diamond on her finger, since Hero not only has that six-pack, but he is also great hubby material because he is good in bed and, more importantly, he has revealed he is not a simple ranch hand but the owner of most of Texas (or is a prince of a European state determined to restore its monarchy). Formula romances  close with a wedding or an epilogue showing a happily pregnant Heroine.

These books sell well to readers like Unhappy, so Clever Author multiplies this storyline like rabbits, varying the setting and the characters’ names, but never the plot. And if Author is even More Clever (or Diabolical, you decide) the original book will have a Heroine or Hero with ten brothers and sisters, each of whom will star in a subsequent formula romance. These books are easy to spot on the ebook promo sites because, in addition to male six-packs on the cover, they all have titles that include the word “Series” or “Chronicles.” “Book One of The Thornton Family Chronicles” Or “Book Three of the McLaren Brothers’ Brides Trilogy.” Or “Book Twenty-five of the Sisters of Seven Corners Series.” You’ve seen them. You know what I mean.

Not to be rude, but I run from these cookie-cutter books like the plague. They remind me of those clear plastic sleeves of chocolates that you can buy at Costco at Christmas. Year after year, the blue ones are milk chocolate with Kahlua centers, the pink ones are dark chocolate with an unidentified green cream inside, and the gold ones contain an unknown liqueur that might be brandy. Might. Many of these literary formula offerings have no ending, so that if a reader wants to know what happened to Hero and Heroine (does tragedy strike? does he lose that six-pack and therefore the girl? does he become King Travis the 25th of MoldyDisheveia), she has to buy “Books Two through Thirty of the Hot Brothers of MoldyDishevia Series.” And Extremely Clever Author laughs all the way to the bank. And gets featured as an Amazon Bestselling Extremely Clever Author in the Amazon Newsletter. (Read their newsletter if you don’t believe me.) Oh, and the piece de resistance, Author gets a lifetime guarantee of ads on the obnoxious Book Bub, which mainly features trashy formula romance with those hot-sex covers. But that is another blog post.

At any rate, I have come across a beautiful video that explains visually what Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is all about. I will explain in my next post and show you the video to see what you think. Is there room in the world for a woman writer to write a book that is not formula romance?   In the meantime,  my deepest thanks to my readers who did “get” it, and my undying gratitude to those who left reviews explaining exactly what they “got.”  I am forever in your debt and humbled by being allowed to entertain you in 100,000, I promise, well-chosen words.

And now, one last word to Unhappy. Despite your email statement to me making light of the loss of a child, losing a child is one of the most tragic events of anyone’s life. It is a tragedy that no one completely recovers from. The only thing offensive about you email, was your statement that “losing a child is no big deal.” Wrong, Unhappy. Very, very wrong, on that one. Formula romance books are fungible. Children are not.

Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is not a book for every reader. It is a book for anyone who wants to laugh and cry,  for anyone who is willing to be frustrated by characters that life has broken and healed and broken again,  and for anyone who is willing to look inside and love your own, beautiful and utterly unique soul. Ride is a challenge that not everyone will want to meet. But that’s just fine by me.

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You can always tell when a store is offering a promotion that benefits them, not you. A few years ago, it was Costco. They came up with their “cash back” American Express card. Now, for anyone who wanted another credit card, I’m sure it was a THRILLING DEAL. But for those of us who don’t like plastic and who have enough already, it was not attractive.

The thing is, Costco would not take no for an answer. Their AmEx “specialists” aggressively chased me across the store so many times that I finally left written complaints in BIG LETTERS on feedback cards every time I shopped. Once I went lawyer on one of them and threatened to file a complaint for a PC 422. I hadn’t the slightest intention of course, but I was tired of being chased and harassed. (And it wasn’t a PC 422, it was a PC 245, but 422 sounded more intimidating and came out of my mouth first because I was working on one of those cases.)

Eventually Costco penned up the AmEx Card hustlers (I like to think it was because I complained), and I could just avoid them. For a while.

But then they started a campaign at check out for those of us who were holdouts on the GREAT DEAL. We still had the tell tale white membership cards. Put one of those babies on the checkout conveyor belt, and your fate was sealed. You were going to get a talking to from the cashier with all the fervor of a Southern Baptist street preacher who suspected Jesus Christ was NOT your lord and savior. Finally, I paid Costco an extra $60 bucks a year for a black card that is not a credit card, but that entitles me to a paltry rewards certificate every January. It’s enough to buy a couple of good bottles of wine, and so far it has been a stake in the heart of AmEx vampires.

