I would tell you about my love, but truth is, you've already met him in various ways throughout many of my stories. Any time any of my Book Boyfriends have made you laugh, have supported their heroines, making them believe that they could be anything they wanted to be, who deserved to be loved and romanced and valued despite what they were taught to believe by society at large, you've seen Steven peeking from behind the facade. Fun... romance... unconditional love and unyielding support? This is his fingerprint on my life. He's literally made so many of my dreams come true.
Since Steven is my idea of a HEA, he has influenced and inspired so many stories, so many characters and so many experiences that I have written in dozens of books since we met. If I get stuck on an idea, I turn to Steven, thrusting pages of raw material under his nose to get his input. Because of him, I'm not sure I would have written THE GROUPIE SAGA as truthfully as I did. When he got to the end of book one, he told me what I already knew (which is why I was stuck there, toiling over the ending.) He told me I could not end it the way I had planned because it would cheapen the characters and fall flat, and he was absolutely, positively, 100-percent right. I knew that I was breaking a few rules when I completed the novel, but - much to my surprise - this was the series that first "landed" me my first real writing success.
Honestly, I don't even know if I'd have the career I have without him, since he has been one of my biggest cheerleaders, and often financier, of this crazy, wacky dream I have to become a best-selling writer, award-winning screenwriter.
I dream big, what can I say?
Truth is, Steven is kind of the reason I dream big. I mean, I always dreamed big, but I was always afraid to share those dreams with just anyone, because I was afraid of hearing what I always heard. "Who are YOU to do anything so special?" Well, love kind of shows you how big you can dream because it shows you how truly special you are to the right people. I knew Steven was "the right people," almost from the moment we met. He's got all the nice guy stuff going on, but he's also brave enough to tell me the truth, whether I want to hear it or not. Not a lot of people do that, and the last thing I needed was yet someone else patting me on my head and pacifying me just to shut me up. Not Steven... he's always - always - endeavored to make me better, mostly because he's always believed I could do all the amazing things I wanted to do.
This is not just some biased opinion, by the way. Since he's been a voracious reader all of his life, I knew I could share my meager little stories with him from their infancy, and he could give me the critical feedback I needed to grow. When he told me I was talented enough to make this whole crazy thing work, I knew I could believe him. I started writing more, branching out to the even scarier, wackier dream of screenwriting, and pursuing opportunities I wouldn't have had the ovarian fortitude to chase without his encouraging voice in my ear, telling me I've got the goods and I can totally make it happen. He never once tried to talk me down to planet Earth, suggesting that I needed a Plan B if this didn't work. In fact, he's the one who says, repeatedly, that the best is yet to come.
This kind of has been the theme of our whole marriage.
I won't say that things have been perfect. We've had our share of hard times and pitfalls. Several notable years - which were always odd-numbered for some reason - we flew by the seat of our pants, juggling chainsaws, flaming swords, piranhas and scorpions in order to get from one day to the next. The road has been way rockier than it has ever been smooth. But thanks to my honey, my eternal Peter Pan, I've always had someone to pick me up when I fell. (And vice versa.)
We are the perfect fit. Where I'm high-strung and emotional, he's laid back and rational. We both share the same playful sense of humor, which keeps our spirits light no matter what shit storm we might be enduring at the time. And granted, there have been times of great frustration on both of our parts, but they have never shaken our core commitment to each other. We both know how lucky we are to have found each other. We'd rather be together and struggling than apart and "safe." At the end of the day, there's no one I'd rather come home to. There's nothing anyone else could ever offer me that would improve on what I have now. It's a million-dollar match without the million dollars. (But we're working on that. Take note, Universe. #powerofattraction #nameitandclaimit)
So this might explain why I became a little peeved in the early 2000s that women who looked like me in romance novels were *not* the ones walking away with Top Prize. *I* fell in love with, and caught, a Prince Charming, despite the fact I'm dismissed as "less than ideal." (I'm wording it nicer than it's ever felt, by the way.) So if *I* can do that, why was I not seeing that in the books I read? My story is just as true and just as valid as anything I'd ever read, so why was I reading about the Fat Girl who couldn't find herself a sweetie the way I had?
Especially the sweetest sweetie of the bunch, who makes me feel sexy and beautiful and valued with every kiss, every touch and every smile.
