The muddy pond.

CW: Suicide & death.

There are things I remember really well about Billy’s death.

The morning when I walked through the parking lot of the high school where I work, two years ago, on my way to a day of August pre-first-day-of-school teacher training. I always like these days. Everyone, except for the most burnt out of teachers, is inevitably filled with optimism about the upcoming year. Like, we can do this again. We’ve had time to rest, and we think we remember why we like to do this.

In general, I keep a bit of a distance between my personal life and my work life, but two teachers I care about were standing on the sidewalk, one of them crying. I probably would have walked awkwardly by if I didn’t feel somewhat close to the teacher who was crying, but I did, so I stopped. Asked what was going on. They gave me that horrible, reluctant, stricken look that makes you realize something really bad has happened and you’re the last to know. They told me Billy was dead. How he had died, in this absolutely horrifying way. Then the crying teacher said, “I can’t do this right now. I can’t be here,” and she walked back to her car.

The other teacher and I walked a few paces toward our staff meeting, me in stunned silence. After a moment, he said, “I haven’t been teaching for a long time, but this isn’t the first student I’ve known who died this way, and it won’t be the last.” And then he walked ahead, to give me space.

The actual reasons behind Billy’s death are controversial now; no one will ever quite know what was going through his head. At the time, it seemed like an obvious case of suicide, although I would later learn that Billy had been suffering from pretty severe mental illness in the time since he had graduated from our high school. So either he didn’t mean to kill himself, or he did, but either way, he was the student that I had been closest to in the first four years I’d worked at that school, a brilliant human being who’d only gotten to experience one year of college, and he was dead.

The other memory I remember most clearly is from the funeral. Even with two years’ distance, I have a hard time thinking about this funeral. It was a funeral where it seemed like the purpose was to convince the audience that it wasn’t a suicide, just a tragic accident—all this focus on the death, not on the life. I was sitting next to another teacher I care about, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and during the most upsetting part of the whole thing, she had her head down, sobbing, shoulders shaking, and I remember not knowing whether I should put my hand on her back, comfort her in some way, but I was too messed up with my own emotions to do anything at all. Later, I realized she just understood more clearly, how wrong everything was, and was processing it better than I was, something I lacked the capacity to do at the time.

I can’t remember how much time passed after the funeral, before I started writing my first book.

I had always dreamed of writing books as a kid, but a bunch of self-doubt and one fiction class in college that went poorly made me abandon those dreams pretty quickly; I changed the focus of my writing degree to non-fiction instead. Post-college, I worked customer service jobs while I figured out what the hell I wanted to do with my life; there was one year that I wrote for a few online sites and even attempted to make a living out of it, even though that was an entirely unfeasible plan. But writing fiction, like books, was a dream that had been really, truly absent from my bones until Billy.

My first book was YA—I’m a teen librarian, I’m well versed in the world of YA and it didn’t feel like such a wild thing to try—and it was a type of love story between a girl named Harper and a boy named Zeke. I honestly don’t know if I consciously understood at the time, that I was working through my grief, giving Billy a happier ending through Zeke—even though, as I started writing, Zeke quickly became his own, unique person, even if the inspiration started with Billy, as it should be when you’re writing fiction—but I did know that I wanted to…acknowledge, honor Billy and other kids like him, that his story wasn’t told enough. That that funeral had been fucked up and my brain wanted to do something to fix it.

In the book, Zeke is the adopted son of a white woman who adopts Black children from around the world like it’s her mission from God. He wants to find his biological family, whom he can barely remember, in Haiti. Harper is the daughter of a single lesbian mother, a mother who once had a partner, who for a year of Harper’s life, had been her mother too. Until the other woman realized she didn’t want a thing to do with motherhood and yeeted out of both of their lives. Harper and Zeke are worlds apart in many ways but are alike in having questions about people who were part of their lives once that they no longer know, in being part of families that don’t look or feel anything like their peers.

There was also a poorly plotted out storyline about a mysterious roll of film found in Harper’s new house, and Harper and Zeke creating a secret darkroom in their high school, and a bit of Mary Oliver poetry, and screaming at the ocean, and a conversation that I found particularly hilarious to write when Harper’s mother tries not to be horrified at the thought of her daughter being straight (which Harper is not). And a Salvadoran grandmother and an apology made via soup. (Soup remains a running theme in my work, actually.) Basically, there was a lot going on, because it was my first book and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and it will never see the light of day because a lot of it was way out of my lane, but also I love it very much.

It ends with Harper letting Zeke go. Watching Zeke’s plane fly away, on his way back to Haiti, to find his answers.

In my head, it is a happy ending. At the very least, a better one.

There are still ghosts of Billy everywhere: his face still pops up in our student database when I’m searching for a last name similar to his. This fall, when I was getting textbooks ready for this year’s students, I randomly opened a cover of one to do some spine repair and saw his name, checked out years earlier. I wondered, as I have several times over the past few years, what he would think if he knew I started writing books because of him. Probably be real weirded out, even though he liked romance novels. I got a book deal, Billy, I thought this year when I saw his name in that textbook, and chuckled a little, at how grossed out he’d be, at the idea of his librarian writing sex scenes. It hurts less now, seeing his name.

Then there was last week. I got an email from another principal of mine. Difficult news, the subject line read.

I didn’t know her as well. But she was so young. I always felt like Billy was cheated out of so much, never even finishing college. But this girl was in 8th grade. She didn’t even get to high school.

Her death was more black and white than Billy’s; she left a note. She thanked her best friend for her friendship. I had a lot of anger back then at Billy, but I didn’t feel a shred of it this time. It feels hard to hold it against someone, doing what they felt they needed to do.

I thought about what that teacher had said, two years ago, about how Billy wasn’t the first student suicide he’d experienced, how it wouldn’t be the last. How awful it felt, to be in that club now.

I thought about how news like this feels slightly different now that I have a kid of my own, a cliche thing I’d heard before but that rings true. How terrifying it is, to have no idea what lies ahead for your kid. How anything could happen.

But other than this general, vague feeling of sadness—and this might have been due to the fact that I didn’t really know her, or just because it’s 2020 and my heart is already so full of trauma that it can’t handle any more—but honestly, I tried not to think about it too hard. Except for this one little thing.

Her name was London.

When I was looking for character names for the book that will now be my first published book, I searched through my Twitter—one of my favorite ways to find character names now—and stole Dahlia Adler’s for Dahlia. For London, I googled gender neutral names, ones that could be used for boys or girls or people in between, and I loved London immediately. I still love it. It’s not a huge artistic accomplishment, choosing names out of an Internet hat, but I do feel proud of Dahlia’s and London’s names, moreso than other characters I’ve worked on. They are both so beautiful. They both fit the characters perfectly.

And so it was, when I was searching through my manuscript looking for a quote to post on Twitter last week for #FridayKiss, and suddenly every London I saw felt like a little pinprick in my heart.

