The fast-paced world of romance publishing is always offering up great new authors to discover. As part of our #FirstFictionMonth coverage, we're spotlighting three new voices who are each debuting in their own way this year.
Jennifer Ryan will be making her print debut with At Wolf Ranch (on sale February 24, 2015), the first in her thrilling romantic suspense series, Montana Men. The novel focuses on Ella Wolf as she flees to her family’s ranch, certain that the man who murdered her sister is now after her. Luckily for Ella, a ruggedly handsome cowboy is bent on protecting her from the killer.
Despite finding eBook success with her best-selling The Hunted and The McBrides series, Ryan is excited to finally have a novel in bookstores, admitting during our discussion at RWA that she's “really more of a print person.” And her path to print publication is the stuff of writers' dreams. While attending a panel discussion during a previous RWA convention, Avon editor Lucia Macro mentioned that she would love to see more romantic suspense novels. Taking the cue, Ryan sent Macro her manuscript, and a short three weeks later, Avon bought her series. It's no surprise, really; Ryan is adept at writing those gripping scenes that leave you flipping pages till the end.
Ryan’s romance-writing career took off with a bit of a happy shock: the discovery that she was pregnant with third child. “I was reading all the time—I read 10 books a week while my kids were growing up!” she says of her time as a stay-at-home mom with her first two children. But when they grew older, she decided it was time to go back to work as a computer programmer. That plan quickly changed when she discovered that she was pregnant again with her daughter. With another baby on the way, she decided that writing romance novels from home just made sense.
So what inspired her to base her series on the cowboys of Big Sky country? “When I was younger, I had a friend in California with a small ranch and horses. I would spend my weekends riding horses with her, and I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world," she explains. "I grew up daydreaming about cowboys, because who wouldn’t? I remember thinking, there’s got to be a cowboy our there for me—And I ended up marrying a military man!" Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children, and can usually be found immersed in a world of books.
We chatted with debut author Lillian Marek over email about her first novel, the Victorian romance Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures (on sale November 4). This novel answers the call for romance in exotic locales, since its heroine Lady Elinor and a distractingly handsome family friend find love while exploring Italy and the ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Marek writes with humor, historical knowledge and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Writing historical romance was an easy choice for Marek. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else—you could call it a compulsion. For a number of years, I got my writing fix, so to speak, as a journalist, but it’s much more fun writing fiction,” she says. Her focus on romance was inspired by a friend’s suggestion to pick up Loretta Chase’s romance novel Mr. Impossible. “I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I started devouring romance novels, especially historical ones, and had a glorious time. Then I thought it would be fun to write them, so I did.” As simple as that!
Getting published was a bit more complex than her decision to write, but after winning a few romance-writing contests, Marek felt confident enough to pitch her book to Sourcebooks. Not only did Sourcebooks buy Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, they bought the rest of the proposed series as well. "I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic," she says. Marek lives near Long Island Sound with her husband, where she enjoys taking long walks along the coast. We're excited to see where the next intrepid installment in Marek's Victorian Adventurers series takes us!
Rhonda Helms is venturing into the world of New Adult print with her love- and music-inspired novel, Scratch (on sale September 30). Scratch is a departure from her usual romantic young adult novels, which are “frothy and fun,” she says during our conversation at the hotel Starbucks. New Adult is an up-and-coming genre, marketed towards young women in their early 20s—a grown-up YA reader, if you will. New Adult focuses on characters finding themselves and struggling with choices and consequences, from first jobs to first loves, as they explore life after high school. “It’s got that young adult voice [first person], but with more adult situations. I like the fact that you can write these characters that are a little bit older, and there’s lots of high emotion,” Helms explains. Helms has a knack for writing convincing dialogue between her young characters, perhaps inspired by conversations with her 18-year-old daughter!
In Scratch, college senior Casey attempts to keep memories of an unpleasant past at bay by losing herself in her gigs as a DJ. She tends to keep others at a distance, but when a fellow student takes an interest in her, she wonders if letting him in might be worth the risk. Helms knew music would be a big part of the book, and explains, "Music is really important to me. I was a DJ too for a while—It was awesome!" Scratch even includes a track list which “reflects stuff that would be on Casey’s personal playlist or music that she would play in the club,” Helms says. Here's a sample track from the list.
