Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kicking and Screaming

By Lisabet Sarai

Let me say right off that I have nothing against happy endings, if they're right for the book. My first three novels end happily, with plenty of sexual satisfaction and the intimation of more to come, possibly even in the shape of - gasp - marriage (although non-traditional in every case). On the other hand, my fourth novel Exposure has a far more ambiguous conclusion. The heroine has lost everything she owned. She's torn between two relationships, neither of which is completely what she wants. Her future is a huge question mark.

Personally, I really liked that ending. However, I had a tough time getting that book published, and it hasn't sold all that well. Meanwhile, over the past three years I've been drawn deeper into the world of erotic romance, where a happy ending ("HEA", i.e. Happily Ever After, or at least "HFN", Happy For Now) is the single most important requirement of both readers and publishers. These days, romance can be sweet or steamy, with any mix of genders and quite a level of flexibility in numbers, but the story must conclude with the protagonists in love and together for the foreseeable future. And I'll admit, sometimes I find it difficult to deliver the sort of HEA that readers want.

Before I began writing romance, I really hadn't read any of the genre, the one major exception being Daphne DuMaurier's delicious Frenchman's Creek. The stories I've always considered the most romantic - Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The English Patient - have tragic or painful conclusions. Meanwhile, sexual relationships are so often fraught with conflict - even if it's something as simple A desires B but is married to C - that not-so-happy endings are far easier to imagine than happy ones where everyone gets what he or she wants.

So, sometimes I find I have to drag my characters, kicking and screaming, to the rosy resolution that readers seem to crave. Even worse, sometimes the constraint that all must end well limits my story ideas in the first place. I'll throw away a perfectly usable premise or set of characters because, honestly, I can't imagine a happy finish.

Some of you might be shaking your heads, thinking, "So why the heck does she keep trying to write romance? Why doesn't she go back to her first love, erotica?"

First of all, the romance publishing world offers some things that are hard to come by in erotica: a plethora of publishers, a huge pool of potential readers and many opportunities to interact with them, and yes, money. More seriously, I see signs that happy-ending-ism has infected the erotica publishing world as well. More and more calls for short story anthologies are looking for "romantic erotica". Others explicitly say that they do not want "dark themes". There are fringe publishers who will look at such work, but the mainstream erotica publishers (if one can use this term without snickering) seem to seeking fantasy-generating material, where everyone orgasms and even more sex looms on the horizon. Unhappiness, darkness, even serious ambiguity, threaten the post-climactic glow.

Obviously I'm generalizing here (and every generalization can be attacked). One could also claim that my complaints are the result of sour grapes. I recently had a story rejected, a story that I wrote specifically for a particular call from a well-known editor working with a well-known publisher. I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that the ending of this tale was the main reason for its rejection. The story concludes with the woman leaving her husband of thirty years for a man she has just met. The ending is right for the story; I'm quite confident of that, although I wavered as to whether I was brave enough to write it. It's not a happily ever after, though, certainly not for the abandoned husband and probably not for the woman either. No matter how fulfilling her relationship with her new lover may be, she'll always have doubts and possibly regrets. Not HEA material.

In short stories, especially, I'm drawn to the unresolved. The very first short story I published, "Glass House", ends with the following:

Still, I am not thinking. I do not dare. Mechanically, I gather my clothing and make myself as presentable as I can. I turn off the light as I leave, and stiffly navigate the spiral stairs, every step reminding me of my exquisite violation.

On the sidewalk, I wonder where I should go. The city is foreign and strange. I am fragile and lost, but not, as I had imagined, empty.

There is something in my pocket: the delicate glass unicorn Lukaš gave me. The horn has broken off, but it is still a lovely thing.

I do not know what will happen next. But I sense that something will shatter.

This is the way of real relationships. We meet and couple with strangers, then say goodbye. We discover, sometimes, that even our long-time lovers have dark sides we've never seen. We desire multiple futures, with multiple people, and are forced to choose only one. Love and sexual communion are both peak experiences, to be celebrated in fiction as well as in life. However, the intricacies of desire thwarted, the bittersweet pangs of longing for what might have been, the bite of envy and the sting of rejection, are equally worthy to be chronicled in our stories.

Then I remember my deadlines and drag my imagination, kicking and screaming, back to the task of making my characters happy.


  1. Hi Lisabet,
    Great blog very interesting and thought provoking, have to admit I'm a sucker for happy endings, although my heores are usually pretty tortured to start with.



  2. Lisabet,

    What a wonderful subject. This has been affecting me a lot lately, as I have a recent release that has a decidedly unhappy ending. I've seen many comments from readers that they won't even bother to read it without a guaranteed HEA. I can't help but wonder why. It seems to me that, in real life, unhappy or uncertain endings are far more common than fairy tale HEA. While I realize fiction is fantasy and escapism, I have to admit I'm a little disappointed that so many readers are unwilling to venture away from the formulaic. Thanks for your insightful post, and I look forward to hearing what other writers and readers have to say.