And I couldn’t stop thinking:

Didn’t she know? That she had the most beautiful name?

How many other things did she not know? That she didn’t get a chance to?

I am not sure, honestly, what my point here is, other than feeling the need to talk about it. But I think it has something to do with these ghosts, these echoes of people I knew well and those I didn’t, that show up in the words that tumble out of my brain onto a screen. How every year, the more I know real people, and the more I write about fake people, these ghosts and echoes are likely to multiply, reflections of each other, all mixed up in a muddy pond. And how sometimes I feel weird about it—will I always invoke Billy when people ask me how I got into writing books? Does that feel a little gross, somehow?—but sometimes, I just feel like, well, of course. That muddy pond, that’s the way this works.

Stories can’t always save people. Billy loved books, I think more purely than he loved anything else in his life. The last book London checked out from me was a Jenny Han one. I marked it as lost, after she died, and kept thinking about it. That I hoped she had liked it, that it made her feel happy for a little while, like Jenny Han books make me and so many other people feel happy for a little while.

Stories can’t always save people, but they can make us feel a little better, when we need them to. Sometimes the only thing you can do is keep writing them, while you can.

xo

Anita

The screen cap.

Lucky.

Writing this feels funny, because anyone who’s reading this has already seen this on my social media, but I’ve documented some of my journey of the last year in this space, so it feels like I need to finish it off. And after this, I’m not quite sure what to do with this newsletter/blog/whatever the hell we call these things these days.

To be clear, it is essential to have a newsletter as an author! Like, definitely #2 in the Top Ten Rulebook for Authors, after #1, write books. But most author newsletters are short and to the point and like, here, buy my book. Here’s a picture of my cat. Have a nice day. And this Substack has been…not that. I have likely shared more than I’m supposed to share; some of my past entries rambled quite a bit and really didn’t have a point.

But…it’s also probably not even possible for me to write a “here buy my book have a nice day” newsletter, because I am me (although I can definitely share more photos of my cat), so I don’t know! We’ll approach that cliff when we get to it!

What I’m here to say is that I have a book deal. I actually found out I had a book deal back in June, I think, and I have been waiting to officially announce that little screen cap above—the Publishers Marketplace screen cap is THE DREAM—ever since then. After you get the Publishers Marketplace screen cap, you can add your book to your Twitter bio. You can say, to anyone—your family and friends, strangers on the street, old high school nemeses—I’m going to be a published author. (I do not have high school nemeses, I am not that interesting, but that is definitely something you can do after the screen cap.)

And of course, the day I could actually post the screen cap went nothing like I planned. I had planned to take the day off of work, post my carefully crafted series of tweets, and do nothing but sit on my ass and check my notifications while eating ice cream, the sweet taste of victory every writer who has ever thought I mean I am really just a sorry piece of shit over and over deserves. You have to take your wins when you get them.

But I should have expected announcement day wouldn’t go like I planned. For posterity, let’s document what I was doing during every important benchmark in my last writing year.

  • Got an email from Meryl & Rosie asking me to send them my full manuscript for Pitch Wars: sitting in the Taco Bell drive-thru lane

  • Got tagged on Twitter by Meryl, announcing that they had selected me as their mentee for Pitch Wars 2019: wandering 7-11 in search of cheap wine

  • Okay, I actually can’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I accepted Kim’s offer of representation. That was a very blurry time. But I would not be surprised if I was, again, at Taco Bell.

Both emails I received from Kim earlier this summer about possible deals came at more normal, less embarrassing times, but each one felt like a surprise. Querying for an agent, and then waiting to hear from your agent while being on sub, both consist of a horrible, self-damaging game of checking your email way more times in a single day than you would ever care to admit, and sort of getting used to nothing changing, ever, but like an addict, you need to keep checking anyway, and then suddenly something just…CHANGES, like there’s actually an email, and it actually has good news, and it never feels real.

The first good email from Kim, after several rejections from other publishers, was from a publisher I love and the editor loved my book and there was talk of marketing plans and that was when my heart started to beat out of my chest because, holy forkballs, WHAT. And then Kim said, let’s see if anyone else still on our list offers, too, we’ll give them a deadline. And I was like haha, okay. And then I woke up one morning with details of the above deal, and I thought, wow, Junessa, well that’s the prettiest name I’ve ever heard, and then I emailed Kim back and said “This said three books. Does this mean I get to write three books?” And she said yes and then, in my head, I fainted, but in actuality I just got up and went to work. But I have been pretty much fainting in my head ever since then.

The space between when you get an offer and when you get to post that Publishers Marketplace screen cap varies widely, like everything in publishing. One author I follow just got to announce her deal after waiting a YEAR! O N E Y E A R. Another fellow Pitch Wars mentee got news of her YA deal this summer and then got to announce it the next week and I was like EXCUSE ME! But jk because it was very exciting and I love her very much but yes I was also a little jealous. Because even though I had received the most amazing news of my life, and I knew it was real because it came with numbers and legal words I didn’t understand, as the weeks went by I got caught in this weird state of anxiety where I felt like more of a fraud than ever. We couldn’t land on a better title (the one in the announcement will likely change) and I was like what if they realize I am actually really bad at this and drop me, or what if I’ve spent the last few months drafting Book 2 and Forever actually HATES IT (still a legitimate fear), and what if I announce and immediately get cancelled because my Twitter bio says she/her and London uses they/them and I just really think I’m going to get cancelled, and what if this whole last year was just a fever dream and maybe I should check myself in somewhere? (This is not me being glib, I very much wondered this.)

Luckily, my day job was wildly busy over the last month and it really did distract me from checking my email too much every day—every step of the way in publishing, the reason why you are checking your inbox a truly ridiculous number of times changes, but you’re still doing it—but then Kim said she was submitting the information to Publishers Marketplace. THE SCREEN CAP. So I kept refreshing that morning, to see if my name was actually there, but some other person’s deal kept showing at the top of the screen, and then I realized that my state is on fire and, actually, the fire is like, really close to us and we might have to evacuate? And we made a plan on where we would go if we had to, and what we would take with us if we had to—I only cried once, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to take the cabinet my grandpa built—and then I had to pick up our kiddo early from daycare, because the daycare owner’s house had just been moved to a Level 2 evacuation zone and she actually did have to pack. And then I forgot to check my email, or go back to the Publishers Marketplace page, because I was making my kid chicken nuggets and trying to find the best sites with fire and evacuation zone trackers but they all kept crashing.

And then I finally sat down a few hours later and checked my email and there it was, and Kim was asking, do you want me to post it or do you want to? And I was like oh crap oh crap, so I posted it with like, half of the words I had originally planned to post it with—in my head I had planned this big tribute to Corey Alexander, a super important part of the non-binary and queer romance community (and disabled romance community and Jewish and mental health romance community and so many other things) who tragically died this summer, with links of places to donate in their honor. But instead I just posted it without even really knowing what I was saying and then I tried to keep up with the notifications and it was A Day.

