*** This was the third article I originally wrote for The Odyssey Online in 2017, prior to my decision to self-publish. ***
If you have read my prior posts, you may recall that I am working on the second draft of a novel. It is the story of an unlikely couple trying to survive the unique social challenges and tumultuous events of the historical time period they live in. Now that sounds like what would qualify as a romance. (By romance, I am referring to defined genre stories which usually follow a formula of sorts.) Technically though, I do not think my WIP qualifies as a romance and I am not saying that to be a pretentious, literary snob. If it did qualify as a romance it would make my life a bit easier as I would then know exactly what agents and publishers to submit to. According to my own research, it seems the format would not satisfy the standard model and the time period and country are not popular with romance publishers and, I assume, their fan bases. I think that leaves me out of the game, so I will just refer to it as a love story or romantic historical fiction.
Be that as it may, there is an undeniable stigma attached to writers of romantic fiction. Maybe we are all just squeamish when it comes to emotion. Maybe it’s because it has become trendy to denounce any sort of feelings in literature (the inevitable backlash against over-the-top sentimentality). And because there are unfortunately romances out there that have earned their bad reputations. The criticisms and stereotypes of these stories also extend to the writers of them. Knowing this, I was (and still am) reluctant to admit I was writing a love story. Reluctant to share it with my family and friends and even with the devoted members of my critique group, many of whom I have had the pleasure of working with for years. While all of these people have been supportive and helpful, harsh criticisms and stereotypes abound in other corners of the world and I decided to debunk the ones that bother me the most, at least regarding me and my work. (I am not speaking for all other writers here, FYI.)
1. You Must Be An Unabashed Creator of Smut
Naturally if you are writing a romance or something closely related to it, there must be graphic sex scenes on every other page. The story is set in a distant time so that the characters will have sumptuous clothes to tear off of each other’s perfectly sculpted bodies! There’s no real love going on, just a lot of hot hanky-panky!
No and no. Sure, there are books like that out there, but that is not what I am doing. While physical relations are a part of it (duh), the true focus is on the building of a real partnership– affection, devotion, honesty, fidelity, trust, you know, all those particulars that make relationships work and sustain them through difficult times. The historical backdrop is integral to the plot because if I move it to modern times, the story falls apart. Move it to a peaceful time in the past, it loses the urgency and the happenings that push the characters to behave as they do, especially in the second half of the book. Assumption #1 debunked.
2. You Have Delusions of Grandeur about Relationships
Apparently, writers of romantic fiction are delusional– or so a lot of people believe. It is assumed that these individuals are hopeless twits incapable of deciphering fantasy from reality, expecting their love lives to be Disney movie knock-offs. I must spend my non-writing time waiting for some gorgeous man to speed up to my house in a new Corvette. We will fall in love on sight and he will whisk me off to his McMansion, filled with roses and chocolate-covered strawberries, where we will enjoy a life of uninterrupted passion and bliss! No arguments and no dirty laundry to do! (You can hear the snark in my tone, right?) I must also be a total diva, driving men away with my unrealistic demands for open displays of affection, expensive gifts and tearful meltdowns.
Survey says: Not. At. All. I am certainly old enough to realize that perfection is an unattainable ideal for neurotics, in relationships or out of them. Do I want a happy, committed relationship? Of course, who doesn’t? Do I expect to fall hopelessly in love at first sight? No, my characters don’t even do that. Do I expect a man to solve all of my problems, fulfill all of my needs, be able to read my mind and agree with me on everything? No, that is not possible and is actually kind of unattractive. I am far from perfect and I wouldn’t expect any man to be perfect either. This all makes it difficult to seek advice when you’re having a relationship issue. People will automatically assume that YOU, crowned Queen of All That is Cheesy, are the problem and instead of a helpful opinion, you will come away with a lecture on not expecting too much or a reminder that real life is not a “story”. Result? You take a vow of silence regarding your love life. (Actually, that might be smart to do even if you are not a writer. Too many cooks spoil the soup if you get my drift.)
3. You Can’t Really Write At All
This one might be the most insulting yet. Real writers don’t write about things as ridiculous as feelings, especially any positive ones! It’s all too obvious, too concrete, too mundane. Thus, you must be disguising your pathetic lack of skill behind a subject as frivolous, silly, and unnecessary as love. The characters are cardboard cutouts, the conflicts are plastic, and you have no talent.
Please get off your literati high horse. Love in all forms — romantic, platonic, filial, even agape — is an integral part of the human experience. Why shouldn’t it be brought to the page? I do not like poorly-developed characters and do my best to create ones that seem like real people and give them real conflicts to deal with. The essentials of storytelling should always be upheld and I strive to do so.
Is any of this going to deter me from writing? Not in the least. I firmly believe writers should write the sort of stories they want to read, regardless of what anyone else thinks. So if love is the focus of your work, forge ahead. Some people will adore it, some people will despise it and that’s fine. That’s the way life works. People are not obligated to like you or the art you create. Just write in the unique voice you were gifted with. Refusing to do so would be too great a loss to the literary world.