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culture

I Want Your Job: Vicki Essex, Romance Writer

A Harlequin diva talks about what it's like to write romance.

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.

Photo courtesy of Vicki Essex.


There’s a temptation to revert to cliché when discussing pulp romance. Harlequin Superromance author Vicki Essex says this makes writers of the genre cringe.

“‘Bodice-rippers.’ We hate that term! It’s a throwback from the ’70s and ’80s, when historicals were the big thing,” she says. “But today, romance—and contemporary romance especially—isn’t like that. There are so many genres and sub-genres.”

Essex is part of a new generation of young, smart, romance writers who are using the medium to tell compelling, well-written stories that just happen to feature boy-meets-girl scenarios with fleshly pursuits. She stresses that these books are hardly recycled, drop-in-the-detail plot scenarios.

“Another thing people hate is the idea that there are formulas in romance writing,” she says. “If you have to use an ‘F’ word, use ‘framework.’ All stories use a framework.”

Essex’s road to romance wasn’t so straightforward. She attended Ryerson University’s School of Journalism because she wanted to write, but realized over the course of her education that her love for words didn’t necessarily translate to a passion for reportage. Eventually she found herself working full-time for Harlequin, the Toronto-based Big Mama of romance publishing, as a proofreader. The writing came later.

Her second title, Back to the Good Fortune Diner, gets released later this month; it was selected as a January pick for the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Sizzling Book Club (“…which probably doesn’t mean a lot to your readers, but it’s like being an Oprah pick in the romance world”).

Our interview with Essex is below.

Torontoist: What got you into actually writing for Harlequin?

Vicki Essex: Back in 2005 or 2006 I started writing fan-fiction about Avatar: The Last Airbender. I got a lot of good response from that, so I knew I had some skills and that I had the ability to write a project from start to finish. A few months into working at Harlequin, I’d read quite a few of the books and I decided I should try.

I had these crazy ideas—and you’ll hear this a lot, like, “Writing for Harlequin is so easy. They use all these formulas.” These are things you hear from people, but it’s absolutely untrue. It was the most difficult and gruelling thing I’d ever done in my life.

I wrote one book and submitted it to Harlequin Desire, and it got rejected. Then I sent it to another publisher, then another one of the Harlequin lines after it got some revisions, and it got rejected. So then I realized, “Oh. This is not easy.” It wasn’t until I submitted my third book that I actually got published. It’s called Her Son’s Hero.

By that point I’d written five or six books, that are still sitting in my computer, finished. I know now that they aren’t books worth pursuing at this stage.

What’s the difference between books that are and aren’t worth pursuing? How do you know?

Well, there’s a lot more to the story than just boy meets girl, some stuff happens, happily ever after. There’s a lot that you have to build in order to get a really good, juicy, meaty story. Every book has to be like this. You need to know your stuff. By the time I got to the third book, I knew it would be the one that would sell because it had the things that made it a story worth reading. Namely, romantic conflict. That’s one of the big things that people look for in romance novels.

Were you a reader of romance before working at Harlequin?

No. Not at all! But when I had my job interview lined up, I picked up a handful from the library and thought, “Oh wow. These are really easy to read.” Easy to read does not mean they’re dumb; it means they’re well written. Working there helped me realize the importance of simplicity and economy of words.

What’s your favourite part about writing romance?

I love thinking about the interactions between different kinds of characters. Heroes and heroines, they come in all shapes and sizes. There are certain archetypes people like to follow, but I like to try and go off-archetype and think about what will make two characters fall in love. What will a couple come together on, and what will drive them apart? That’s the foundation of romantic conflict, as well.

What about writing sex scenes? Fun, or awkward?

I have an unfortunate habit of writing a lot on my commute to and from work on the bus. For whatever reason, I always end up writing and/or editing the sex scenes while I’m on the bus. I’ll be looking around and notice a little old lady peering over my shoulder and realize that she’s been reading the entire time.

It can be fun, but it’s challenging as well. All writers will treat sex scenes differently, and it depends on the line you write for. There are different levels of sensuality. I write contemporary romance, so my sex scenes don’t tend to be super super hot, but they’re not using a lot of four-letter words either. And I try not to use too many euphemisms. It’s a big challenge, like “How do I sexually talk about tab A into slot B?”

Cover image courtesy of Harlequin.

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