Just like with the Pitch Wars showcase, it was this big whirlwind of attention and I couldn’t believe some of it but now my adrenaline’s calmed a little, and it’s back to me just being me, ready to plunk around in my Docs again, typing words without trying to overthink the fact that other people are going to read and criticize them and maybe, hopefully, even like them.

And for once, I’m not checking my email a million times a day, and that’s the greatest gift of all. I’m still waiting on the next thing, of course—my first real edit letter, which will actually kick off the next chapter in this journey—so I’m definitely still checking it, but everything that’s happened over the last year feels real now. Like, you got that screen cap, Anita. You can breathe, for a little bit.

Mainly, I feel lucky. Getting published involves hard work and talent, sure, but so much of it is luck. That you happen to like writing something that’s marketable and on trend. That your manuscript landed in someone’s inbox on a good day. That kind people chose to believe in you.

Now I feel like something that I’ve always done just because I wanted to, and sometimes because I needed to, is now an honor, with a responsibility to get it right. Only a small portion of writers get that screen cap. And I don’t want to mess it up. I write rom-coms; I’m not changing the world here or anything, but it’s still a responsibility. A responsibility to entertain and to comfort. I haven't seen blue sky in days. When the smoke clears in Oregon, there are going to be bodies found who never get to see blue sky again. I don’t know when I get to see my students in person again. Most of me thinks that enough good people will show up in November to vote out evil, but other parts of me aren’t so sure, and I haven’t been truly able to engage with any political story, no matter how shocking, in months, because my body literally can’t handle it anymore. The most popular author in the world is now getting paid to spew misguided, despicable hatred based on the oldest, most hurtful tropes and I don’t know how to deal with that.

It means a lot to me to be able to entertain and comfort.

While I’ve waited for the screen cap, I’ve had some really helpful and thoughtful feedback from beta readers on both the rough draft of Book 2 (Ben & Lex) and the beginning of Book 3 (Julie & Elle). All of their suggestions are going to make my plot and pacing and stakes better, but the thing that has been sticking most in my heart is that in the feedback, two different people said reading my work felt like a hug.

Can you even imagine a better compliment?

We are in such desperate need of hugs. So many of my favorite books feel like hugs. I know I’m not perfect and that some people are going to be mad at me. In particular, I know that some people in the queer and non-binary/trans community will feel like I didn’t get the representation right, that I did something wrong. I promise to listen if I mess up.

But if whenever my books are out there in the world, in 2022 and beyond, if they feel like hugs to even a few more people, all of the hours spent refreshing my inbox will be so worth it.

Thanks for being with me on this journey.

xo

Anita

First Drafts.

In summary: they make my heart explode?!

I have now officially finished several things during this strange time, for which I feel very grateful for: many packets of loose leaf tea. A chapstick!! And a book.

Seriously! A whole chapstick!

I am actually rather sentimental about chapsticks. The scent and taste of them capture, more than maybe anything else, what it very specifically felt like to live through various times in my life. Whenever I find a chapstick in an old coat pocket or buried in the bottom of a bag I haven’t used in a while, hoo boy, it sends me.

And so the weird orange-mango chapstick I’ve stored in my car and used for the last year or so, which was definitely marketed for preteens, probably best captured what it felt like to create Ben and Lex.

Ben and Lex’s book is the fourth full book I’ve now completed, even though I will now likely start calling it Book 2 (confusing, like everything else about writing). Finishing the first draft of a book is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever experienced in general, but my emotions about this one seem particularly off the charts and strange. I feel like I’ve been walking around in a fugue state all week about it, stuck in my head about so many different things. Sorry, family and friends.

Everyone always tells you that first drafts are supposed to be messy. That all that matters is that you get down the words, you finish the damn thing, and then you can make it pretty later. And now that I’ve gone through such an intense editing process of my last book (which is not over yet), I get that even harder. There were things in my first draft of my last book that make me cringe now. (There are probably things in it now that will make me cringe later, too.) But by the last revision I did with my agent, I cut 10,000 words from it with what was very close to joy. With each revision, you see the manuscript more clinically, more objectively, and you understand more of what works and what doesn’t, which details are central to the story or not. Cut this entire scene, and that one, too? Even though they undoubtedly felt very adorable and important to me when I wrote them? Fuck, sure. Just make this misery end already. BYYYEEEEE WORDS

All of which makes me know, objectively, that all of my teary, overwrought, heart-overflowing feelings about this current first draft of Book 2 are ridiculous.

But. Right now? It is my baby.

A baby that might not even work, like, the entire concept might actually be a horrible idea, and there is maybe no actual plot, and……….what is book.

Which are all thoughts I’ve had, increasingly and with increasing panic, as I’ve worked on my read-through of the draft this week.

(^^ The books I’m going to treat myself with after my read-through!! Screaming!!)

I like to print out my manuscripts for read-throughs, because reading on paper presents every sentence differently in my mind. And it is fun to scribble things out and rewrite things in the margins in pen. Gives me really studying-in-undergrad and/or NYC-editor-in-movies vibes. Even though it is, obviously, a tremendous waste of resources. Sorry, trees.

After my first read-through of this one, there are some things about the first, like, quarter of the book that I’m not sure are working, so I’m going to upload it to my Kindle next and re-read some of it on that, see how things flow in that format. (That’s my actual process advice for this newsletter: try all the formats!! I know many people who use a text-to-speech editor to have their manuscripts read out loud to them, too, which is supposed to actually be one of the more effective tools for self-editing, but also it scares me!!) And then I’ll send it to some friends in a very neuroses-soaked email. I might do that soon, like today, maybe earlier than I should, just because seriously, I have to stop thinking about this thing before my head explodes.

And then, eventually, someone who knows what they’re doing will help me figure out if it could, in fact, be a book shaped thing. Until I get to that point, the clinical, objective part, where I’m like “Cut half the book? OKAYYYYY!”

But before I get to that part, where I can see all the things about my book that work and all the ones that don’t…I want to feel good about my baby. Remember why I do this in the first place. For, like, ten minutes.

So *deep breath where I promise myself to not think self-deprecatory thoughts for ten minutes*

I finished a motherfucking book. Again.

I made up these characters in my head until they felt real. And their emotions and experiences feel so, so real to me.

Every book I write includes small parts of me. For my last book, that was cooking, gender, and big dreams. For this book, it’s hiking, the natural world, and being quiet. Getting to write about all of those things felt so special and personal and I’m so grateful for that.

There are scenes in the completed draft of this book that I always envisioned being there from the beginning. A visit to the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Birds. A trip to Nashville. Encounters with rattlesnakes, coyotes, and bears. A Wonderwall serenade. Portuguese. The toxic bro culture of the outdoors.

