Saturday, October 23, 2010

A New Respect For Romance by a Romance-Hater

A few weeks ago, I attended the Emerald City Romance Writers Conference, put on by the Greater Seattle branch of the Romance Writers of America, in Bellevue, Wash. About 300 women were registered. That is, 300 women and ... me. Other than a few guest speakers and a few spouses floating about, I was the only man there.

Let me assure you that while this sounds wonderful in theory, the reality was terrifying. At first, that is. Until I relaxed, and allowed my natural off-to-the-side objective observer's stance — strengthened through 23 years as a newspaper journalist — to step up. I completely let go of the fact that romance writing has no appeal to me, and let go of my vague notions of the genre as formulaic, simplistic and even condescending to its audience.

What I came away with is this: These women know their stuff like nobody else does.

There isn't a single aspect of writing and publishing craft they haven't considered from every conceivable angle — and reassembled and refined to the highest possible shine.

Want to know specific instances in storytelling when dialogue should be used, and when paraphrasing should take its place? There's a detailed handout and a workshop for it.

Want to know how to take your pitches and queries to agents, and slim them down to the sleekest possible essentials? There's a boot camp for it.

Want to know what the trends are in the genre market? There's a Q&A session for it. You'll learn more about what sells and what won't sell in more detail than you will at any other event for any other literary genre that I know of.

That very linear, pragmatic approach to romance writing practically guarantees aspiring authors what no other genre can: That if they learn your craft, develop relationships, work hard and behave professionally, they will fulfill the dream that most authors have — of landing a literary agent and being offered a book contract by a traditional publisher.

I walked away thinking that the tight-knit, somewhat insular, ultra-professional romance-writing community is a bit like the military, or what the military tells you when you consider joining: You get out of it exactly what you put into it ... and you get more of that by going along with the program.

In a publishing world in which there are almost no more sure things these days, romance comes as close as it gets. That's because it's got a system, and the system works. And there are thousands of authors — and tens of millions of readers — who prove it every day. The mystery/thriller/suspense folks — my crowd — aren't quite there yet. In those genres, there's still too much of a contradiction between doing all the right things, craftwise, and actually bagging a book deal.

I'm glad I went to the conference. I have no interest in writing romance, and even less in reading it. But that doesn't mean that I — and probably you as well — wouldn't stand to learn a lot of useful things from it.

As a result, you're reading a blog post by one of the newest paid, card-carrying members of the Romance Writers Of America.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Jim Thomsen is a news editor at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash. He also is a partner in Proof Positive, a manuscript-editing and media-services business, and maintains
Reading Kitsap, a blog about the local literary scene. In addition, he is an aspiring mystery author and member of the Mystery Writers Of America. He can be reached at desolationisland@gmail.com ... or found, almost 24/7, on Facebook.


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13 comments :

  1. RWA has its problems, but it is THE way to get a first-rate education in writing. I can't recommend it highly enough for writers early in their education and career.

    The difficulty with all this is that most romance writers are so highly educated in craft and the business that a writer has be astonishingly good to be published by the big publishers.

    I read widely, and it's rare that I read a first or second book in another genre where the craft is half as good as a romance novel. That's also why so many bestsellers in other genres are by writers who started out in romance.

    I wouldn't call the romance community insular. The writers tend to be far more widely read than other genres, and romance readers are the biggest omnivores of genre.

    That's why so many cross-genre trends are started by romance writers, and publishers market other genre in romance publications.

    As a fan of many years, I've found the SF/fantasy people are extremely insular in their reading, and the mystery community is almost as bad. The literary community is so insular that they have barbed wire around them.

    As to the generic elements, that's no more true of romance than it is of any genre. No one complains when the killer is discovered in a mystery, but it's formula when the hero and heroine end up happily together in romance.

    Each genre has its tropes and expectations.

    Some time back, a reporter asked a number of romance writers this question-- "Can you give me the deep reason for the romance novel's appeal to women? I can't ask my mother -- that would be too weird."

    Here's my answer--

    There is no one deep reason, but I can offer you one of them.

    I've never had the time to learn about football. To me, it's just a bunch of big guys chasing each other and a ball on the field. But I'm told that a football fan understands the subtle tactics, the skills, and the rules of the game.

    In the same way, many women understand the subtle tactics, the skills, and the rules of the game of love. The romance novel offers them a front row seat at the most fascinating and important game of all -- love and marriage.

    Many who don't read romance say all these books are the same, but they are no more the same than every football game is the same.

    Romances offer a more important payback than football because they are teaching women more about the emotional dynamics of men and women so they can play the game and win for themselves and society by creating a monogamous, stable relationship for themselves and for the successful rearing of children which takes two committed parents.

