Started from the bottom – Now I’m here!

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. I love everything about books. I love seeing the words on the pages, and even the type of font that’s used. I love hearing the distinctive crack of the spine when you open an older hard-cover book. I particularly love smelling the pages of an old book; the sweet, woody aroma brings me back to being at home as an introverted pre-teen and diving into a good book.

When I started pursuing my undergraduate degree at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, I decided to go for my passion. I made creative writing my major because if I wanted to be a published author, I wanted to make sure I understood the rules of writing fiction…especially before I broke them.

What I love about fiction as a reader is the way authors break from the norm and do what they want to tell a compelling story, almost like when a TV show breaks that “fourth wall” to engage the viewers. In school, teachers and professors repeatedly advised against “head hopping,” which means going from telling a story strictly from one character’s point of view to jumping into the head of another character in the same book. However, there are several well-known authors who do this regularly to the delight of their readers. As someone new to writing, I had to know how to structure a great story.

Once I earned my Bachelor’s degree, I still felt ill equipped to write and publish my fiction even though writing a work of fiction came a lot easier to me. So, I went further with my education and pursued a degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

The program taught me ways to strengthen my fiction as well as how to submit my work to publishers. The program allowed me to mix and mingle (and learn) with other aspiring and established authors (Harlequin romance author Susan Mallery attended the program as a student) as well as get to talk to industry professionals who either taught courses or came in as special guest lecturers. Not only did authors like Octavia Butler (may she rest in peace) come to speak to us students, but we also had established editors and agents talk to us about how to submit our work. What they don’t teach you, or maybe what I ignored during the lectures, was how much rejection you would get as an author, and what a rejection really means.

When I started submitting my work to agents, editors, and publishers, I did it with the lofty expectation that there would be a bidding war to get my work. I mean, I had all of this education behind me, and I had all of this passion for writing. As each rejection rolled in, some personalized (“Dear, Ms. Bright…”) and some in a form letter (“Dear, Author…”), it chipped away at my self-esteem. Imagine if your boyfriend or husband decided to end your relationship in a letter and it started off as “Dear, Wife…” instead of your name. Somehow having the letter addressed to me personally didn’t hurt as much because at least the person took the time to read what I had submitted and addressed me and did not treat me like the rest of the authors in their slush pile, the pile of submissions editors and agents rarely get through to review.

I had completed all of this education and had my work evaluated by my peers and professors, thinking that I would immediately get picked up, only to be told, “Thank you for submitting; however…” What I didn’t realize is that every rejection has nothing to do with me, my writing style, or my education.

The one lesson I learned after so many years of writing and being published is that a rejection, just like everything else in the publishing industry, is more about business than it is about personal preference. Yes, the work submitted still may not be the editor or agent’s cup of tea. If I’m submitting a straight romance to a publisher looking for paranormal, I can’t be too upset that my work got rejected. Or perhaps my writing style isn’t what they like. The point is my work may not have been rejected because my writing wasn’t up to par. Sometimes it has something to do with other work they have contracted that has a storyline that is close to yours.

The other thing I learned is that there are so many publishers out there, and as of late, there are so many ways to publish your work on your own. You aren’t limited to The Big Five as we romance authors used to think of the main large publishers of romance novels out of New York.

Although there are so many lessons I’ve learned in my writing journey, the bottom-line takeaway I wish to impart on other yet-to-be-published writers is to believe in yourself. Yes, I know that sounds trite and overused, but it’s true. You will question your every step in the process of writing and getting published. Trust yourself and your instincts. By trusting my instincts, I’ve managed to secure two multi-book contracts with Kensington Publishing (one of The Big Five publishers), and I’ve written books that make me proud. I wish the same for every writer out there.

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J.J. Murray – A Male Romance Author? Yes!

I have the distinct pleasure of having romance author J.J. Murray take time out of his busy schedule to answer some of my burning questions. I wanted to know why there aren’t more men reading romance novels. Since he is a man, and, even better, a man who writes romance novels, I wanted to get his perspective.

1.) How long have you been writing and published?

I have been writing since I was six and publishing since 1986.

2.) What is the genre that you currently write?

Primarily Interracial/Multicultural romance and romantic comedy.

3.) Did you read romance novels before writing it? If so, who were your go-to authors?

I read pieces of the romance novels my mother (Harlequin junkie) left lying around, and I thought they were hilarious, especially the bodice rippers. Those sounded best out loud. I can’t remember the names of any of the authors. I only remember Fabio on the cover.

4.) What attracted you to read romance novels when you read them (if you read them)?

As a lad, I devoured the true romances that involved heroic quests like the tales of Arthur and his knights, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and every version of Tristan and Iseult (the original Romeo and Juliet) I could find. I enjoyed and still enjoy the adventure, trials, and tribulations inherent in the quest for true love.

5.) Did you always write romance, or did you write another genre?

No matter what I write, romance elements abound. I suppose I can’t help it. I blame those Harlequins. I have written crime comedies, ghost stories, spy thrillers, and murder mysteries that have love stories central to their plots.

6.) Why do you write romances?

Most folks assume that romance writers are “good” at love, relationships, and romantic endeavors, but it’s the opposite for me in many ways. I have endured countless dysfunctional relationships (see Kicked to the Curb) that have given me plenty to write about. I enjoy writing about the struggle and the chase and the ages old conflict between man and woman. Though my heroes are only somewhat knight-like, they slay modern dragons in their attempts to win the damsel, who is never really in any distress. I suppose I write to keep chivalry alive.

7.) Who are your readers, what group(s)?

Most of my readers are women of color ages 13-99 (!).

8.) Do you have a lot of male readers?

I only have a smattering of white male readers.

9.) If not, why do you think that is?