Then there are things that I didn’t include until the last minute, or that slotted into place as I was writing, and those are often the most fun of all. Like a dance to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody. And a small tribute to my own family’s love of wearing hats shaped like food at family events.

There were things I knew I wanted to happen—a scene with characters from the last book, an important scene with the protagonist’s sister—that I wasn’t quite sure how to actually play out until I sat down and just started writing them. Pantsing, as they say. And now both of those scenes are two of my very favorite scenes. It feels very special to learn who your characters are only as they’re tumbling out of your fingers. Alina was a character that I feel like I didn’t truly know until I actually wrote about her, yelling at her dumb older brother while they ate ice cream at the Eastwind Drive-In in Cascade Locks. And now I love her.

I only realized what the very last scene in the epilogue should be last week, and it felt so perfect in my head when I thought of it that I wanted to weep. This is what’s so magical about writing books: they come to you in bits and pieces, even when you’re almost done with them, like your brain and/or the universe is just waiting for you, giving you time to see what very obviously should happen next until you’re ready for it.

I always worry about very similar scenes or themes showing up in my different books, like my imagination about what actually happens in people’s lives is in fact very limited (oh, you can write a book that doesn’t involve family conflict, or where the main characters aren’t required to fall in love a little bit via dancing [see: Whitney Houston], aren’t you special). But likely my imagination is limited; maybe every author is just writing the same book over and over, you know? But still, from a writing standpoint, there are things I did differently in this book than my last few. It’s told only from one character’s point of view, whereas I’ve only ever written dual point of view for romance before. I wrote one important section entirely through letters. I still don’t know if it works, but writing them made me cry.

One of my biggest worries is that this book is too heavy, and I still want my books to be fun, so I tried to add more things that were funny to me during this read-through. Which resulted in this new line that I positively cannot stop giggling about.

Alexei didn’t want to be Verbal Vomit Tomato Mouse.

Anyway, the point was, Tumbleweed was a stupid name.

I know this is out of context and makes absolutely no sense to anyone, but if Verbal Vomit Tomato Mouse makes it into a real live book someday, I’m just saying, it will make me happy.

I think I wrote about important things in this book. The trauma in this book, which has to do with sexuality and religion, has been talked about, at length, by so many other people, but this trauma (caused by people, not faith) is still very real for a lot of people. One of my biggest neuroses is that a lot about this book is cliche, but during this ten minute period of confidence I gave myself, I’m admitting that I think it’s important that we still acknowledge this hurt. Because I see it, in my students, and that’s why I wrote this book. Even if queers can get married and the law protects our jobs now, a lot of people out there are still living in a world that doesn’t feel very free at all. And the people who want to hold onto that world, the one where we are wrong and full of sin, will continue to hold onto it, more ferociously than ever, with every year that they’re on the losing end. Our victories add fuel to their righteousness.

My protagonist doesn’t get a happy ending with his religious family, but he gets a happy ending for himself and his own faith and belief in love, and I think that’s the important thing.

I think some lines in this book that somehow came out of my brain are very pretty.

I think a lot of the sex is very hot and tender.

This is a very soft book, in my mind, where two very soft people fall in love, and that’s all I want to read about, so it makes me feel good that maybe one day I can give that to other people who want the same thing.

This is also a romance book that takes place almost entirely on a hiking trail, which I haven’t really read much of before, so my hope is that this book might also be a little interesting or new or different in that aspect.

And when I say I haven’t really read much, I mean that I’ve read exactly one (fiction) book that took place on a hiking trail before, and it was a YA one about the Appalachian Trail, and it might have been a good book except for the fact that I simply could not get over the fact (and this is now the only thing I remember about it) that one of the characters wore JEANS! On the Appalachian Trail! I don’t want to wear jeans in my house!

Is it possible I wrote an entire book to correct this obvious tragedy? MAYBE. But I promise you. Even after edits. None of my thru-hiker characters will ever wear jeans. Breathable shorts and shirts ONLY, up in here.

And one oversized sweatshirt. Which also, to be honest, doesn’t make much sense because it would take up too much room in Ben’s pack but seriously, Alexei wants to snuggle him SO BAD every time he wears it.

Oh! And I also, again just last week, thought of a title I don’t hate. A true miracle.

So there it is. My baby. I love her. Maybe she is (objectively, later I will understand, I’m sure) a mess. But she’s my mess.

Phew. That ten minutes felt good. Give yourself ten minutes today to love something you did, too.

xo

Anita

Top 25 Reads, 1st 6 Months of 2020

Finally, a straightforward one!

In the past few weeks, I have composed many meandering posts for this newsletter in my head, some I actually came close to writing. About how I’ve been at work more this past month and thinking about how my students influence everything I write, how I miss them. About my WIP, which I am getting close to finishing a first draft of, how I’m at that sweet spot where I feel just desperately in love with it (and simultaneously desperately afraid that it is, in fact, Not Actually That Great). About a myriad of other Things That Are Happening.

But after reading a list of reading recommendations from another romance reader & writer that I respect this morning, it reminded me of the reading roundups I used to do on my own various blogs. & goddamn, I have been wanting to shout about some of these books for so long!

2020 has been a million years long in so many ways, but it has been monumental for me in terms of reading. I have read so many of my very favorite books ever this year, even in the midst of so much awfulness. When I looked back at my reading history, I was like, “What? I read Well Met THIS YEAR? Like January of 2020? That can’t be right!!” In any case, these books have been my brightest spots of these long, intense six months.

I’m listing identity information about authors in as much as I know them; these lists are always a good reminder for me to examine my reading habits and how I can diversify them. While there are definitely some Black and brown authors here, and I never have trouble reading queer work, this list is still overwhelmingly white and cis, and I’d like to do better. If I have any identities below listed incorrectly, please let me know.

(And sorry in advance that some of these images are huge and some are not? I’m too lazy to be professional-level here. And by the time I reached the end of rambling about 25 whole books, Substack alerted me that this is officially too long for your Gmails. Which is definitely some kind of achievement unlocked. If you actually open this entire dumb email in a new tab, well, god bless you.)

Okay! These are in no particular order (seriously)! Let’s get our hearts beat up by love!!

  1. Love from A to Z, S.K. Ali

    YA Contemporary; 2019 (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster); Indian-Canadian Muslim female author

I read the award winning Saints and Misfits a couple years back and enjoyed it, but it was one of those books that I knew objectively was beautifully written but I personally had a harder time getting into than I wanted, likely because it deals with themes of sexual assault (among other things), which is often hard for me. Did I get wrapped up into Love from A to Z so much faster because there’s a much stronger romantic element with a totally swoon worthy hero? Probably! Listen, I know who I am, okay?!