Along with her interest in music, Helms has always loved romance novels. “I started reading romance when I was a kid,” Helms says. “I would hide in my mom’s bathroom and read her Harlequins!” Growing up with those Harlequins, she knew she wanted to write. However, she says, “The first book I wrote, I had no idea what I was doing. I just sort of vomited out five chapters, and then didn’t know what to do next. . . It took me a year, but after that first book, I learned my process. But that first book was rough!” Seven books later, it looks like she’s gotten the hang of it.
Helms lives in Cleveland with her family, where you may find her enjoying time with her pets, reading or perhaps sampling her favorite cheeses. “A good aged Gouda is divine, and Asiago cheese is exquisite,” she says. Romance with a side of cheese: what more could you want?
During RWA this year, we had the pleasure of talking to many of the most popular romance novelists writing today. But we were also able to chat with a few new voices on the scene. One of the debut authors we chatted with was Rachel Lacey, whose romance Unleashed is set for an October release.
Unleashed, the first book in Rachel Lacey's Love to the Rescue series, follows Cara, a dedicated member of the Triangle Boxer Rescue team. Rachel explains, "Cara is a cancer survivor, and her plan is to be in remission for ten years before she adds anything permanent in her life." Although she adores the dogs she rescues, she only feels ready to commit to fostering the boxers as she helps them find a "forever" home. And of course, men are equally as off limits when it comes to forming an attachment. "But then she gets involved with Matt, a sexy private investigator on animal abuse cases, and sparks start to fly. So she has to make the decision: Do I go for it?"
Just like Cara, Rachel had to make a leap of faith in her own life to see her novel published. "I had been writing since high school," she says, "and I always thought it would be so cool to publish a book. But it was more of a personal hobby. Then, about four years ago, I decided, why don't I try to make this happen?" But Rachel's first authorial instinct wasn't to write romance. "I love reading suspense, so at first I tried writing it. . . . And then I realized that with all the books I read, I'd be kind of disappointed if there weren't two people falling in love." So she switched paths and began focusing exclusively on romance.
After signing up for a writing class with romance novelist Lori Wilde, Rachel realized it would take quite a lot of work to bring her goal of publishing a novel to fruition. "I found out I didn't really know anything about how to write a book or get it published," she says. "So I sort of started over and focused on learning the craft." It all came together for her, and three years later, she sold her series to Forever publishing.
And of course, Rachel loves dogs. All of her pets are rescues, and she adores boxers. "I'm pretty partial to them; I have other breeds in the book, but boxers are near and dear to my heart." Hence, Cara's involvement in a boxer-focused rescue. If you'll note, the cutest model on the cover is a boxer puppy!
Cowboys, Dukes and Lairds: In the world of romance novels, some trends never die. They've got perennial appeal, and readers just don't seem to grow tired of these types of men (and really, who would?). But publishing houses are always looking for the next big thing. While at RWA, we were able to talk to a few editors and publicists about trends on the horizon, as well as the type of stories they would love to see more of. Check the romance shelves in a year: We predict that you might see a novel about a crew team consisting of mob-connected Vikings.
One of the biggest current trends is the Alpha male. From mixed martial arts fighters to rough-and-tumble modern cowboys, these boys are so bad, they're good. Cindy Hwang, Vice President of Berkley Publishing, says books starring this type of hero are usually a "gritty, edgy type of read." Certainly, bad boys have been around for decades. But today's bad-boy heroes are "a certain type of mix" we haven't seen before. They've got tattoos and a checkered past, but are fiercely loyal to the ladies in their lives.
One byshoot of the popularity of the alpha-male hero is the recent increase in romances centered on groups of men, connected through anything from sports teams to the Navy SEALs. "These men have their own code of honor, their own sort of family within the club, but there's a bit of danger," explains Margo Lipschultz, Senior Editor at Harlequin.
Motorcycle clubs are huge at the moment, and Hwang notes that, "In the same way that werewolves have packs, motorcycle clubs have packs; they've got their own culture and society."
Lipschultz also sees another type of "band of brothers" heading to the forefront of submissions: "Recently I've seen a whole spate of submissions in which the heroes are somehow connected to the Mob, so they have this edge of danger to them. Although they're still heroes; they're still good guys."
Sports romances are also popular right now and have led to whole series focusing on each player on a team. Publishers such as Kensington have put out a call for sports romances featuring teams that go beyond football and hockey, like crew and lacrosse.
With the rise of erotica and YA, first-person narratives and character-driven series are becoming much more acceptable in contemporary romance. Contemporaries have gotten racier, too! Love triangles, once taboo, are popping up in the mainstream. Leah Hultenschmidt, Editorial Director at Forever, says, "One thing I've been so excited about seeing, and I think has risen out of self-publishing, is that authors are breaking the rules these days. In romance, first-person point of view was verboten. . . . And you had to have a self-contained romance in one book with a happily ever after." Not necessarily these days.