Having lived through the Costco AmEx campaign, I was not thrilled when some baby B-schooler created JUST 4 U at my local supermarket. I mean, the title was an instant give way. It was definitely NOT 4 ME.

The whole thing began pretty innocuously with tables just inside the entrance doors where pleasant-faced employees gave out little flyers telling us how sign up on our computers at home. Ever obedient, I did just that. But I went no farther. Why, you ask? Because the object of the exercise was to get me to decide what I wanted to buy BEFORE I went to the store, click on a bunch of e-coupons and somehow magically have these on my cell phone to be scanned at check out. Do you see where this is going, Highly Intelligent Reader? Yep. You got it. The store was sneaking up on paper coupons and trying to make them extinct.

Now back in the days when all four of us were home, I did clip coupons like paper dolls from the glossy Sunday inserts. I had one of those cute little coupon organizers with wallpaper patterns on the front that I wagged with me every weekend. In those days, I often did plan my meals for a whole week in advance, created shopping lists, and executed them (in every sense of that word.) Only problem with this activity: it killed the whole weekend, EVERY WEEKEND. (Another form of execution.)

But as my children grew up and left home bit by bit, I had little need for an elaborate food plan every week. And, as a foodie, I love to roam the aisles and Impulse Buy. I may know three things I want before I hit the supermarket, but I don’t know the other ten. It is just not fun to sit at a computer and pretend I’m putting tunes on my iPod when in fact I’m hunting for paperless coupons for the Android for things I don’t even know I want yet.

Being Southern and polite, I just decided to silently drop the whole thing. But not the supermarket. Oh, no. The employees behind the tables now began to shout at us as we entered, DEMANDING we sign up They came armed with laptops to do the deed ON THE SPOT. They pushed free cookies and coffee to waylay unsuspecting victims. (That was an easy one for me to ignore, but no mom can get a kid past a plate of free cookies.) Still even if a shopper managed to run the entrance gauntlet, he or she still had to face to the Sign Up table in back across from the meat counter. (I guess vegetarians escaped this one.) And finally, the fresh-faced cashier would smile and demand the JUST 4 U info at check out like some sort of Free Mason hand shake that if I got right, would allow me to take the food home. Masonry went extinct in my family in my father’s generation. So, faced with leaving the groceries on the counter or finding a new place to shop, I learned to cleverly hand over my store club card and say, “This is all the discount I wanted for today, thank you.” (I mean the whole club card thing is a pain, too. Why can’t they just give you the low price to begin with?)

Lately, like the AmEx herd that got bullpenned, the JUST 4 U pushers are fewer and farther between. (I think the moms complained about the free cookies.) There are still plenty of customers with cute little coupon savers at checkout, handing over wads of rainbow-hued clippings. I actually haven’t seen a single phone scanned. I’m thinking the baby B-school genius who visited this plague upon us is Looking For Another Job right now. B-school genius has learned the hard way no one is going to deprive me of the extemporaneous fun of being an Foodie Impulse Buyer. Absolutely no one.

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I have been crying since mid-day on Friday. I came home after brunch with my oldest child, my lovely now grown-up daughter, to hear the horrible news from Newtown, Connecticut. For the rest of the day, I sat at my computer writing an opening brief in another heartbreaking case – a father’s trial for the abuse of his six-week-old baby – and I cried as I worked. It was all I could do.

I kept thinking of Jeremiah 31:15: “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” So I thought of Passover and, then, later of Herod’s massacre as he searched for the Christ child. Matthew 2:18, writing of Herod, parallels Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
There is no grief deeper, I think, than the loss of a child. Jeremiah and Matthew capture that. A born Southerner turns to the King James Bible in times of great grief, even if he or she hasn’t been in a church for some time. It is our heritage and our culture. So the words haunted me.

As I worked and cried, I looked over at the Christmas tree in my living room. News like this never comes at an acceptable time. But it’s particularly hard at Christmas when children of six and seven still believe in Christmas Magic. When my own children were small, I taught Sunday School; and every Christmas, I taught them about the coming of the Christ Child and about the shepherds and the Magi, who traveled to witness the miracle of so much love entering our world. Children of six and seven can believe in the magic of Santa and the joy of Christ’s birth whole-heartedly in a way that we, as adults, can only marvel at. And bask in its glow.

The conundrum of human love is that it inevitably leads to loss. In what form, we cannot predict. But from the beginning of any loving relationship, we know there will be an inevitable end. Some people – and I have known my share of them – refuse to love so they cannot experience loss. To me that choice is the equivalent of refusing to live. For only by loving others can we be truly who we were born to be and be truly alive.

