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Some call them bodice-rippers, others see them as feminist literature. The women who write them are just happy to have thousands of readers to help them pay the bills.

A Fine Romance

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Connie Koslow
(aka Constance Hall)

Personal: Born and raised in Richmond, married, has two sons, lives in the West End
Latest book: "Valentine Novella" (Zebra Books)
Claim to fame: Almost too many to name, starting with her first book, "My Darling Duke" which won the "Affaire de Coeur's" Reader Writer Poll for Best Regency Romance. Her books have made Ingram's Top 50 List and the Top 25 Romance Historical list on "My Rebellious Bride" was nominated for this year's Virginia Literary Award.
Favorite book/author: Pat Conroy feeds her soul. She also reads "Jane Austen" every year.
In a former life she was: import and export specialist for Best Products
When not at the computer, most likely to be seen: slipping into Ukrop's, attending a meeting of the Virginia Screenwriters' Forum downtown, or in her watercolor class.
Response to romance critics: "If you show me your print run, I'll show you mine!"It's early on a Sunday afternoon and five writers munch on Entenmann's coffeecake, red grapes, and cheddar cheese. Between bites, they manage to talk about their work — interrupting, finishing each other's sentences, and laughing the way good girl- friends do over lunch. Connie Koslow, a quiet brunette in her 40s, is struggling to explain why she still loves the main character in her first novel - a horribly disfigured man who eventually found love. "I don't know. Maybe it's that whole Beauty-and-the Beast thing," she offers. Her longtime friend Cathy Maxwell throws her head back in a huge laugh. "Now, honey, you just know all that boy needed was a good woman! There is nothing wrong with a man that a good woman can't fix!" The room explodes with laughter. "God, I love every woman in this room," says Leanne Banks as she glances admiringly at her colleagues. She's a petite woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and an easy, ear-to-ear grin. Her knee jiggles nervously thanks to a six-bag brew of caffeinated tea she had earlier. Her next book deadline, she explains, looms only a week and a half away. Everyone sighs for her in empathy. It's easy to believe Banks' words. After only 30 minutes with this group, the room feels cozy and intimate. All of these women are upbeat, articulate, driven by success, and downright hilarious, given half a chance. But they are also publishing powerhouses. Among them is a first-time novelist who's just sold her second book, two New York Times best-selling authors, an award-winning novelist and screenplay writer, and the president of a statewide writer's association. You can find their stuff not just in the United States, but also in places like Japan and Latin America. Devoted readers hit their Web sites all the time to find out when their next title is coming out. Typical print runs and sales stats for these women would knock a Pulitzer winner for a loop. Meet Richmond's romance writers. Tucked in utterly average neighborhoods all over this city and surrounding counties, Mary Burton, Connie Koslow, Cathy Maxwell, Leanne Banks and Connie Greene are fulfilling the hot-and-heavy relationship fantasies of 7 million romance fans every year. They're proud. They're successful. And they're willing to undo any snobby stereotype you might have about the genre they love. "It's hard when you get that look," explains Koslow, who writes historical romance fiction under the pen name Constance Hall. "Romance writing isn't looked at as 'true writing.' And that always hits home because it's so hard to do. When you tell people you're a romance writer, they look at you like you're a slug at the bottom of the water pool." "Oh yes, it's usually men," says Greene on the phone from her Powhatan home. She writes traditional romances — or what she politely refers to as romances that happen from the waist up. "They say things like, 'Hey, are you still writing those sex books? When I point out that they're romances, they say, 'Sex, romance, it's all the same thing. I tell them 'Buddy, I feel sorry for your wife!'" Those reactions may be typical, but it hardly explains the fact that romance is a huge, thriving corner of publishing. Right now, those rows and rows of glossy-covered paperbacks featuring lovers locked in tacky, lusty poses are nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Almost 60 percent of all popular fiction sold today is romance fiction, according to Romance Writers of America, an 8,400 member organization dedicated to books about women, love-and-a-happy-ending. That kind of readership makes it the cash cow of the industry, raking in $1.35 billion in annual sales. It's more popular than mystery and sci-fi. More popular, even, than general fiction. It leaves literary fiction in the dust. Who's reading it? One in every three women has finished a romance in the past year, and an estimated one in every 30 men has indulged as well. Almost 40 percent of them have college or postgraduate degrees. Today there's something for everybody in romance. Historicals, mystery romances, regencies (think earls and dukes) contemporaries, Westerns, stories featuring ghosts and fairies — even religious romances for those whose piety hasn't erased all longing for love and flesh. You can buy romances that merely suggest sexuality. Or you can gleefully pore over those that feature phrases like, "wild wicked desire pulsed through her," and "she touched his velvelty hardness." It's up to you, the educated consumer, to decide what rows your boat. In short, it may not be what we think we should be reading. But it is what people — mostly married women — buy for their beach bags and nightstands. [image-2](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Leanne Banks