Along with the swoon worthy romance (they connect with the same piece of art, influencing their life philosophies, years before they meet each other *sob*), this one also deals with so much: MS, loss of family members/grief, drone strikes, Islamophobia. And Ali’s talent with words is just incredible. Ali’s female MCs in both of her books so far are so fiercely angry and I respect that so much. This book also takes place in Doha, Qatar, a setting I don’t think I’ve ever read in fiction before.

  1. He’s Come Undone: A Romance Anthology, Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Adriana Herrera, Ruby Lang, & Cat Sebastian

    Adult (mostly contemporary, one historical) romance; 2020 (self published); many author identities, including Latinx, Asian-American, and bisexual, all female

When I saw this anthology announced on Twitter, I SCREAMED?! And then the whole thing was EVEN BETTER THAN I DREAMED?!

This is a group of novellas by a group of top-notch romance authors all centered around the beloved trope of a buttoned-up man getting totally effed up by love. Of the five authors, the only ones I hadn’t actually read before were Emma Barry and Olivia Dade, and I so loved getting my first tastes of their work here. From a writing perspective, I so, so admire these writers’ ability to pack so much character development and story arcs into these novellas; like, how?! I consumed this anthology slowly like a fine wine, and I loved how different each story was, as well. The characters ranged from piano virtuosos to murder diorama artists to professional baseball players to middle aged women having to move back home to take care of ill parents to sad teachers in 1970s New England private schools and phew! I wanted to hug each and every one of them!!!

  1. The Prince of Broadway, Joanna Shupe

    Adult Historical Romance [Gilded Age, NYC]; 2019 (Avon); white female author

This is the second in Shupe’s Uptown Girls series, and I really enjoyed the first installment, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, last year, but THIS ONE! Holy shiiiit. First off, this has one of the hottest sex scenes I’ve read (yeah, the mutual masturbation in the brothel one), and it happens relatively early on, too, so this book was already a W I N N E R for me lolol but seriously, this is one of the most fiercely feminist historical romances I’ve ever read. Even with a real alpha hero, Florence—an uptown girl who is determined to open her own illegal lady run casino for ladies only—meets him beat for beat. Just two alphas really alpha-ing it up in here. This also has the best ending I have ever read in a historical, or really any romance ever. Just thinking about it makes me so very very happy.

  1. What I Like About You, Marisa Kanter

    YA Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Simon & Schuster); white Jewish female author

This book is the epitome of adorable, and also really niche nerdy, as the MC is a book blogger/influencer whose ultimate goal is attending Book Con. As a book nerd I enjoyed this aspect, although I did think some teens who aren’t as attuned to the world of publishing might be like “WTF is going on” for some of it, lol. BUT that’s okay because the relationships and character development are the real universal story here. I am such a sucker for this You’ve Got Mail-esque trope, where one of the protagonists keeps her online identity secret as she gets to know her online best friend IRL, unbeknownst to the best friend. It’s just…such a good trope, for so many reasons!

I also enjoyed this for the fact that the characters rang as true to me in terms of being teens. So many YA books these days have their characters going through such dark, adult-level emotions, and believe me, I am not saying that those emotions and experiences aren’t legit, because they are. Seriously, I love your dark YA. But also, like…some teens are just nerds. And while both characters in this book do in fact have older-than-their-years worries (the MC is literally running a full time business at the same time that she’s trying to survive as a high school student), I enjoy that they also like, stressing about AP tests. And a lot of the scenes—the bowling alley traditions, the hangouts in friends’ basements—really felt like genuine high school to me.

  1. A Night to Surrender, Tessa Dare

    Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2011 (Avon); white female author

In my self-directed Introduction to Romance education, there were three authors who were truly instructive to me: Alyssa Cole, Cat Sebastian, and Tessa Dare. I want to write more extensively about each of those authors at some point, but when I was really, frankly, feeling like shit a few weeks ago, I realized how long it had been since I’d read a Tessa Dare. I flew through her most recent Girl Meets Duke series first, and then went back and devoured her Castles Ever After series, but that was all last year. So a few weeks ago, I prescribed myself with a Dare for my mental health, and oh man, it was the right choice. This is the first book in her Spindle Cove series and I forgot just…how happy her books make me? That sounds so simple but it’s so true and important. Dare is funny, and romantic, but all of her premises are always so genius and FUN and PERFECT. Like Spindle Cove, a lovely seaside village in the British countryside that is ruled by women who either don’t fit in with regular society or need to recover from society’s traumas. I want to go to a seaside British village run by ladies!! Tessa Dare also frequently writes about disability. One of my favorite heroes ever of hers is the blind duke from Romancing the Duke; I similarly enjoyed the injured military man who gets wrecked by Spindle Cove here.

  1. The Chocolate Thief, Laura Florand

    Adult Contemporary Romance; 2011 (Kensington); white female author

This is one of those books that I likely never would have picked up on my own (the cover, eh), except that it was recommended by Charlotte, one of my Twitter mutuals that I trust about everything, during the #RomBkLove Twitter event in May. And I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story about an heiress to a Hershey-esque American chocolate empire who goes to Paris to woo the finest chocolatier in the land into a business deal. When the chocolatier says nah (obviously), she takes to spying on him and his kitchen, and I sort of love how obsessed this woman is? Like…she is seriously out of her mind about chocolate, y’all. Like, she should probably calm down, honestly, but she doesn’t, and I love that the hero, when he finds out how obsessed she is, is just…turned on by it?? lol romance is the best. Anyhoo, in addition to the delight of reading a book that’s literally entirely about chocolate, there is a particularly hot scene where they somehow bang while walking up stairs, which was rather remarkable. My only complaint, actually, is that I wanted much more banging after this scene and it didn’t happen, which was probably an editorial decision, but it’s FINE I guess.

  1. The Roommate, Rosie Danan

    Adult Contemporary Romance; to be published September 2020 (Berkley); white Jewish bisexual female author

Since I was just talking about banging, feels natural to talk about The Roommate next! Which is the only book on this list that isn’t out yet, so you should pre-order it! Disclaimer: I know her!! So I am biased. But the setup of this one is just, ugh, perfect. An uptight socialite from Connecticut moves to LA to be roomies with her lifelong crush, or at least that’s what she thinks. But SURPRISE when she gets there the crush says oops, sorry forgot to tell you, I’m going on tour with my band now, but don’t worry!! I got some other dude to lease my room. And that other dude is totally a porn star! Our heroine is shocked, and…intrigued. This book is so smart and sex-positive and good and hot, and I loved learning more about the porn/sex worker industry. I love Josh and Clara so much, and it’s so fun watching other people start to read and love this as it gets closer to publication.