It really gave me a bad taste in my mouth regarding all those traditional romances I read growing up, the ones I thought I wanted to write. It took Steven to see that I didn't have to write about the perfect girl who didn't know she was beautiful, who was fawned over by the handsome, perfect man, who somehow deserved her happily ever after more than the normal girls, the average girls, the atypical girls, the alternative girls... the invisible girls.
As a protest to this, I penned my first Rubenesque Romance, LOVE PLUS ONE, in 2007, where I wrote the kind of story that I wanted to read. It was more sweet than sexy, because that's the gentle introduction into the world of romance that I wanted to make. I knew I'd have to ease readers into these waters. You may not know this, but there are readers who will bypass a book with a larger heroine because they think they would hate to read about sex scenes with larger, imperfect bodies. Sadly, many readers avoid books about atypical heroines because "it's not the fantasy," and that is why so many read romance in the first place. But see, that's the great thing about fantasy. The world is big enough for all of them, even *my* fantasy - which was falling in love and being loved in return, to be deserving of that love because she is so much more than a paper doll prototype, a true flesh-and-blood woman who wants only to be desired and chosen by the perfect man.
Way back in 1997, I landed my first agent, who shopped around an early draft of my book PICTURE POSTCARDS. Several publishers came back with the same criticism: the heroine is *too* perfect. Back then I was writing stories like I read, where authors like Danielle Steel dominated my TBR list. I bought into the hype of the standard fantasy forced down our gullet from Cinderella to Barbie to any number of popular heroines in mainstream fiction and movies: that women have to be beautiful to be loved. So I imagined what life would have been like had I been born one of the fortunate few. The reason that book failed to land an audience was because that is not my story to tell, so it wasn't authentic and fell flat. I don't know what it's like to be the beautiful girl who doesn't know she's beautiful, who lands the rich, handsome guy because of pure physical attraction. I'm the quirky, funny DUFF, whose qualities are hidden a little more under the surface. I know what it's like to fall ass backwards into love, where I question each and every suitor because I am never entirely convinced they could ever want someone like me, someone normal, someone average, someone atypical or alternative...
Enter Shannon McKenna and LOVE PLUS ONE. Shannon knows all about being invisible. As a size-12 awkward geek with an insanely perfect sister, she was used to being delegated back to the shadows, where she could write and daydream about a HEA, but never for once thought she'd find one of her very own. This is where Jake Dalton stepped in, her best friend, her biggest supporter - her Prince Charming in Waiting. Jake is patterned almost exclusively after my honey. Here are some key snippets where you'll see Steven waving from behind the words.
Jake infuriated her sometimes. He was so level-headed. If A happened, do B. No sweat. Well, dammit, she thought to herself. Sometimes there was some sweat.
“You look great,” he said. He always said that. She could be in curlers and a green mud mask and he’d say that, except he’d amend, “for an alien.”
The limo came to a halt in front of an outdoor recreation center. Shannon got the nagging feeling Rex was up to something dirty. When she saw the rock wall, she was certain of it.
Shannon wasn’t exactly the outdoorsy type, and there was that near pathological fear of heights thing. And she knew that Rex knew that because when Dixie had researched her show about phobias she grilled her entire staff out of curiosity, to see how common phobias were and how they affected daily life.
Despite that show, Shannon never really saw the need to tackle this particular fear. She had been very careful to cultivate an existence that didn’t move more than two feet off the ground. No high rises, no planes, no juggling act while balancing on a high wire. She even chose a ground floor apartment and worked in a one level studio. She had convinced herself it wasn’t really a phobia. It was a choice. A choice she made again and again in her life, usually through white-knuckled, hyperventilating terror.
Jake had absolutely no idea, but she had a sneaky suspicion he was about to find out.
Conversely, Jake was stoked as he surveyed the wall. He loved physical activity that tested his limits, and this was right up his alley. He listened intently and nodded with enthusiasm as their guide gave them the rundown. Shannon plastered a smile on her face, but inside she seriously fought coming unglued. She glanced up at the wall that had to be at least forty feet high, which was funny because that’s exactly forty feet higher than she wanted to go.
Before she could protest, she was trussed up in a harness and face to face with the Wall of Doom. Suddenly her arms felt like jelly and she just knew, without any doubt, that she was going to puke.
Jake had already crawled up on the wall. He glanced back at her. “Come on, Shan! I’ll race you.”
“Let’s not and just say we did,” she muttered. She tried to will herself to move but it just wasn’t happening.
