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A Once-Proud Captive of the Romance Novel

June 17, 1991|CRAIG BROUDE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've read about the problems of being a woman in a man's world. Maybe even about the problems of being a man in a woman's world. But have you ever thought how tough it might be being a woman who is really a man in a woman's world?

Melissa Hepburne here, romance novelist.

For those of you who may not know about romances, they're those paperbacks you see crowding book racks in supermarkets. The covers almost always portray a breathless young beauty in a steamy embrace with a handsome stud. The backgrounds are colorful, lush and exotic.

Historical romances are steamy love stories set in glamorous bygone eras. Contemporary romances are steamy love stories set in glamorous present-day locales.

I had been writing serious novels. One day my agent said to me, "Say, I've got a good idea. Why don't you write something that sells?"

He asked if I could write romances. "Sure," I told him. "No problem. What are they?" He explained they were the hottest genre going and suggested I read a few to learn the format. "Then write me an outline and two chapters," he said, "and I'll sell it for you."

I did, and he did.

If you're wondering why a man would write under a female pen name, consider: All of the editors of romance novels are women. All of the readers are women. And the authors' names on all the sexy book covers are women's--even though an estimated 10% of the authors are men like me. Some of the best-selling, reigning queens of the genre are men. Like Jennifer Wilde, who is in reality a 6-foot Texan named Tom Huff.

When my agent told me I couldn't have my own name on my novels, I was indignant and called it sexist.

"Nobody says it's fair," he told me. "It doesn't have to be fair--it's business." He told me that Marian Evans, a brilliant writer of the 1800s, wasn't allowed to use her name either, because of business customs of that era. So she became George Eliot. It didn't seem to hurt her any.

"But what about my pride?" I protested.

"What about the $50,000 to $70,000 you can make in this genre with a reasonably good seller?"

Pride goeth before a windfall. Melissa Hepburne became my pseudonym for the historical romances I wrote for Pinnacle Books.

(When I left Pinnacle to write contemporary romances for Harlequin, I tried again to use my own name on my books. After all, I work hard on my novels. But Harlequin deferred to the market research god just as Pinnacle had. I became Lisa Lenore.)

After my my first romance, "Passion's Proud Captive," sold 325,000 copies, I was hooked.

Having succumbed to being Melissa Hepburne, I had learned more about what sells romances.

When my manuscript was submitted it was called "Forgotten Glory." But my editor scowled and said, "You should title this 'Passion's Proud Captive.' "

"Why would I do that?" I protested. "The book's got nothing to do with a captive, proud or otherwise." My editor explained how the connection was subtle but discernible, in language even I could understand:

"If you call it 'Forgotten Glory,' you'll sell maybe 5,000 copies. If you call it 'Passion's Proud Captive,' you can sell 10 times that many."

As I reflected on it, I realized the book truly did have quite a lot to do with a proud captive, in the sense that we're all, existentially speaking, captives of our universal essences. Or something like that.

"Passion's Proud Captive" became a bestseller because of the writing, I maintain, not the title. It became so popular that it spawned a sequel, in a way that taught me more about romance and its readers.

"Captive" was about a love triangle. The hero, Lancelot Savage, was your typical tall, dark, handsome, brooding hunk. He was an American privateer during the Revolutionary War. His sidekick was a chivalrous, sensitive Frenchman, Darcy Calhoun.

Jennifer VanDerLind was in love with them both. Forced to choose between them, however, she chose Lancelot. In the book's final scene, she's in Lancelot's arms as they escape from pursuing Redcoat troops.

Darcy makes their escape possible by sacrificing himself to hold off the Redcoats and receives a bullet through the heart for his trouble.

A sad but romantically satisfying ending, n'est - ce pas? Not according to America's romance readers. Pinnacle was inundated with letters complaining that the wrong guy got the girl. By a vast margin my readers wanted the sensitive, gentlemanly Frenchman, Darcy, to end up as Jennifer's soul mate.

"What a wonderful opportunity," my editor gushed. "We can do a sequel--only this time Darcy gets the girl, who will be . . . Jennifer's sister."

"Great idea," I said, "except for one thing. He's dead."

A scowl of non-understanding ensued. "What's that got to do with anything?"

And she was right. If you read "Passion's Blazing Triumph," you'll see that it begins: "As Darcy recovered from his grievous wounds. . . . "

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