  1. Pansies, Alexis Hall

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author

I’m now wondering if my previous list of Alyssa and Cat and Tessa being my most instructive romance authors was wrong, and if Alexis Hall should be added to that list. Being that I am absolutely, completely, stupidly obsessed with Alexis Hall. Yes, okay, I’m doing it! My list is now Alyssa, Cat, Tessa, and Alexis Hall. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

I read all of the Spires stories this year (even though that, again, doesn’t feel real, I have definitely been reading them for like a decade at least) and I’m going to mention two of the other ones on this list too in a bit, but Pansies is the last of the series, the most recent one I read, and it just really hit me in the feels. I think because it takes place in a small town. The MC is a guy who used to be a bully back in high school, a big man around town who was similarly successful when he moved to London and made a lot of money but…still doesn’t really feel comfortable being an out gay man, still doesn’t really know who he is, and coming back to his small town, where he falls in love with this total messy disaster who’s trying to keep his dead mother’s flower shop alive while drowning in grief, this guy whom the MC used to bully in high school, it brings the MC to his knees basically. I mean, everyone in the Spires books are brought to their knees by feelings, which is why I love them so much. But queer small town feels are A Lot for me, and this book…yeah.

  1. Well Met, Jen DeLuca

    Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Berkley); white female author

This was such a perfect comfort read for me. I think a book like this translates to comfort read when the world building is done really well. And in addition to the romance in this Renaissance Faire rom-com being just so good, I really felt like I was inside that Renaissance Faire, like I could live in the fictional small town of Willow Creek, and like I could go back there again and again. I mean, when we weren’t at the Ren Faire, we were in a bookstore! Loved it, and can’t wait for the sequel later this year.

  1. When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

    YA Contemporary Romance; 2017 (Simon & Schuster); Indian-American female author

This book brought me out of a major YA reading slump, which I am so grateful for! I’d been meaning to read Menon’s Bollywood-inspired rom-coms ever since this came out (and I now can’t wait to read all of her others), and I fell for both Dimple and Rishi, who meet at a coding camp for teens in the Bay Area (after their parents have already arranged for them to date and hopefully marry), so hard. This was one of those YA romances that also felt genuinely sexy to me [which I think is fair to say not in a creepy way but in a way that acknowledges that teens can have sex lives], where their relationship felt hard won and real and I was just dying for them to get their HEA, and then the HEA was so perfectly over-the-top romantic. This also includes a couple fantastic scenes where you get to see brown teens just really hand white kids their dumb arrogant asses. SWOON.

  1. Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert

    Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Avon); Black British female author

Talia Hibbert wrote one of my absolute favorite reads of last year (Work for It) and this one got so much great good hype that I knew I would love it, and yup, I really did!! This is another trope that I’m always into—the MC makes a list of Things To Do to Feel Alive! after living a relatively sheltered life. I will always love a list! She’s rich and successful at her job, but also suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, which causes her to rarely leave her apartment. She’s also fat and hot, which I love too. Also hot: Red (ugh, such a good hero nickname), the super of her apartment building who is hiding himself from his impressive art career. There are so many hijinks and sexy bits and a cat named Smudge. I am currently (im)patiently watching for its sequel to arrive at my house from Powell’s.

  1. A Charm of Magpies series, KJ Charles

    Adult Paranormal Queer Romance (m/m); 2017 (self-published); white female author

I am counting all three of these books as one because I read them all in a row in the space of like, a week, which was omg so fun! These books are also ~spooky~ which, as the world’s biggest scaredy cat, always makes me feel proud of myself! Seriously though, these books are different from most of the books I read (as this list shows), all nonstop action and suspense and I couldn’t tear myself away from them. These two dummies almost die for each other like a gajillion times and there are sex-fueled tattoos and I loved every second of it.

  1. Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale

    Adult Historical Romance [Regency (I think?) England]; 1992 (Avon); white female author

This is one of those old school romances I’d been hearing about since joining the romance community, and I am so pleased to learn that the reason everyone loves Kinsale is because Kinsale is bananapants. Just non-stop, over the top drama. The first half of this book takes place in a mental institution, because the Duke of Jervaulx has suffered some type of affliction that’s never named but I assume was some type of stroke. It’s left him essentially mute, which obviously back in the day equaled insane, and his awful family ships him off to the institution and proceeds to attempt to steal all of his wealth and power. The woman who ends up being his nurse (basically) is of course the only person who believes he’s perfectly sane, and while she tries to fight for his salvation, she is also a Quaker who disagrees with everything the Duke stands for? Like, hardcore Quaker drama in here, which I was! not! expecting! I also wasn’t expecting a mental institution, but these are the joys when you jump into an old school romance that you knew absolutely nothing about beforehand!

  1. Something to Talk About, Meryl Wilsner

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (f/f); 2020 (Berkley); white non-binary bisexual author

You’ll note that there are a ton of m/m romances on this list but this is the only f/f, and there's a lot to unpack there both concerning myself and the publishing industry, but right now let’s blame it on the publishing industry because that’s easier! f/f is simply not published NEARLY as much as m/m. (Malindo Lo has a lot of good essays about why.) You typically have to find queer small publishers to find f/f romance, at least until Something to Talk About! Whooo. Disclaimer: I know them and so I am biased!! But once I sat down and opened this slow-burn Hollywood-set romance between a lesbian show runner and her bisexual assistant, I couldn’t stop, and finished it within a day. It’s compulsively readable and charming and comforting. There are so many great side characters in here too, like Emma’s fat sister who runs a bakery. My favorite scene in the book is probably when Emma, the assistant, has an asthma attack when they’re on their way to a shoot, and Jo, the show runner who is previously Miss Professional At All Times, loses her shit (at least, for Jo), and ugh! When someone who doesn’t realize they’re in love with the other person yet sees that person get hurt or be vulnerable in any way and they get so disproportionately protective! *weeping face* Pump it into my veins!

  1. Invitation to the Blues, Roan Parrish

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white queer female author

This is the sequel to Small Change, which I also read this year and really loved, but Invitation to the Blues has stuck with me so hard for so many different reasons. I do hate this cover, though, because Jude’s red hair is LONG; it is mentioned so many times, Faron plays with it and braids it all the time so why is it short on the cover, I hate it. BUT I love everything else about this book. I love, first of all, that this book takes place in Philly! And both Jude and Faron are such interesting, memorable characters, and their chemistry is just…fantastic. Jude, whom we meet in the first book, is a musician who’s struggling with mental health after a suicide attempt, and the way Parrish describes depression here, and importantly, how Faron loves him—neither as a burden, nor as a problem to be “solved”—is so, so good. I think about this book so often even though it’s been months since I read it.

  1. Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn

    Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Kensington); white female author

Clayborn is such a master of words in general, but what I think is so compelling about her is that her books feel both quiet and action-packed all at once, which is especially true of Love Lettering. She is so good at describing all the little details of a life, so that you feel like you know these people, inside and out, and it makes all the emotion packed into even the small actions in the pages so…intense, but in such a quietly realistic way. I absolutely loved the premise of the love story in here—a lettering artist who tries to both fall in love with her own art again and get a small-town man to fall in love with New York City by taking walking tours of the city’s best hand-lettered signs. This is already like, so up my alley that I am 100% there, but there is also a fantastic female friendship subplot that felt so realistically painful and important to me, and then, like, WHOA there is exciting stuff that I didn’t see coming at all. This book is lovely, through and through.

