Okay, so I want to ask a serious question about dramatic romance stories currently on the market and what is being published right now. I ask this question from deep in the querying trenches, where my thinking may not be entirely trustworthy in the haze of rejections. Ready for the question?
Is my current project that is being queried being rejected because of the subject matter?
I want to state clearly that rape and violence against women are not entertainment. Let me repeat this to be clear, rape is not entertainment. I need to say this first because I believe it wholeheartedly, and two, I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about the work I am talking about.
The main character in my current work that is being queried is a victim of sexual manipulation and, for all intents and purposes, assault. But this story is not about the disgusting, lurid details and horrific things she lived through; it is about her journey of healing. I try to make this very clear in the pitch, query letter, and synopsis for this work. But I am starting to wonder if the subject matter is too taboo. This poses a larger question, not just as a reader or a woman, but in general. If life imitates art and vice versa, shouldn’t we embrace stories where women overcome the unimaginable and triumph over the ugliness of life?
Look, I’m not so full of myself to think there may not be other reasons why the work isn’t being picked up. Maybe it’s not good enough, or something else in the pitch is turning agents off, and I’m just too close to the work to see it. Querying is a long, arduous process where you put your work out there, hoping it finds the right agent. This process can take months, and going in, that is what I expected. When I got my first couple of rejections back within a week or two, I didn’t think anything of it and pressed on. The next group came back with equal speed, then another batch.
This is the third book I’ve queried. This process is never quick, yet this book has garnered records for rejection time, which leads me to ask, is the subject matter turning agents away?
In my querying process, I carefully research agents, and time and time again, I see requests for works from underrepresented authors, gay, bi, trans, and I think that is AMAZING! Telling stories about all forms of sexuality is essential. It is crucial for someone to pick up a book of any genre and find a story that relates to them, to their life experiences. So, this leads me to ask, why aren’t we telling stories about women who overcome abuse from friends, family, and strangers?
I know that this subject matter can be highly triggering for some, and perhaps this is why I don’t find this subject matter on the shelf at the bookstore in romance. I want to read a romance where a woman completes her healing journey by learning what love should be and how that pure love touches every part of her life. I wrote this story about a woman who fought like hell to heal, and when the time was right, the perfect man comes along to help her finish her healing journey.
One of the most riveting series I ever read was the Steel Brothers Saga by Helen Hardt. I remember reading it with my jaw on the floor. It was honest and raw, about the most heinous abuse I’d ever read, but the abuse wasn’t the focus of the books. It was the story of the character’s healing that compelled me to devour the series. Granted, the victim of abuse in these books is primarily one male character, but it took an extraordinary woman to push him to work through his trauma.
As a reader, I rooted for the characters and believed more deeply in their love story knowing. Both partners knew the ugliest places of the human heart, and that made the love they showed for each other even more compelling and pure. I rooted for the characters, probably more than I ever had in a series before. I also loved the Blank Canvas series by Adriana Anders, where in the first book, a woman finds healing and learns to trust a man again. There is a fragility that comes with these love stories that is so much deeper than others, which hooks me as a reader.
With this being said, it leaves me to pose the question, are these types of survivor stories too taboo to print these days? I know as a reader; I love rooting for the character who has clawed their way back from the gates of hell to experience true love for the first time.
As a writer, I believe these stories need to be on the bookshelf. Just as with any other traumatic experience, death, betrayal, abuse, these things should be represented in all genres of work to show that healing is possible. Love is worth fighting for, and trust is something that can take a lot of time and work to accomplish, but they’re all the sweeter when the characters reach that point.
So, if these stories aren’t being told because the subject matter may offend, then how do stories of triumph, hope, and redemption reach the reader who may need it most?
When I started writing romance, I’d not read a single romance book in my entire life. My first work came from a dream. It was dark and suspensive. My best friend agreed to read it and gave great critical feedback, including a recommendation for a series to start reading. I picked up a book in the series, intrigued. Within a month, I’d read all nine books in the series. They were gritty, dramatic, high-stakes, and it resonated with me. Life is gritty and dramatic, but it is those hard time that makes the good times just that little bit sweeter.
As I started my second book, I realized that love is traumatic, and it’s taking a chance with your heart to love someone. Sometimes, it’s finding the right person means putting more than your heart on the line. I know that this subgenre is not to everyone’s liking, and I respect that wholeheartedly. The point I am trying to make here is there is a love story for everyone; each one is unique, some are happy, some are traumatic, and others are triumphant. Shouldn’t those triumphant love stories be on the shelf too? I’d argue, yes!
If my work doesn’t make it onto the shelf, well, that sucks, but I can deal. I hope someone else’s does, and that story of love overcoming trauma and ugliness brings hope to victims, friends of victims, family of victims, that love can be a powerful healer, that there are good people out there worth trusting. It is my sincerest hope that as a romance writer, we see the happy love stories, the funny love stories, and the gritty love stories. As a romance author, it is paramount that we are inclusive of all love stories.
Joseph P Garland says
I can say nothing about what does or does not get a response from an agent beyond saying that what I’ve done never has.
Have I had rape in my stories? Yes. In one, it began in my writing, as it did in the story, as something my MC thought was loving but suddenly turned midway into rape as the partner couldn’t control the anger and disgust he had for the MC and her history. Indeed, the title is “The Redemption of Cheryl Baines” and she will be redeemed. Just not with him.
I have a warning about rape in “Alex.” Though it’s not described on the page, it is a crucial element of a mother and father’s history and thus unavoidable to the daughter’s tale.
These are parts of the stories. How many romance tropes are built on an imbalance of power? Darcy and Elizabeth? Didn’t Wickham rape Lydia? There’s a whole subgenre of “billionaires.” Doesn’t that cry out as an imbalance? The enemies-to-lovers story with a happy-for-now?
Perhaps the issue is whether a book with a trigger warning–and my own examples have them–can be marketed. I see no reason why not when the rape is essential to the story, even if it is not itself described in the book. They’re romances so we know the MC will come through it.
I don’t read that much traditional romances, though. I’ve enjoyed a number of Indie ones (including one that has a rape scene). I can’t say what an agent is looking for. What limits there are for “romances” to get picked up. But this is my two cents.
I just re-read one of my historical novels. There’s a crucial scene early on in which a titled man takes advantage of my MC. But she is clear that she entered into it voluntarily but only was traumatized when she realized that he wanted something only from her and not for her. It wasn’t rape–she makes that clear although some might think it otherwise–but it traumatized her until she found a man who understood. Such complications are, as you say, part of what we as writers do with our characters. Or what our characters may be doing to us.