    And, yes, there is usually sex in these novels, but romances aren't about sex. If they were, they'd have more than the ten to twenty pages of love scenes in the average 400 page novel. The love scenes are there because they are another part of the emotional dynamics, and how the man acts afterward usually defines the problems and the possibilities of the relationship.

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  2. RWA has its problems, but it is THE way to get a first-rate education in writing. I can't recommend it highly enough for writers early in their education and career.

    The difficulty with all this is that most romance writers are so highly educated in craft and the business that a writer has be astonishingly good to be published by the big publishers.

    I read widely, and it's rare that I read a first or second book in another genre where the craft is half as good as a romance novel. That's also why so many bestsellers in other genres are by writers who started out in romance.

    I wouldn't call the romance community insular. The writers tend to be far more widely read than other genres, and romance readers are the biggest omnivores of genre.

    That's why so many cross-genre trends are started by romance writers, and publishers market other genre in romance publications.

    As a fan of many years, I've found the SF/fantasy people are extremely insular in their reading, and the mystery community is almost as bad. The literary community is so insular that they have barbed wire around them.

    As to the generic elements, that's no more true of romance than it is of any genre. No one complains when the killer is discovered in a mystery, but it's formula when the hero and heroine end up happily together in romance.

    Each genre has its tropes and expectations.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good post, Jim. I'm surprised your Facebook fans aren't over here commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've been through a very similar experience, Jim.

    After my failed attempt to read a romance when I was a teenager I'd never touched any book of that kind for many years, until I went to a Romance Writers of NZ earlier on this year. I went there because I thought I could learn some elements of writing craft that are common across genres and literary or non-fiction world.
    I have learnt a lot.

    Worse. I've read a couple of M&B's novels (still not comfortable with the romantic stories, but admiring the craft) and I'm going to try my newly learnt skills in practice - I'm planning to write a category romance during NaNoWriMo.

    I think I'm a convert (and a paid member of RWNZ, planning to joinn RWA) :)

    Joanna

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  5. Love this post, Jim. You are a convert. Maybe not to writing Romance, but to the benefits of the group. I'm not a Romance writer or even a member of RWA, but I have attended local RWA meetings and found those there to be knowledgeable and very helpful to those who ask beginner questions. You're right. They know their stuff!

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  6. My grandmother introduced me to romance books; I used to borrow all the large-print romances the mobile library brought her. Between the ages of 10 and 16 I devoured those books, and then I don't know what happened. One day I just went completely off romance books.

    Love Marilynn's comment about the barb-wired literary community; that appears very apt from where I'm sitting.

    Elle
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  7. Great post, Jim! I edit all genres and read a lot of books on how to write effective fiction, and many of the ones on how to write romance that sells are extremely well-written. I have a few excellent ones, and I find and a lot of their advice applies to fiction in general.

    One of my favorite books on writing romance is called On Writing Romance - How to Craft a Novel that Sells, by Leigh Michaels. The chapters on Opening, Characters, Point of View, Dialogue, etc. are very informative, and apply to all genres.

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  8. Congrats on your conversion, Jim! LOL Good post.

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  9. Very interesting post and comments. I have a problem with literary genre labels in general and with the Romance label in particular. They are limiting and as far as I'm concerned, most good books cross genres in some way. I've never bought a book from the Romance shelf in the bookstore. I think it was in part because of the often gaudy and cheap looking covers.
    After I finished the manuscript of my own debut novel, the question of genre came up, since the editor I sent it to asked about it. So I called it "a story about love, family relationships, and art." The book has Romance elements but it doesn't follow the strict Romance formula (man and woman, conflict, tension--the reader is kept wondering if and when the two finally get together, and then the Happy Ending). My editor once called it an "art romance." Not bad, but not totally satisfying either.
    I looked into RWA but noticed that their members are supposed to dedicate their writing lives to Romance. Perhaps, one day, I want to write a thriller or a character study or a stream of consciousness novel. Why would I want to limit myself to one genre? I truly believe that the only labels that make any sense are "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction."
    Perhaps, then even men with an interest in relationships and love in its many forms would pick up a book which deals with such issues.
    Christa
    Author of Love of a Stonemason

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  10. And now you'll get the Romance Writers Report every month, which is quite helpful in learning your way around.

    I've learned lots about writing in general by being a part of Chicago-North RWA. Sometimes, I forget and say I'm going to class when I'm really going to our meeting. It's about the same thing, except even better.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  11. I've certainly been impressed with everything I've heard of them. Not joined yet--too expensive. But I suspect you'll definitely get what you pay for, so maybe it's worth saving up.

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  12. I had such a visual of you at the conference of women. It made me smile.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  13. Amen brother.

    Now you need to read one... :-)

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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