Monday, November 10, 2014

Wordcraft -- Romance vs. suspense: he writes, she writes

Was there an unintended pun in the subtitle of the panel at the Readers & ’ritas convention last weekend: “The Difference Between a Straight Mystery and a Romantic Suspense”? Because the three authors who addressed a room full of romance fans turned the word “straight” on its head.

In fairness to the convention’s organizer, Fresh Fiction, the panel was supposed to consist of three women authors. But when one had to cancel, the moderator tagged the first male author invited to the convention, swashbucklingly gay author/writing teacher Damon Suede to fill in. Joined with mystery writer/Italian translator Traci Andrighetti and suspense writer/scientist Lara Lacombe, the result was a gleeful hour spent tugging at the boundaries of romantic fiction, mystery, and male-female viewpoints.

After reminding the audience that the etymology of “romance” derives from the original word for a novel, Suede, Andrighetti and Lacombe played with ways to define “romance”, “mystery” and “thriller/suspense” in modern terms.

The function of a mystery, Suede posited is “that things will be untangled when they go wrong”; that of a thriller/suspense becomes “maybe no one will help you” and that of a romance is “someone will help” when those tangled things are going very, very wrong. In other words, the overwhelming characteristic of a romance, both readers and authors agreed, is that the relationship between two people is paramount.

Still, in drawing the line between mystery/thriller and romance, “I think it’s often a shame that mystery writers forget there’s often a love interest involved” in their books, Andrighetti said.

The problem, she believes, often lies in the sexual stereotyping of books. “We say women write romance and men write mystery.”

Suede agreed. And that the stereotyping works both ways.

He was told by other romance writers that he wouldn't be able to write romance, “because I’m a male writer. I think many more guys read romance than we think. I have a fire house in Austin that reads all my books (Hot Head, Seedy Business, Grown Men, Horn Gate, Bad Idea) ¾ and they’re straight guys. They say, now I can talk to my girlfriend about this stuff.”

“In my family,” Andrighetti counters, “my dad and brother are really uncomfortable reading my books (Limoncello Yellow and Prosecco Pink). (But) I read in Italian, and I was inspired by a woman named Gabriella Genisi, and 70 percent of her readers are male.” (She’s also thrilled at the prospect of translating Genisi’s work for English-speaking readers.)

And then, ahem, there’s the stereotype that romance readers, well, maybe any readers, don’t want to try anything too challenging. Which brought the panel back to the dilemma of Lacombe. Make that, Dr. Lacombe, with a doctorate in immunology and microbiology. Mild-mannered science professor by day, she writes suspense with romantic elements (Lethal Lies, Fatal Fallout, Deadly Contact ) by night.

Do you find it hard to dumb down your books?” an audience member asked.

Not even an issue, Lacombe insisted. The thought that readers may consider themselves “dumb” distresses her. “I think you’re taught to think you’re dumb. That’s not right. I try to write the books with a bit of knowledge that lets people say, now that’s interesting.”

Leading to an aha moment from the game theory book, A Theory of Fun, Suede said. “There’s a balance between fun that’s too hard and fun that’s too easy.” Finding the right balance between easy and hard is the challenge. “If it’s too much of either, it’s boring.”

For more about Andrighetti, Lacombe and Suede, as well as the Readers & ’ritas convention, see the site for convention sponsor Fresh Fiction, at

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