Personal: Married, two teen-age kids, lives in Chesterfield
Latest book: "Expecting the Boss's Baby" (Silhouette Desire); five upcoming works in 2001 for Silhouette Desire. Don't worry, you'll know when they're out. She hangs a huge flag at her house that reads "Leanne's book is out now!"
Claim to fame: National No. 1 best-selling romance author with 1 million books in print.
Favorite book: "It Had to be You" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
When not at the computer, most likely to be: at a band function for James River High School, planning a trip, or baking something chocolate
Response to romance bashers: "I used to feel like I needed to arm myself with facts and figures, but once I received the note from a reader that said, 'I loved your book. It got me through chemotherapy today,' I relearned the lesson to never underestimate the power of a romance novel."For all that success, though, the genre is regularly shunned in the collective American conscience. Somehow, we picture the typical reader as somehow shallow — her emotional depth challenged by episodes of "Titans." It's certainly true in Richmond, according to Kelly Justice, manager of Carytown Books. She's tired of watching women hide romance books from her because they assume she's going to judge their choice. That whole section of "genre literature" — romance, sci-fi, mystery and horror — suffers from what she calls "ghettoization." "A lot of my colleagues in the industry react as though romance literature is for lower classes of people or for illiterate people," Justice says. "That's just snobbery. What made me finally stop being a snob was years and years of selling books. People who read, read all kinds of things and bother to discover all sorts of things. Yes, there's time to read great literature. But there's time to read everything. Hey, one of my favorite books right now is a romance called "The Man Who Ate the 747" by Ben Sherwood. It's about a guy who eats a plane, ground down a little bit at a time, to show a woman that he loves her." About 140 new romance titles hit bookstores every month. But don't even think of insinuating that the works are being "cranked out" factory-style. Instead, these writers see the frenetic pace as a way to build careers in a business driven by insatiable reader demand for books that they devour in two or three days, tops. "A bag of potato chips has a longer life span than one of my books," jokes Leanne Banks, who has sold all 27 short contemporary romances she has ever written. Five of them will be out this year. Even in an industry where a book a year is commonplace, it's an astounding feat. To help get her through, she indulges in chocolate and caffeine and keeps inspirational "affirmations" stuck to her computer on Post-It notes. "I never say, I have a terrible deadline," she says laughing. "I say I have a challenging deadline." She admits that the pace is uncomfortable even for short, 200-page stories. But she's determined to see it through. "My goal is to become a brand name in romance-series writing," she explains. "I want people who pick up my books to know immediately that they are going to get a fun, sexy, emotional read, and that they're going to feel good at the end." Becoming a brand-name product sometimes means working with deadlines that are only a month apart. She's confident she can do it, especially if she knows the pace is temporary until she reaches her self-marketing goal. She, like the other writers, is completely pragmatic about her writing choices. "The publishers want me right now, and I have college tuition coming at me like a freight train, so I am going to do this," she says. That's one of the biggest differences between literary fiction and commercial fiction, according to her colleague, Cathy Maxwell, who has just completed the manuscript for another 400-page historical tentatively titled, "The Spender Stud." She takes several months on a manuscript because, in part, historicals are roughly twice the length of Banks' contemporary "shorts." She, too, feels the pace is quick. But she says it's only a stereotype to suggest that quality is a casualty of working within the bottom-line realities of book publishing. "In literary fiction, a writer can take years to write one novel," Maxwell says. "In commercial fiction, you publish or perish. When the publisher decides to build your name, it isn't really the politic time to say, 'No, I really can't write at that rate.' You see it as a wonderful opportunity to grow, and you rise to the occasion." "In literary fiction, a writer can take years to write one novel," Maxwell says. "In commercial fiction, you publish or perish. When the publisher decides to build your name, it isn't really the politic time to say, 'No, I really can't write at that rate.' You see it as a wonderful opportunity to grow, and you rise to the occasion." That could mean "rising" at 4 a.m., which she has been known to do. Maxwell's own basic motto when she's facing a superhuman deadline is "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." She offers this snippet of daily life. "Just today, I got up and went to work at the computer. Then I stopped and ran over here for this interview. Next I'll work, work, work. I'll stop and throw in two loads of laundry. Then I'll work until bedtime. Yesterday, I made sure I brought someone home from the soccer game, ran to the grocery store and worked a little bit more. It's crazy! But it's also like every working woman's life right now. I don't know, maybe Stephen King has a different experience, but I'm expected to create a novel and also know when the Back to School Night is." [image-3](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Cathy Maxwell