Small-town romance remains one of the biggest trends, and Martin Biro, an editor at Kensington, says that there's room to go even cozier. "Something that's blown up for us is Amish and Inspirational. The Amish thing is huge! We have three or four Amish series, and we want more."
Romantic suspense is also an underpublished genre at the moment, and almost every publishing house is searching for more of it. Think stalkers, killers and a sexy detective bent on protecting the heroine.
Many publishers said they would love to see more international romances. As Harlequin's Lipschultz notes, "You’re in this cosmopolitan, exotic setting that your average American might never have been to. It just adds to the fantasy.” Sexy foreign love affair? Yes, please.
Just like in the contemporary field, publishers are hungry for historical romances that are a little different. For historicals, that means something set in exotic places or times that have not yet been tapped by authors. How about a 1960s romance? Or a love story set in colonial India? Publishers want to see something fresh and unexpected.
Editors Mary Altman and Cat Clyne from Sourcebooks mentioned that although intensely emotional Regency romances à la Grace Burrowes (who was discovered at RWA seven years ago!) will always be popular, there's been an increase in light and effervescent Regencies (think Jane Austen-esque banter). Cat and Mary also have a special fondness for Vikings, which I can certainly get on board with.
Of course, what would the romance novel be without those fabulous covers? We asked a few editors what trends they were noticing in this area. Outdoorsy covers seem to be taking off (featuring a sexy male as well, obviously), and those gorgeous dresses on historical covers aren't going anywhere. Hultenschmidt says that she's also noticed more dogs on covers—a trend that comes at a price. "Do you know how hard it is to find the right dog for those covers? To find the one that's adorable, that's interacting with the cover models, that doesn't look sad. . . . There's certain breeds that work, and certain breeds that just don't!" Plus, it's got to match the novelist's description of the dog in the book, and of course, working with dogs on a cover shoot adds a level of difficulty.
Gone are the days of headless cover models, and Avon Publicity Director Pamela Spengler-Jaffee says the models seem to be heading in a more realistic direction. Of course, they're all beautiful, but perhaps not so unbelievably beautiful. And yes, everyone agrees that flipping through folders full of handsome men to pick the cover models is a nice perk of the job!
So where do trends come from? That's a complex question! Berkley's Hwang explains, "Sometimes, what readers want isn't necessarily what writers are writing. There's sort of a disconnect. For instance, when paranormal was very popular with writers, readers didn't seem to embrace it till a few years ago. Same thing with erotic." Romance trends can sometimes come as a surprise. But when these two eventually broke big, they had been building for a while.
Or perhaps certain trends are a reaction to how incredibly busy women are today, as Spengler-Jaffee suggests. With so many women working, raising children and basically being superheroes, the idea of being with an Alpha male who swoops in and takes care of everything is a stress-free escape. "He's not the man you really want," Spengler-Jaffee says, but it's a fun fantasy.
Pop culture can also influence trends. Take dragons, for example. A few publishers mentioned a spike in fantasy romances featuring these fire-breathing monsters. Since paranormal is losing a bit of steam on the market, this might seem surprising. But Martin Biro at Kensington suggests that the mega-success of "Game of Thrones" might have put fantasy-themed romances and dragons are back on the radar. (Think "swords and princesses," says Biro.) Seems a likely theory: Hwang notes that all the vampire movies and TV shows were what pushed paranormal into popularity several years ago.
And just when we were noticing the return of the overall, crop top and clogs to the fashion world, Sourcebooks' Altman tells us, "I'm seeing a lot more romances that are like the ones I read in the 90s." Remember the Alpha heroes of yore? (Hello, Fabio!) Looks like what goes around, comes around.
So readers, what trends would you like to see more of in romance novels?
It's Friday, so there's no better time to share stories from the lively party scene at the Romance Writer's of America convention last weekend! Each year, romance publishers host parties for RWA attendees, and let's just say romance authors know how to get down with their bad selves.
At the Kensington party, we heard the best romance story at the convention—and it was true! A couple we were chatting with had met on Honeymoon Island, where the woman was a ticket-girl at the state park and the man was a hotdog vendor on the beach. He sent notes to her through her coworkers daily until finally, she agreed to go on a date with him. And the rest is history! Trisha also met the love of her life: Sticky Toffee Pudding. [Actually, this was not a first meeting but the continuation of a long and storied relationship. —Ed.]