  1. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe

    YA Contemporary; 2019 (HarperTeen); Black male author

This book is about a Haitian-French-Canadian kid who moves to Austin, Texas for his mom’s new job. He chronicles his Canada-to-Texas culture shock in his journal, framed by all the American high school tropes he’s seen in movies. Norris is such a caustically funny character that I both loved him and hated him, you know? (He is also so voicey that I frequently wondered if this should have been written in 1st person instead of 3rd, but I eventually got used to it.) But heart eventually shines through all of the self-deprecating humor. I love both Madison and Liam, two people Norris never would have expected himself to become friends with; they are both such great characters. And what I actually love about this book is that Norris is actually like…called on his shit. Or rather, he has to own up to the fact that his sarcastic, whipsmart attitude might be hilarious but also hurts people. Which, as a lover of HEAs, I simultaneously hate, because being called on his shit means that he doesn’t necessarily get an HEA. But it is arguably an HFN (happy-for-now), which is really probably the only honest ending for a YA. (Even though I still want the HEAs anyway, obviously.)

  1. Heated Rivalry, Rachel Reid

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2019 (Carina Press); white female author

This book. All banging. All angst. All the time. This is the best enemies to lovers romance I will ever read, THAT’S IT, NO QUESTIONS. This is the second book in Reid’s Game Changers series, and like A Charm of Magpies, I consumed all of them within a week, and honestly loved all of them and can’t wait until the fourth comes out in the fall. But I will never get enough of Shane and Ilya, their HEA is the best, I want to read this book again and again, the grilled cheese and the lake house and all of it, UGH. I love this book and the rest of us out there who love it, collectively. I’m so glad we have this small joy in our lives together.

  1. A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian

    Adult Historical Queer Romance (f/m) [Regency England]; 2019 (Avon); white bisexual female author

I caught up on Sebastian’s Regency Imposters series this year by reading both this and A Delicate Deception and really loved them both and had a hard time deciding which to feature here. So, whatever, just imagine I’m featuring both because I’m obviously going to talk about them both. It was interesting because both are super different—A Duke in Disguise is more action packed, about political activists in the city trying to break down the system (the system which one of them, of course, discovers he is unwittingly a part of), while A Delicate Deception is much more quiet, about two anxious people being anxious together in the country. I have to note that I’ve seen a few people on Amazon/Goodreads describe these books as the first straight ones Sebastian has written, and like I KNOW one should never read Amazon/Goodreads reviews, but just to be clear! These books are still hella queer! Like literally everyone in A Delicate Deception is queer, and I love how the heroine in A Duke in Disguise has only ever slept with women before so she’s like “huh, being attracted to a man, interesting, I mean I guess I’ll try it” or at least that’s how I pictured her thoughts in my own head. Anyway, bad people die, queer people get to live the lives they want, I love Cat Sebastian. (And no, I have not read Two Rogues Make a Right yet and I can barely stand it.)

  1. For Real, Alexis Hall

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author

I swear, no kink shame here, but I have never been able to get into a BDSM story before For Real. It just hasn’t been for me, and I think it’s because the power dynamics in the few I’ve tried before have made me uneasy. But For Real portrays a power dynamic that feels equal (even more impressive considering this is also a love story between an older and a much younger man) and that really gets to the emotions behind the dominance and the submission. It just felt…beautiful, and hot, and made sense to me, and have I mentioned I love Alexis Hall.

  1. The Worst Best Man, Mia Sosa

    Adult Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Avon); Black Latinx female author

This is one of those rom-coms that is just so fun along with being steamy and sweet and interesting. The set-up of this one is great, wherein a Brazilian-American wedding planner trying to grow her business has to work with her ex-fiancee’s brother (the ex-fiancee who broke up with her the night before their wedding years earlier) on a business deal. Watching them fall for each other was so hilarious and satisfying; you really wanted both of them to win their end of the bargain! The whole sequence where they get roped into the couples’ retreat, from being trapped in those big plastic balls to the sexy sexy car scene the next morning, is one of the most memorable parts of a book I’ve read this year.

  1. Hurricane Season, Nicole Melleby

    Middle Grade Contemporary; 2019 (Algonquin); white queer female author

This is the only middle grade book on this list, which is interesting to me. I have been reading some middle grade (although I should be reading more), but this is the only one that really stuck in my heart this year, even though middle grade is often so easy to get stuck in my heart. Hurricane Season is about a girl with a mentally ill father, who becomes obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh because she thinks if she can understand Vincent, maybe she can understand her dad, and she can help him be better, so that CPS doesn’t take her away from him. It’s an all around gut wrencher that also has really lovely LGBT themes.

  1. Wicked and the Wallflower, Sarah MacLean

    Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2018 (Avon); white female author

Sarah MacLean is one of those romance powerhouses that I had never read before, and now that I’ve finally read one, I get it! I have to admit it took me a little while to get into this one, because I felt like there was a lot of repetitive stuff at the beginning. BUT once the action really got going! Phew! I couldn’t stop reading, and I can’t wait to read the rest in this series. I also loved how the trajectory in this one (similar to The Prince of Broadway) was the opposite of what you read in many Regency era historicals, where women from lower classes accidentally land themselves a duke. Here, the MC does want to land a duke at the beginning, to be clear, BUT then is like, “What if I just want to lead a life of crime instead??” An obvious superior choice!

  1. Glitterland, Alexis Hall

    Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author

Glitterland was my first Alexis Hall and I still heart it so much. I’m including all the Spires stories here separately (& I should note that I did also read and love Waiting for the Flood but it didn’t affect me as much as the other three) because they are all so different, at the same time that they do have a similar feel. And that feel is feelings, lolz. What I remember loving so much about this one, an opposites attract story between a very depressed man and a literally glittery man, is how well Hall captures depression and mental illness (similar to Invitation to the Blues). But when I look back through some of my favorite quotes from this book, I forget how funny Hall is, too? Like, laugh out loud funny, and yes, I am dying to read his upcoming rom-com, I can barely even talk about it. But something else that’s captured in Glitterland and the other Spires stories that I appreciate too is the messiness of queer friendships sometimes, friendships that can meld into romantic or sexual relationships and back again, and it’s a particularly queer thing that only queer authors like Hall can truly get. These books are, in general, full of messy mess while still being so beautiful, and that is such a gift.

  1. The Undefeated, Kwame Alexander & Kadir Nelson

    Picture Book; 2019 (Versify); Black male author & illustrator

One day earlier this spring, back when we could still go into our jobs every day, I spent my morning reading through a bunch of picture books I had purchased for my middle school library and crying. There were probably better ways I could have been spending my work time, but also, probably not.

