After enduring the last sentence of another disappointing romance novel, Barbara Longley snapped the book shut and pitched it into the back seat of her sister's car. The two were on one of their semi-regular cross country trips. Barbara often filled the road hours by nibbling through pulpy fiction.
"I could write something better than that," Longley announced, not for the first time.
But this time her sister shot back: So why don't you?
Longley didn't know the first thing about fiction. It wasn't until years later, after she'd taken creative writing classes, that she learned about terms like "inciting incident." That's the moment that changes everything for the main character.
This was hers.
At the time, Longley was working full-time as a special ed teacher in St. Paul. A divorced, single mother of two, she always had other jobs to make ends meet. She cold-called for blood donors and bagged booze at Sam's Club.
On her sister's dare, she started writing romance novels in 2005. It was harder than she thought.
Longley couldn't afford a computer, so she wrote on legal pads. She reached 300 pages of a modern spin on Jane Eyre, churning out prose as purple as a ripe eggplant, before she realized the book was beyond saving.
But her resolve held. Tell Barbara Longley she can't do something, and she will do it to prove you wrong.
Her second try was accepted by a small division of Harlequin, master of romance, but only published as an e-book. It sold poorly: Longley got quarterly royalty checks of $40. Well, she thought, at least I can fill up my gas tank.
She kept at it, writing weekend mornings and her summers off, editing and revising at night. In 2011, she wrote a novel set in rural Indiana, where she once lived, about a pregnant woman who falls for an Iraq War vet who lost a leg in combat.
Sales were moderately better. Then her publisher put the book, Far From Perfect, on a one-day sale online. Longley sold 6,000 copies. Word-of-mouth did the rest. Late last year, Far From Perfect sold its 100,000th copy.
"My goal was always to try to make $30,000 a year from writing," says Longley. "Then I got a check bigger than that — in one month."
Today, Longley has eight novels in print. Three are part of a Highlander-themed series set in medieval Scotland. Last fall, she quit teaching to write full time.
Harlequin, the heaving-bosom behemoth, issues its writers assignments to capture the zeitgeist of current tropes. (Yes, they use that word.) Sheiks are out this year, they'll say. Billionaires are in. Billionaires are almost always in.
But that kind of paint-by-number work doesn't interest Longley. Nor do hapless heroines she and her friends call "too stupid to live" — TSTL for short — the kind who get in near-death situations several times a week.
Her female leads are independent, strong-willed, and funny. Like their creator.
There are only two requirements Longley adheres to in meeting the "romance" genre. One she abhors.
"I hate doing the sex scenes," she says, describing the agonizing, paragraph-by-paragraph slog, the results of which have probably kept either of her children from ever picking up one of her books.
The other, for which she is unapologetic, is that romance novels always have a happy ending, some uplifting resolution. The heroine falls in love with the right man. Money problems are solved. Noah, the Iraq veteran and amputee who tried to save Ceejay, single and pregnant, realizes he needs her as much as she needs him.
Those characters have found an audience beyond the bored housewife. She gets letters from veterans who loved her series featuring former soldiers. A long-haul trucker who lives in St. Paul always insists they meet for breakfast so he can get a signed copy of her newest book.
Longley's next work is well underway. It's a romantic comedy, and features a woman whose fiancé mysteriously exits her life. The woman's "wacky" mother decides to help her daughter by hiring a repairman who's known to be "handy" in more ways than one.
Longley doesn't want to give away the ending. Odds are, things work out for the best.
Happy endings seem rare in real life. That's why Longley likes them. If people want to read tragedy, they can pick up the newspaper.
She's right. There aren't enough positive stories in life. Maybe they're there, but we ignore them.
For example, there's this charming woman who taught special needs kids and struggled to support her children. Until, that is, her whole life changed.
Here's hoping she lives happily ever after.