“Chicken!” he called down. It was a friendly dig meant to get her up on the wall, but it didn’t work. She’d much rather be a live chicken than a scrambled egg.
The guide came over. “Everything okay?”
No, she wanted to say. Everything is not okay. Instead she made a joke, which was the Shannon way. “How strong are these things?” she asked and motioned to the harness.
He just smiled. He knew the type. He also knew if she gave it half a chance she’d have a great time and gain a new hobby.
With the patience of a saint he showed her again where to step and where to grab on. With his help she managed to make it off the ground. “Just concentrate on your next step,” the instructor told her. She looked no further than that.
It was slow going, especially with the way Jake was scaling the wall like some kind of superhero. But she didn’t feel she was doing too badly given the circumstances, and called back to the guide to say so.
That was when she realized the ground was about fifteen feet down. If she’d have stopped to think about it, it was really not that far away, just one little ol’ story really, but to her frantic mind she felt like she was on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Suddenly her heart thumped against her ribs and her limbs began to shake. She couldn’t breathe and it felt as though she might actually be having a heart attack.
She looked up, but that only gave her a mean case of vertigo. The world spun around her and all she could do was hold on.
She promptly closed her eyes and began to scream.
Like a flash he propelled down to where she sprawled frozen against the wall. She was white as a ghost and shook so badly he worried she might be having a seizure of some sort. Tears poured down her face despite how tightly she clenched her eyes shut. “Shan?”
His soothing voice only made her cry harder. She shook her head. All she wanted was to get down, but she just didn’t have the guts. She may have only been fifteen feet off the ground, but it felt like she was on top of the Empire State Building.
He tried again. “What’s wrong?”
She barely opened an eye. “Heights.” It was all she could muster.
“You’re afraid of heights?” he asked, then glanced down at how far she’d come.
She nodded. “I want to get down.”
He touched her shoulder. “Okay.”
Only she didn’t move.
“Do you know how?” he asked finally.
She nodded again and cried even harder. Her hands gripped the wall so tightly her knuckles were white.
“Honey, you gotta let go,” he said softly.
She shook her head. She couldn’t even handle the thought. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can,” he soothed. “Look how far you came. Getting down will be a cinch. You’ll be on the ground before you know it.”
Intellectually she knew that, but it was another matter convincing her body. Her heart raced. She couldn’t breathe. She visibly shook as she clung to the wall. “I can’t let go.”
He placed his hand on hers. “Then hang on. To me.”
She looked into his face. He was her Jake. She knew he’d never let her down. Finally she allowed him to take her hand in his.
“Trust me?” he said. She nodded. Together they kicked away from the wall and propelled down to the ground in one jump.
In fact, one of the key moments in their journey was a spectacular date at the Hollywood Bowl, which, aside from the obvious embellishments, was lifted directly from my courtship with Steven, who took me to the Hollywood Bowl in one of our first dates in 1999 to see John Williams conduct the LA Philharmonic under the stars. (And yes, this means that the Star Wars theme is unofficially one of our 'songs.')
The other key scenes heavily *heavily* inspired by my romance with Steven were the ones in Vegas. Vegas is our town. We fell in love there. We got engaged there. We got married there and renewed our vows there. We both even got our first tattoos there. Any chance I have to go to Vegas in any of my books is an homage to my darling hubby.
Because of Steven, you all got Jake Dalton, Graham Baxter, Jace Riga and Jonah Riley. (In fact, it occurs to me just now that the hero I wrote in 1995, when I wrote PICTURE POSTCARDS, ultimately came true with Steven four years later, like I had ordered him straight out of a catalog. See? Law of attraction. Thank you, Universe!)
These book boyfriends are my "nice guys," the sweethearts of the pack. They don't often get the same kind of following as my bad boys, which I think is a shame. The nice guys are the ones who help you raise your children. The nice guys are the ones who offer unwavering support as you follow your dreams, who never make you question their love or commitment. They're the ones who love you during all those crappy moments where you can't love yourself, and God knows a few of my heroines had a hard time with that. To me, these are the qualities that define a romantic hero. Each and every word they uttered was inspired by my real life Prince Charming, and so I kinda love them more. Loving a bad boy is easy. Finding a good man is a miracle... and has been my fantasy since I was a hopelessly romantic pre-teen girl.
So happy 14th anniversary to my love, who made that dream come true. You are my love, my friend, my soul's perfect mate. You truly are the reason I believe in love. From this moment on... and for always.