When my grandfather was 104 and still as sharp mentally as anyone could be, he said one day that he was not afraid of death. He said that to him, death was simply another part of life. I have lived from my beginning knowing that we are immortal spirits. I will not tell you how I know. That is too personal. But I know. And so I know that the twenty-six amazing souls from Newtown have been separated from us, but they have only been transformed, not lost. Still, the separation is a great grief. Yet as I watch and experience this profound sadness, I see how this unthinkable loss unites us, and I marvel at the strength and the good that comes from human beings in the face of great tragedy. The word that Emilie Parker’s father used in his moving speech about his lovely child is the touchstone for all of us: Compassion.

I cannot travel to Newtown and place flowers or candles or stuffed animals at the memorial. I cannot tell every parent how I how hold them in my heart, and the tears I have shed with them. But on Saturday, I did finally think of my own private way to create a memorial in to these amazing souls. And it goes like this:

I was buying food at Trader Joe’s. Our TJ’s is also next to a Chuckie Cheese, so on Saturdays the little food store is full of families who have completed the Chuckie Cheese adventure and are buying groceries before heading home. Tiny people are whizzing tiny shopping carts through a highly crowded environment and, at the same time, looking for the Trader Joe’s Monkey, hidden somewhere in the store. Finding the Monkey nets a child a sticker or sometimes a gold coin made of chocolate.

As I began trundling my own adult-sized shopping cart through the store, I dodged several pint-sized shoppers who were bent on finding the Monkey and definitely were not looking where they were going. And suddenly I realized that I was not all inconvenienced by having to look out for them. No, I was inspired by their joy and happiness, and by their confidence they would reap the prize at the end of the adventure. And I thought that if the new little angels from Newtown were powering those shopping carts, they would be excitedly on the same adventure. And I was happy at the thought.

If you let it, the joy and magic of being a child can still rub off on your adult self. My own personal memorial will be always to enjoy and give thanks when I am in the presence of the magic of children. I have to say, I have always believed in this. Kids and dogs come to me spontaneously – I guess because I never grew up. But I don’t say think you enough for being in the presence of so much joy. And from now on, I will. And I will remember Newtown and its children, whenever I do. Thank you for the magic of being a child and for letting those of us who have grown up be touched by your magic. We love you.

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So in the fall of 1986, alone in a tiny rented cottage on an island in San Diego Bay, I set off on the journey of motherhood. My lawyer suits, one gray, one beige, one black, one navy, one brown, hung listlessly in the closet of the bedroom I shared with the husband I never saw. My black, tan, and navy four-inched heeled pumps remained in their shoe boxes. For the first three months of the journey, I rarely got out of my bathrobe. After that, it was elastic waist pants and frantic dieting until, finally at my daughter’s first birthday, I could sigh with relief and zip my jeans.

The task of dealing with a constantly crying infant wiped my memory clean of what it had been like to be a lawyer, pulling twelve and fourteen-hour days in major law firms back east. I truly wanted children when I finally decided to have them, but I also think I was on the run from a profession I hated and that I had never intended to join.

When I was eleven years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I read constantly even before I went to school, and I began to write stories in third grade. I had no doubt in my child mind that I was born to be a creative artist until the night I announced my intended destiny at the family dinner table. My rational, linear father went crazy, outlining the impossibility and stupidity of trying to reach that goal. I slunk back to my bedroom, full of shame for aspiring to be something so outrageous and totally WRONG.

The trouble was, the dream of writing stories would not go away. I realized it was safer to hide my identity underground, as I went on writing. By age thirteen, I had finished a three-hundred page novel.

I thought by going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D. in English, I would move forward with my dream of being a writer. But by the time I had my Masters in English, I could see the reality of every graduate student’s situation: THERE WERE NO JOBS IN UNIVERSITIES TEACHING ENGLISH. And graduate school, like all the other forms of school I had encountered, did not foster creativity.

In the 1970’s, disappointed liberal arts majors of all kinds were going to law school, including, for the first time a significant number of women. I went to talk to the Assistant Dean at the University of Tennessee College of Law about enrolling. She said, “The law is only words. You’re good at words, right?”

Good at words, yes. Good at nit picking trivialities, no. I graduated second in my class; I was admitted to the Order of the Coif, the Phi Beta Kappa for lawyers. I was wooed by major law firms in New York, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and Richmond, Virginia. I studied for and passed the Virginia bar in 1981.

But as soon as I sat down at my new associate desk in Richmond, the overwhelming lack of creativity that is THE LAW began to choke me. I had never been so bored in my life.

Next: Driving the wrong way down a one-way street (my perilous adventures as a baby lawyer) and how I was nearly gobbled alive by a female partner with a penchant for hats

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