  3. Hi Lisabet,

    Excellent post.

    First, I love your excerpted ending. It resonates with me as an authentic. Excellent images.

    The topic, and your take on it, resonate with me deeply. I can, and often do, write with HEA or Happy For Now endings, but that's where the story and characters naturally went.

    But, I have, at times, taken a story I wrote with an ambiguous or dark ending, and tried to fit it to something romantic. This usually feels forced: I've developed a character with a certain mindset, and now I'm trying to twist him or her into something they are not.

    Never a good thing.

    The bottom line, I can write romantic, and I can enjoy it, but my first passion is a naked look at life and how people interact, and these tales can be harder to find homes for.

    In music, we ideally play the notes in our heads the ones that feel right. Sometimes, they are discordant, and not every listener likes that discordance. To Gus' point, and in evidence by the much greater quantity of Romanica type publishers than erotica, there are more readers who want the sweet notes that flow to the happy conclusion.

    In the end, I don't really have an answer to this conundrum, just the reassurance that you are not alone in the plight.


  4. Hi Lisabet

    Definately one of your most thought provoking posts. I too like the excerpt you provided which has a very haunting feel to it.

    I don;t know why readers need the happy ending, but I suppose it must be because in life we don't get to have it very often. I think this is the difference between a romance story and a love story. A commercial romance story has the happy ending - or else. But a love story, a good love story, should be the kind that gives love a bad name. "Romeo and Juliet", even "Lolita", these are love stories, not romance stories because with a happy ending they wouldn;t stick in our imaginations.

    My favorite book in the Bible is the Book of Job. After everything that happens, there is a happy ending where he gets everything back times ten. I've never liked that HEA ending, it always felt false. I read once that in the original ending, Job sat in his ashes and sighed and said "But still I love God." The End. That would have been much more powerful and meaningful ending but maybe it would not have been as popular.


  5. Hi Lisabet,

    the kind of writing you are describing is becoming the province of literature. Some one like Anne Tyler or Lorrie Moore or Barbara Kingsolver or Amy Tan has no difficulty getting books published that reflect the themes you mention, but their readership is different and smaller than the Romance market.

    Maybe you should look at taking some of your work mainstream.

  6. I'd rather read a story where a woman leaves a bad marriage to take a chance... having done that myself (and having known people who stayed in soul-eating bad marriages, for whateven reason), I know that preserving a marriage at all costs is not a happy ending.

    On the other hand... I think that genre fiction is entitled to a few requirements. A mystery should see to it that the "whodunnit" is solved, and a genre romance reader should be able to expect a happy ending.

    That's not a perfect solution, I know... but I think that one of hte reasons that this genre is so popular is that readers have that assurance. Life isn't always like that -- hell, even the happiest marriage will be a tragedy someday, because humans are mortal and few of us will be so fortunate as to die peacefully in our sleep at the same time as our beloved.

    But in the meantime... hope is all that many people have, and escapist fiction has its place because we all need to escape from the realities of life once in awhile.

  7. Lisabet,
    As usual you've touched on a brilliant topic that has stimulated my brain. :)

    I have such mixed emotions about the HEA which are forced on us. While editors will point out other factors of your work that "doesn't seem realistic," I think that fact that we write fiction should allow us to end our stories in a manner that is real and within our imaginations.

    I loved writing Sarah's Journey...developing the forbidden love between the characters, but when I got to the end, I struggled because a HEA between a half-breed and a white woman in the 1800s was not even a possibility. No matter where they went, they wouldn't be accepted. I could have easily forced one, but I didn't.

    I was fortunate that Eternal Press believed in me enough to publish a story that didn't end as most houses dictate. That story still remains my favorite because it's "outside the box."

    We want people to experience our stories through the characters eyes, but reality tells me that life isn't always roses and candy. :) Just my two cents worth...that turned into four.

  8. I really needed to read this today. I have several books gathering dust in their digital caves. No matter what praise I receive for Rosemary Entwined with its fairy tale ending (which anyone who knows the classics, knows isn't traditional) there's times where the success feels a little shallow.

    It’s almost like watching one of your children flourish in the social world while the other shies away, a yearning in your eyes telling you they want the spotlight too.

    Bringing Rosemary and her men to the HEA (or probably happy for now, I’m seriously considering a sequel) came naturally. I wouldn’t have forced it, I can’t write like that. But sometimes, HEA can seem contrived. Could Romeo and Juliette have ended any different? Is it any less romantic because it ends tragically?

    Excellent post, Lisabet. I like they way your mind works.