There are so many beautiful picture books out there these days, but this one is put together by two absolute powerhouses of kid lit and it is, in my opinion, one of those essential books that every child in this country needs to have available either in their home or their schools. Kadir Nelson is the illustrator of this New Yorker cover that has gotten a lot of traction lately, along with many other covers and many other remarkable books. His work is absolutely stunning, and having it overlaid with Alexander’s strong, joyous verse is impactful to your core.

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In conclusion! Books are great.

See you with 25 more (probably) at the end of 2020. (If, presumably, this year does ever end.)

xoxo

Anita

Why I Read Romance.

Happy endings only, please.

I didn’t start reading romance until just a couple years ago, and it’s not any surprise why I didn’t.

Because romance novels are made for old white women buying books with cheesy covers plucked from the grocery store checkout stand. Right?

I was reading literary fiction aimed at adults starting in middle school; I went to a rather snooty writing program for undergrad; like the rest of nerdy youth everywhere, I was primed to be a snob.

Whenever I hear romance authors talk about how they’ve been reading romance novels their whole lives, how they used to steal their mother’s and grandmother’s naughty novels and read them in secret as kids, I am so jealous! You’re telling me I could have had a whole lifetime of this irrepressible, bottomless joy?! I will never stop being mad at former me.

Now that I am a member of Romancelandia, it’s not surprising, really, that romance is shit on so much in our society. Especially as a feminist, I should have seen it before.

Oh, you mean a publishing genre (that generates mad money, by the way) that is largely produced by women, aimed at women, and that is largely fueled by actually acknowledging women’s sexuality?

Oh, you mean THAT is made fun of by society?

HAHAHA NO WAY.

Reading romance is a feminist act, no doubt about it.

But even beyond that, the romance community is the warmest, least pretentious, most open and kind community of writers and readers I have ever experienced, ever, in my entire life.

Romancelandia LOVES tropes. We KNOW that the same things happen in our books over and over. We LOVE knowing what the ending’s going to be before we even open book.

I LOVE THAT SO MUCH.

You know what literary fiction is full of? Fucking tropes, dude. You know what science fiction is full of? Tropes. You know what fantasy—anyway, you get it. Sure, there are always novels that are going to push the boundaries and do something new and interesting with language, that’s great, I love language, yay. Good for the geniuses. Maybe I will read those novels and they will blow my mind.

And then I’ll go back to a romance, because inevitably, I will need a romance.

Romance is the one community I’ve found that truly understands itself. It understands what it is, what purpose it serves, makes no excuses, and loves itself with abundant joy.

(Not to say that romance isn’t critical of itself when it needs to be, like any responsible literary genre is. But that’s another topic for another time.)

This brings me to what romance is.

A romance is a story where people falling in love is the main focus of the story and they have a happy ending.

That’s it. But that is required. A happily-ever-after (HEA) or happy-for-now (HFN) is required. People who don’t understand romance like to argue this, but believe me, it’s a hard and fast rule.

Romeo and Juliet is not a fucking romance. Any book where someone dies at the end is not a romance. Sally Rooney wants to write romance, I think, because by almost every other measure her books are straight up romances, but I didn’t finish either Conversations with Friends or Normal People with a warm and fuzzy feeling in my chest, so nope, not romance. Every year, particularly around Valentine’s Day or other dumb times when websites can expect lots of clicks, some writer who doesn’t understand romance whatsoever will make a list of the world’s best romances, and it will inevitably include some infuriating mention of like, Lolita, and JFC, do not even get me started on that.

So why? Why does romance require HEAs?

Because the world is fucking hard, that’s why.

My favorite romance writers are queer writers, authors of color, and authors who have struggled with mental health/illness and disability. All of their experiences show up in their books. I have read better, more representative descriptions of depression and anxiety in romance than any other genre I’ve read. A lot of romance writers are extremely accomplished, intelligent, diverse people who have experienced trauma.

They put that trauma into their books.

And they give it a happy ending.

Whether it’s realistic or not. Because you know what, the world gives us enough of the realistic endings. Believe me. We know that there aren’t always happy endings.

We literally can’t escape that truth.

Sometimes, the world crushes me so much that it paralyzes me.

Sometimes, so many people die in such a short period of time that is impossible to comprehend. And the way some people respond is being racist, openly cruel, to anyone who even resembles being of Asian descent. Or yelling at minimum wage workers, who are putting their lives on the line, about the inconvenience of a few things being out of stock, about the inconvenience of having to follow a few new rules.

Sometimes, the world praises health workers as heroes for months at a time during a global pandemic. And then, because people are bored and selfish, they ignore everything health workers are begging them to do, also conveniently forgetting that every time they go to a pool party or refuse to wear a mask in public, they are condemning more and more of those health workers—heroes, or so we used to think—to death.

Sometimes, angry white people are able to blaze into state capitals across the country, heavily armed, screaming and spitting into the faces of police officers, and that is okay. That is their right. And then sometimes, citizens who are traumatized by the brutal, casual murder of a black man in broad daylight, even when he begged for his life, when he begged for his mother, when he was clearly unconscious, and no one helped, they just made sure he was dead—when citizens want to protest that, when their anger is too big for their bodies because how could it not be, even though that is all they have, just their anger and heartbreak and their bodies, not an AK-47 in sight, when those people possibly get a little “unruly,” that is not okay. That is met with force and tear gas.

Sometimes, white men will follow a black man while he’s jogging and shoot him to death, just because they can.

Sometimes, a white woman will threaten a black man with his death just because he politely asked her to follow the rules. Because he cares about birds.

Not sometimes, but always, always, ever since the beginning of this country, we have slaughtered black people. We have put our own selfish wants and desires over the needs of those who are vulnerable. We turn our backs on people who need help. We put power in the hands of people who don’t deserve it, people who value fear and power and nothing else and it works, it works every time, and we are so, so ugly to each other.

I can’t stand it. I have never been able to stand it. I often don’t understand how people of color are even able to get up each day and keep living, but they do. I often don’t understand how queer and trans youth live with families who think their identities are made up or sinful, told they’re wrong over and over, how they get up and keep being their beautiful selves every day, but they do.

Sometimes, they not only get up, but they fight. They write happy endings for themselves. And it humbles me.

So no, I don’t care if the covers are cute illustrations or endless abs and oiled bare chests. Give me Fabio. Give me stick figures. Give me people falling in love, loving each other’s faults, each other’s wounds, finding hope and a way forward in this awful, unjust world. Give me people falling in love in cozy small towns or across board room tables in New York City or in drafty, old British castles. Please, rip your bodices; life is short. Give me all the orgasms, all the ways you can get ‘em. Give me the same tropes, over and over and over.

Please, please give me your happy endings.

I will always need them.

I will always be grateful for them.

xo

Anita

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