Pursuit of happy endings
Lesli Lytle, a mom, former florist and hopeful writer from Layton, stood outside a conference room at the Airport Hilton last weekend, clutching a handful of multicolored index cards and looking very nervous.
When she came out a while later, nerves had turned to tears - she couldn't help crying a little as she stowed the cards away in her pocket.
Lytle was at the hotel for the annual Romance Writers of America's Utah chapter convention. She brought the cards to keep track of her "pitches" - ideas for new books she'd like to write and get published.
During the convention, writers make appointments for eight-minute meetings with editors and agents. Eight minutes to convince them to ask for a sample of the book, which may or may not already be written. It's a high-pressure moment that can make or break a writer's career.
Lytle's tears sprang from relief and joy. She pitched seven book ideas for historical romances, and all seven got bites.
"What a rush! What a rush," she gasped. "This year's going to be my year."
While the odds are still against her - many writers send sample chapters out only to have them rejected - it's possible to get several contracts in a year.
That kind of success is unheard of in other writing fields, where authors toil for years perfecting a single manuscript and even then might never find a publisher.
But romance novels seem immune, at least so far, from the near-collapse of the mainstream fiction market in recent years; according to the national RWA Web site, romance accounts for about 40 percent of all fiction and 55 percent of mass-market paperback fiction sold, with $1.2 billion in annual sales. A significant number of readers are male; the RWA says men make up 22 percent of romance readers, up from a mere 7 percent in 2002.
Utah seems to have an unusually strong network of writers in the genre. "The ratio of how many are published is phenomenal compared to other groups I've been in," Lytle said.
Before the convention, writers in Utah's "Heart of the West" chapter practice pitching their stories to one another during their monthly meetings. They also have a writing contest that attracts good quality work.
Victoria Curran, an editor at Harlequin, came to hear pitches for her "Superromance" line. She also might pass along a pitch that might fit with other lines. "The benefit of this is that I get to see them face to face and develop a relationship," she said.
Barbara Collins Rosenberg, an agent with the Rosenberg Group, only travels from New York to a couple conventions a year. This one, she says, is one of the best.
She and other editors and agents say authors should know exactly which line they're pitching for. "I demand that the author has knowledge of publishing as a business. Certain conventions have to be met," she said, referring to typical lengths and story elements that must be present in a given romance line. "You need to know where the story belongs."
As a group, Utah writers don't tend to specialize in any particular genre. Some cross from one to another.
All romance novels have two things in common: a romance, of course, and a happy ending. Within those guidelines are many genres, from science fiction to Westerns.
Contemporary fiction is usually popular, but the mystery/suspense subgenre is hot right now, as are "inspirational" or spiritually-themed titles. "Chick Lit" or women's fiction, which gained speed with Bridget Jones and her imitators, is burning itself out.
Utah County writer Lynn Worthen writes science fiction and fantasy. She likes placing people in unusual circumstances. "I think I'm a frustrated cultural anthropologist," she laughs. "That's what's fun to me, to play with those themes. I can do it in a science fiction or fantasy without people thinking I'm jabbering on about current events."
Mary Martinez, who lives in Salt Lake City and serves as the vice president of the Utah chapter, says it irritates her when people think of romances as paperbacks decorated with scantily clad women and muscular men (both with flowing hair). She wishes people would take romance writers more seriously.
"Most of the time, the picture on the front didn't depict the whole story. It's not half-naked men and half-naked women running through the plot," she said. "People in Utah still have the perception that romance is all smut."
She says bookstores are sometimes reluctant to host signings for romance writers or advertise local romance authors' work. "We only deal with serious writers," she recalls them saying.
Worthen's friend Virginia Baker, who lives in Spanish Fork, just released her first book Jack Knife. It's a combination romance and thriller. Baker hasn't been trying to get published for long, so "I'm just kind of stunned, flummoxed," she said. "This was supposed to be a practice novel."
Baker was at the convention mostly for this year's mystery/crime theme. It included seminars and lecturers on police procedure and the criminal mind. "A conference like this, that's what I go for: to get that insight, that perspective into how people think, and how they work, that's outside my perspective."
Like Worthen, Baker makes a living editing and writing in a corporate setting; she has to do her novels on the side. Even authors with several published books often have day jobs; only the most popular writers make much money. And many romance writers have families to support. "We don't have any desire to live in a drafty attic and eat scraps, and we don't have patrons with lots of money to pay for everything," Worthen said.
She and Baker are friends who take monthly mini-vacations together to write. Otherwise, they say, they would never make the time.
RaeAnn Thayne, one of Utah's most successful authors in any genre, has published 25 books. But she didn't give up her day job as a newspaper editor until she had published several. While the idea of being a full-time romance writer has lost some of its gleam by now, "It's still better than any other job," she said.
Writers, readers and publishers also say it's a way for women to support each other in an industry relatively free of men. They can explore their emotional and sensual sides without being judged and connect with other women.
Martinez says when she first told her husband she wanted to become a writer, he said, "'Well, you know, you'll never get published.' I'm making him eat those words"
"It's a way for a woman to escape and feel that feminine side and feel that emotional side that I don't get in real life," said romance fan Lynda Duffin.
Shape of romance has many variations
* CONTEMPORARY: Takes place during writer's own era.
* WESTERN: Incorporates many of the same themes and settings as other Western fiction.
* HISTORICAL: Often concentrates on a particular time and place; 18th century Scotland is popular, for example.
* SPIRITUAL/CHRISTIAN: Involve characters' religious beliefs, tend not to be racy and often have characters delaying intimacy until after marriage.
* TEEN: For readers younger than 18; doesn't include graphic sex.
* MYSTERY: Like other mystery novels but with a focus on a romantic element.
* THRILLER: Can involve complications like kidnappings or criminals.
* SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY: Take place in another world created by the author.
* SUPERROMANCE: Classic romance, with an emphasis on love.
* PARANORMAL: Stories include elements such as characters (often male leads) who are vampires or werewolves.
THE UTAH CHAPTER holds meetings once a month; nonmembers can go to three before signing up as members of the local and national Romance Writers of America groups. The next meeting is March 10 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Bountiful Library, 725 South Main in Bountiful. For information, go to http://www.utahrwa.com.