WARNING: This gets a bit ‘ranty’.
For context, I have a total of one romance across all the ideas, manuscripts and short stories I’ve written or are in the process of writing. Not one romance novel, one romance thread. One arc. That’s it.
I am not a romance writer nor reader, and aside from obvious issues, I avoid critiquing romance elements because, quite frankly, I suck at them.
Romance is a reasonably successful genre though. If authors can get a US audience, it’s an exceptionally good genre to get onto. It also has a reputation for sticking to a formula and familiar tropes, and having quick turnaround times for new books.
In short, I’ve heard far too many describe it as the ‘easy’ genre to make a living out of.
So why should it bother me when I hear other genre writers denigrating romance writers?
Simple; because up until GenreCon 2017 (link to the 2019 website here – not much on it yet though), I was one of those people, so I know first hand that it generally comes from a place of ignorance.
At this particular Con, a few events conspired to result in the only workshop option being a character workshop on character – run by a romance author. Turns out there were quite a few romance authors there. This was definitely outside my comfort zone.
But in that first workshop, I learned more about developing character background than in the years of writing previous. I learned about subtleties in building characters, in making them unique, and working within tropes to subvert them or strengthen other elements, using the small details to mark and foreshadow big differences. More importantly, while I had tens of thousands of words trying to flesh out my characters through short stories and character sheets, some of the methods used by this author (sorry, can’t remember her name) achieved the same result using techniques that only took an hour or so to complete. It was efficient and effective and could apply to any genre.
Ok, so maybe she was an anomaly. One fantastic and craft-changing workshop doesn’t mean my opinion on an entire genre is wrong, right?
Well, over the rest of the weekend I met another author with over thirty books published. She was under pressure to have one ready every three months, and sitting at breakfast with myself and another fantasy writer, you could see her mind working at pace as she discussed her books, in particular her current works. Randomly there would be comments about which word to use where, about how to get more world building into less words, how to set up a scene in a sequel with just one critical line (a mid-story hook left unexplored, essentially). She also shared a presentation on her annual earnings, and how much she made per book. Turns out per book, romance writers (at least in the traditional space) tended to make less than some other genres.
The reason they published at a higher rate was;
- Because they needed to in order to maintain an income; and,
- To remain relevant when their books seemed to have a shorted shelf life.
The impression I got was consistent with that of other romance writers I met over the weekend – there was no time to switch off, and they were constantly working to get a better book out there, against a huge pool of competition, and within restrictive genre guidelines.
Which brings up some of the challenges romance writers face. It is a popular genre to read, but a hugely popular genre to write as well, meaning its a publisher’s market. Write too close to the trope, and it gets lost in the millions other like it. Writer too unique, and it may be considered too much of a risk to publish. Its a tough line to straddle.
Every genre has it’s challenges. For romance, just getting into the genre is a huge one. Speaking to some on pitching tips, they came up with incredibly technical methods they had been through to get past the slush pile. In fact, most of the tips they had for me were technical. There was nothing simple, and everything they did was precise and reasoned. This is something I have always tried to be in my writing – making every word count. Yet I was so far behind these writers. By the end of the weekend, it was clear they wrote quicker, they wrote more story in less words, and almost every aspect of their writing was more developed than mine.
They had to be like that, or they would never even have a chance at success.
But the most amazing part was that even though this could easily lead to a cut-throat competition to get ahead, I never had the impression of anything but mutual support between them all.
While there was plenty I learnt about craft over the weekend, the most important thing I learnt was that my assumptions about romance writers was wrong. Absolutely and completely wrong. Generally they were hard working, technically highly skilled, had a camaraderie that rivaled any other writing community I had come across, and were efficient by necessity.
But it also corrected me in a more general way. As an amateur, I have always been lucky enough to receive support of more experienced authors, even as a fantasy writer which I am well aware gets the same treatment sometimes (I have been told directly it ‘doesn’t count because it’s not real’). I therefore try and reciprocate a high level of support to other writers.
But in reference to the romance genre, I had not been doing this at all. The fact that I still come across writers who scoff and laugh at them, claiming they’re ‘not real writers’, or that ‘anyone can write a romance’ therefore frustrates me. I don’t mean to put romance writers up on a pedestal or anything, but the amount I learnt from romance writers that weekend, and continue to learn, was phenomenal because it was all things that weren’t considered as highly critical in my own genre. It opened my eyes to the different challenges faced by different writers and the techniques for overcoming them. For one genre it might be a huge competition pool, for another it might be that the genre is too small for publishers to consider (I see this in dreampunk – which we need more of, some of it is amazing!), but as writers, as part of a community that benefits most when adopting a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality, there is no reason to denigrate a particular genre. In all likelihood, we can all probably learn from embracing the strengths of other genres.
I doubt I will ever complete a romance novel. I tried once, and what started as a ‘guy meets girl at a bar’ trope, I tried to follow a romantic template. As a pantser though, the story took its own path, and by the time I was half way through, the ‘nice guy’ had a less-than-nice past, the girl turned out to be a plant from a vengeance organisation, and several physically and mentally broken victims had emerged along with a hunting ring that used live human bait, there was no way I could bring it back to romance. But even though this is not my genre, the character, timeline tips, and pitching tips I picked up from the genre experts has helped me no end with my own journey.
Now, maybe your own experience has been different. Maybe you don’t hold other genres at a lower rung (in which case, thank you!), or maybe you still have some reservations about other genres. What I would challenge you to do is speak to writers of that genre, attend a workshop or two, or just try to write within that genre yourself. Give yourself first hand experience of that genre before you speak any ill of it. And if you do feel the need for speaking ill of anther genre;