Personal: 47 years old, married, three teen-age kids, lives in Midlothian
Latest book: "The Marriage Contract" (Avon Books, February 2001)
Claim to fame: Has written 10 historical romances. Her books routinely appear on the USA Today and New York Times extended paperback bestseller lists.
Favorite book: "Fierce Eden" by Jennifer Blake and "Lady Reluctant" by Maggie Osborne.
In a former life she was: a manager of a New England watch factory, a news broadcaster in Dodge City, Kan., and a naval officer.
When not at the computer, she can be found: riding and grooming at Saddlebrook Stables
Response to romance bashers: "No one should be criticized for reading something. In fact, we should all read more." Mary Burton couldn't agree more. She's a young mom whose two kids are in elementary school. She's squeezing out novels between school bus pickup and drop-off, and around karate lessons. She readily admits that the greatest part of being a newly published writer is that she can get up and do for a living exactly what she always dreamed she'd do. But productivity is a killer. "Finding the time to write, that's the biggest challenge," she says. "Not finding ideas or characters. Finding time." So, for all this crazy pace, how are these women compensated? Will Banks' kids get to college debt-free? Or will her head explode before then? It's hard to tell. That's because the money side of the business varies widely from author to author, according to Pamela Ahearn, a literary agent based in New Orleans. She represents 15 romance writers, including Richmond's Koslow. "It's impossible to say what people can earn in this business because it depends on so many factors," Ahearn says. "Series writers tend to earn less than single-title writers, for instance. A first-time author can expect to earn anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 per single title. About $3,500 if they write short series books. But throw in big-name recognition and successful print runs, and you can earn a whole lot more." Nobody in our writer's circle is willing to quote salary, but they agree that they run the gamut Ahearn describes. Burton has just sold her second book and is starting to build an audience. Maxwell's "The Spender Stud" is part of a six-figure contract with Avon books. Fantasy and escape. These are words that come up again and again when you talk to just about anybody about romance fiction and why women read it. The difference is in how the words are said. One group of readers gets misty-eyed over the possibility of shutting out daily pressures. The other group reacts as though you've thrown Drano on their faces. And the ones who seem the most uncomfortable with it all are men. "Most of the shit I get is from guys," offers Kim, a 36-year-old Richmond artist who reads two or three romance novels a month. Although most of her friends already know she reads what she calls "smut novels," she asked that her last name not be used. She doesn't take men's reactions — or the novels — too seriously. "I just laugh. More women say, 'I wish I could read those,' but their boyfriends give them too much hell for it. I think a lot of women secretly want to read them. It's just escape reading. I do read other things. But when I'm tired and don't want to watch TV, they're fun. You don't have to think, and when you don't want to think, it's a good thing." Koslow agrees. "Face it, it's not timeless literature," she says. "It's entertaining literature. Our readers don't want reality. They want to escape for a little while. They want to read for a few hours and have a happy ending." That's how she herself became a reader of romance at age 30. "Everybody knows the big punch line," Burton admits. "Of course, she'll get the guy. But what's interesting is peeling back the layers of each character and making discoveries. It's escaping into the journey that makes people read." As long as they like the heroine, that is, according to Banks. Heroines, she says, have always been her strong point, and it's because she creates women who her readers want to be. "What I think is the key is that we want a heroine, a Sheba, who is vulnerable, who we can identify with, who makes us say, 'Oh I've felt that way before, I've done that before.' We want a heroine who has frailties and who is vulnerable, but, more than anything, is courageous in whatever way she chooses to live. It's not that she accomplishes everything, but that she's courageous. This heroine is like us, but has the guts to move on and do what she's got to do. It's the fantasy of what we want to be like." But another fantasy is what women want their men to be like. Frankly, it makes some men jittery — and then as a last resort, condescending. "Oh yes, a lot of men say they don't want their wives and girlfriends reading this stuff because it will give them 'ideas,'" says Karen Jones, a broadcast journalist who will be teaching a course at University of Richmond next spring called "How to Write a Romance Novel." But she says their insecurities are their problem, not the readers'. Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

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