In matters of love, most men are as clueless as I am, and you would think men would read more romance to help them figure out this thing called love. If romance novels were marketed as how-to and how-not-to relationship manuals touting the do’s and don’ts of courting a woman, maybe more men would read them: “Hey, man, read romances so you don’t make so many mistakes with women.”

10.) If you’ve done in-person author events, do you get any feedback from men?
The only men I interact with are those who want me to sign books for their wives or girlfriends. “You’re her favorite author,” they say … and that’s about it.

11.) Why do you think men don’t read as many romances as women?

Could it be that men are afraid to get in touch with their feminine sides? That by reading romance their testosterone levels will drop? That other men will consider them “soft” if they’re caught reading a romance?

12.) Nielsen reported a couple of years ago that 84% of romance readers are women and 16% are men. Do you have any suggestions to bump up the male readership?

The stereotypical reader of romance is a woman, and publishers fiercely target women with romance novels. Perhaps if publishers made an active, sustained effort to target men, more men would read them. And if more romance writers would focus on the adventure (and even the danger) of love, more men might tune in.

13.) Have you done anything to snag more male readers? If so, what did you try? If not, why not?

Most of my heroes are not the brooding and often brutish Alpha males with testosterone oozing from their pores. They’re average guys like me. I will occasionally create a he-man that is perhaps a man an average guy would like to be, and men seem to read those novels more. Women these days seem to desire an Alpha male in public–who will also cuddle with them in private.

J. J. Murray

Author of Renee and Jay, Renee and Jay 2, Something Real, Original Love, I’m Your Girl, Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Too Much of a Good Thing, The Real Thing, She’s the One, I’ll Be Your Everything, P & Q, A Good Man, You Give Good Love, Until I Saw Your Smile, Get Gritty: A Modern Guide to Writing Fiction, Let’s Stay Together, Rust in Peace, Deep Freeze, Tuning up Daisies, No Ordinary Love, Sisters of Grace, Mistaken Identities, Paint, Every Dog, Redemption, The Worst Romance Novel Ever Written, Needy Greedy Love, Jade Ed., The Waking, Mrs. Mayor, Though This Be Madness, Beside the Still Waters, Billy, The Date, Drift, Lucky, and Kicked to the Curb (March 2018).

Diamonds in the Rough

Is it a stereotype to say that men don’t read romance novels? No. Research done by Romance Writers of America has shown that only 16% of romance readers are men. I could argue (and probably will) that men can and should read romance novels. You know how I know? Because men are writing romance novels.

Keith Thomas Walker is a man who is comfortable writing, promoting, and selling his romance novels, like Hotline Fling (that could only mean one thing).

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Another male author comfortable in his skills is Keith Kareem Williams. Check out The Higher Learning Curve.

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And author J.J. Murray is not only comfortable writing about romance, he also writes about interracial romance! Talk about pushing boundaries.

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Even rock-em-sock-em author James Patterson has written romances.

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So, my next step is to talk to one or more of these men and find out what attracts them to write these novels and if they have personally noticed the disparity between female readers and male readers.

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What’s the Difference — Part Two

I’m not really someone who harps on anything. Really, I’m not. The more I thought about the idea that some people (you know who you are) may not appreciate romance, specifically romance novels, I thought about infamous characters, particularly Bond. James Bond.

Ian Fleming, the author of the wildly popular James Bond books that spawned a best-selling movie series, knew how to keep readers, men and women, interested in his books.  Readers, both men and women, are drawn to the action in the books and later in the movies. James Bond does have a license to kill, you know, and he seems to do it often. Something else that he’s fond of: the ladies.

Bond is known for his love-em-and-leave-em style, which is probably attractive to many men who can appreciate Bond’s cavalier style. The character can have intimate relationships without all of those pesky attachments. Who needs commitment? According to an article on HuffPost by Maya Rodale called “The Surprising Qualities Women Want in a Hero,” the characteristics perfectly describes James Bond: he’s protective, he’s intelligent, he has a sense of humor, he’s a man who takes control, and he’s got throw down (otherwise known as having great skills in the bedroom). Funny that the qualities never mention love.

So, am I off the mark? Do readers — men and women — want a great story without all of the commitment? I would like to think not. Comparing a past James Bond movie poster and a current one, it looks like the only difference is that Bond has pared down the number of women he spends his time with — in between killing and saving the world.

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The question has to be raised: if more books were written with a tough main character with a cavalier attitude toward sex and relationships, would it still attract both men and women if that main character was a woman? The closest current comparison would be Charlize Theron’s character from the movie “Atomic Blonde.” She kicked ass and had sexual relationships with both men and women. What kind of story would attract readers, particularly men?

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To read the Part One, click here.

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What’s the difference? – Part One

When talking about romance, whether it be novels or movies, what comes to mind? Kissing? Long stares? Goofy smiling? Lots of sex?

Wait! I can see some of you are already looking away. Even the roughest stories can contain romance in it. I wrote The Look of Love, book one in my Mama’s Boys series, about an mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighter who rushes home to take care of his mother when she falls ill. To help support her, he runs her hair salon.

I absolutely love fish-out-of-water stories. Movies like “The Tooth Fairy” with Dwayne Johnson, or “The Pacifier” with Vin Diesel, or even “The Nanny” with Hulk Hogan make me laugh and pull at my heartstrings. That’s what good fiction should do.

So, some readers may think, “Oh, an MMA fighter with a soft heart. Why would I care about a character like that?” But look at the movie “Rocky.”

You can see in the posters the movie makers aimed at all audiences. With the image of Rocky on top of the steps, they were trying to attract the dreamers and sports enthusiasts who love to root for the underdog. The other poster clearly shows a beaten alpha male with a soft heart for the woman by his side. That poster is appealing to the romantics out there. I’m seeking both with my books, except my hero isn’t screaming, “Adrienne!”

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