  9. I think the whole erotica vs romance thing is interesting, not least because 'romance' is currently the largest segment of the book market (or so I'm informed) while 'erotica' is pretty much a niche market, probably more on a par with science fiction in terms of sales. I have some sales figures somewhere that back this up but would be interested to see if other people have better info.

    However, a lot of the stuff that sells as 'romance' would loook to me to be better described as erotica. Certainly in the UK, the boundaries between the two seem to have become pretty permeable/flexible in the last 15 years or so. I'd hazard a guess that the development of the Black Lace imprint was really the start of it, but again I'd be interested to hear other views.

    As to HEA and HFN - my inclination is towards the unresolved, the possibilities for HFN but not the promise of it. Maybe that's more in tune with my own personal views, which are along the lines of life being a journey but the journey itself also being the destination. The protagonists did what they did, recognise the moral complexities and unresolved nature of some of it, recognise the changes that have taken place in their own characters, and just celebrate those.

    Just my 2p worth, interested to hear what others think.

  10. Margaret,

    Thanks for dropping by. I know that many readers thrive on happy endings. Even I like them sometimes, especially when they're not too predictable. However, I find myself smothering sometimes under the heavy burden of romance requirements.

  11. Hello, Gus,

    I think that it takes great skill to provide a happy ending that does not seem "formulaic".

    One of the best books I've read recently is "A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine" by Marina Lewycka. I particularly admired it because the characters get into huge messes in the middle of the book yet by the end have managed to sort things out in a plausible way - perhaps not ideal for everyone concerned but definitely more happy than I would have predicted (I thought someone was going to die!)

    (By the way, it's a hugely funny book, as well as wonderfully written. I've bought at least three copies for friends.)

  12. Hi, Craig,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If I really wrote for myself alone, it wouldn't matter. Lately I've been feeling like a real romance whore, though. Since I'm far from rich, the money really does mean something...even though I'm always telling people that material things are not important...

  13. Hey, Garce,

    I think you've made a good distinction here, between "romance" and a "love story". And different readers want different things.

    As a reader, personally I want to be surprised. Thus I have difficulty reading romance because I always know how it's going to end. The mark of a skilled romance author, in my opinion, is his or her ability to make you doubt that there really will be a HEA. I've read a few books (Erastes' STANDISH comes to mind) that succeeded in this regard, and I was very impressed.

  14. Hi, Mike,

    I don't think I write well enough to go "mainstream", to be perfectly honest. Furthermore, if it's hard to get readers in the erotica world - well, in the mainstream it's absolutely impossible.

    I'm not that much of a glutton for punishment!

  15. Hello, Lee,

    Thank you for dropping by the Grip.

    In this story, the marriage is not bad - it's just familiar, hohum, and doesn't fulfill the woman's deepest needs.

    You're right of course. If one chooses to write in a particular genre, one is obliged to follow the conventions - or at least not twist them to the point where readers will get disgusted and throw the book down saying "This isn't romance (or sci fi, or mystery)."

    One of my concerns is that the conventions of romance are infiltrating the erotica genre.

  16. Hi, Ginger,

    Great to see you here. I'm always happy to "stimulate" you ;^)

    One great thing about EP is that they don't limit themselves to romance (true of Muse, too). So they can take a chance on books that don't fit into the pigeon holes.

  17. Greetings, Bianca,

    I'm glad you found my post useful... for me it's just frustrating.

    You should definitely not limit yourself to romance, though. If you have other ideas, other books... go and look for readers!

  18. Hello, Fulani,

    I think that one reason Black Lace folded is that they tried to move into "erotic romance", thinking they could ride the romance train, and lost their signature style. However, you've brought up a point that I hadn't considered. I've been griping about the fact that romance conventions have been sneaking into erotica. On the other hand, romance has been getting increasingly extreme from a sexual perspective. (If that weren't the case, I couldn't write it LOL!)

    Still - I have been asked to tone down some of my sex scenes by romance editors. And I have received negative comments from reviewers who thought my M/M encounters were too hard or raw...

  19. Hi Lisabet,

    I've had an erotic short rejected because the hero didn't act enough like a hero (he had sex with another woman) and it didn't end in an HEA or a HFN. It was right for the story, but not for the publishing world. I did rewrite it to give it a happily ever after, but I haven't been able to bring myself to resubmit.

    Thanks for a great, and thought provoking, post.

  20. Lisabet,

    I recently published my first not exactly happily ever after ending. It's for my first historical - basically knowing that the character dies, I didn't want to just leave it that the characters were happy together. I needed to address some of the historical moments that happened. So I wrote the final scene as a deathbed moment.

    I still worry that it not having a HFN or HEA notation in its description is turning off readers, but the story called for the ending that I gave it.

    But in the end, we write to be true to our characters and to the story. So if a certain story calls for a non-HEA/HFN ending, then that is what we have to give it.


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