Next, we met author Sidney Bristol at the Ballantine party, who, as a rodeo clown turned erotic romance author, perhaps had the most interesting career path of any writer we met at RWA! This party also featured the best guacamole I have ever eaten.
Forever's cocktail party in the Tower of the Americas put us high above the beautiful city of San Antonio with some fabulous views. There was also a choose-your-own pasta bar and Forever's signature drink: the divine peach and strawberry infused Angel's Kiss.
The Best Guacamole: Part II was featured at the Berkley party, along with a prickly pear margarita and more shrimp than I knew what to do with. (I'm lying; I knew exactly what to do with it.)
But the true star of the RWA party scene was this Shrimp Tree spotted at the Avon cocktail party. You've never really seen anything until you've seen a waiter carrying around a large bamboo stick with coconut shrimp branching off of it. It was elusive, for the shrimp was almost immediately snatched off, but we were able to get a picture of a slightly de-limbed Shrimp Tree.
The tables were scattered with miniature fans and paper flower pins and hairclips crafted out of the pages of romance novels. They also had a green screen set up, where Trisha and I were able to pose for this portrait:
The Harlequin party is the final publisher party of RWA, and with a giant dance floor and a lively DJ spinning the smooth tunes of 2004 Usher, it's hard to resist busting some moves. The other difficult thing to resist was the dessert bar of brownies and s'mores. (I resisted neither.)
Truly, the romance world knows how to have fun. From great food to fancy cocktails, a good time was had by all.
The lovely paranormal romance author Nalini Singh was a little starstruck after snapping this pic with romance royalty, but granted the (decidedly less royal) BookPage editors a picture. Singh is a master of the paranormal romance genre, writing long before vampires and zombies sunk their teeth into the masses a few years back. Her latest book, Shield of Winter, was recently reviewed by BookPage.
You can check out all of our coverage of the 2014 RWA conference here.
The RITA award is the most prized of all publishing awards for romance authors. Presented at the RWA conference each year to the authors of the romance novel deemed the best in its category, the statuette is a coveted item in the romance world. The categories span the genres, from contemporary to romantic suspense, and the list of finalists features some of the most talented authors in romance. To wit, our very own romance reviewer Christie Ridgway was a RITA finalist this year for Beach House No. 9!
Of course, the winner's list always has some real gems, and we've reviewed a number of the authors in this year's RITA winners' circle. Harvard alum Sarah MacLean won in the Historical Romance category for No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, a pre-Victorian exploration of underground boxing rings and complex desires, and Susanna Kearsley won in the Paranormal Romance category for The Firebird, a tale filled with psychic powers and a love reborn.
Previous RITA winners include Laura Griffin's action-packed Scorched, which was a romance top pick in 2012. Sarah Morgan (author of our top pick in romance for July, Suddenly Last Summer) has also been honored with a RITA, along with historical romance writer Eloisa James and Jill Shalvis for her popular contemporary romance series, Lucky Harbor.
The RWA Hall of Fame is reserved for authors whose books have been nominated in the same category three or more times and includes reader favorites such as Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jo Beverly.
The RITA winners' pool certainly harbors quite the community of successful women! We'll be posting about RWA into next week, so be sure to continue checking in on the blog.
This weekend, Trisha and I had the pleasure of attending the annual RWA Conference. RWA (Romance Writers of America) is an organization that supports and advances the careers of romance authors, and the RWA conference is a four-day gathering of publishers, writers and supporters with over 2,100 attendees. It is held in a different city each year, and this year it was held in San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo and puffy tacos.
The conference is a fast-paced affair. Days are packed with panels about pitching novels to publishers and developing realistic characters, as well as book signings by favorites like Nora Roberts and Jill Shalvis. It all culminates in an award ceremony for the best books of the year in which the winners recieve a RITA or a Golden Heart award. And at night, there are parties! Fabulous parties with great food, plenty of drinks and incredibly friendly guests.
That's the thing about RWA: It's a gathering of the friendliest, most helpful bunch of people you'll ever meet. The romance writing community is famously supportive, and the RWA conference is a chance for writers who have been sending emails back and forth for months to finally meet in person. Many authors we met said they couldn't have finished their book if it wasn't for the support of romance writing chatrooms and friends along the way.
Stay tuned for more posts about RWA, including romance trends to look out for, a roundup of the party circuit and more!