After writing literary short fiction and then six contemporary novels, my then-agent told me to go henceforth and write a romance. A romance? I thought. Really?
After more discussion, I thought what a lark! What a gas! How fun and surely, how easy. I was under the assumption that I could write a romance in my sleep, no matter I hadn’t read one since 1978, the last being the classic The Flame and the Flower. Yes, of course, I could do that. And wasn’t Jane Austen my favorite writer? And wasn’t Pride and Prejudice just a romance at its core?
This guest post is by Jessica Barksdale Inclán, author of the new novel, How to Bake a Man (Ghostwood Books/October 2014) as well as twelve critically acclaimed books, including the best-selling Her Daughter's Eyes (YALSA Award Nominee), The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. Her work had been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Czech. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Storyacious, Mason's Road, and So to Speak. She is the recipient of Californian Arts Council Fellowship in Literature and a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. For more info, visit www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com.
Yes, dear reader, you can already sense the conflict in my tale. Writing a romance (just like writing anything other than emails to friends) isn’t easy. In fact, I had to read every romance in my local library, sitting at the tables or slumped in the stacks. During my impromptu self-paced class, I learned a lot about plot and story from the romance writers. While I’m not writing romance these days, the lesson of action, conflict, climax (and then some) are lessons I use to this day.
After discarding my false notions about writing romance, I realized that many writers have assumptions about genres they haven’t even tried to write. Once a romance writer I met at a conference told me, nose up, that she never read literary fiction. “Nothing ever happens,” she said.
At a recent workshop, two literary writers compared romance novel excerpts to literary fiction and nonfiction selections. “How can you compare apples and watermelons?” I asked them. “These writers are doing something else!”
Frankly, I was appalled by all three writers. Literary or romantic, all writing has something to teach us. So when I decided to try my hand at “chick lit,” I knew I would bring all my lessons with me. But then I added to the list. Here’s what I know after finishing How to Bake a Man.
1. Don't write down to your audience.
While I might have had about a week’s worth of “romance is so easy,” I was wrong. All audiences are savvy in their preferred genre, and it’s not a good idea to insult them. Take as much time and care as you would with any writing project. Don’t decide that now you can use all the adverbs you want. Now is not the time to slip in your, “Meanwhile, across towns” and “Little did she knows.” Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back isn’t all there is to a love story of any kind. We all respond to good writing, regardless of genre.
2. Everything that you are embarrassed about--your failures, your social fax pas--are what we, the audience, want to read about. We relate.
There’s something endearing about main characters who are down-and-out, unlucky in love and life, struggling to figure out how to just keep going. The shame of not succeeding, of having very bad internet dating experiences, of fighting with parents and siblings, of getting fired, again, is what we also know and understand. Don’t bemoan writing what you know if you know all this. We do, too. And we thank you for putting it out there.
3. Don't write expecting your mother to approve (I know, Mom. I know). We've all tried to get our mothers to approve of us and that hasn't worked. Write as if Mom is on an extended vacation.
I understand if you haven’t explained to your mother the vagaries of dating. The slightly seedy one-night stands. Being stood up at Starbucks and spending a half-hour talking to the homeless veteran on crutches (Yes, me. And I used this situation in a short story). But those experiences transformed to fiction can lead you deeper into your character and plot. Maybe not to your mother’s heart. But she really doesn’t have to know about it.
4. Small ideas (baking cookies, for instance) can lead to bigger ideas.
On Facebook recently, I was playing around with wild, blown up, ridiculous plot synopses. Here’s a bit of one of them:
Young vampire with leftist leanings searches for hope in the underworld. Little does he know, across town in heaven, a werewolf vixen with a penchant for blood pins her hopes on him after a chance sighting in the ether.
Wow. Where to even begin with that one? So start small. I started How to Bake a Man with cookies. My great-grandmother’s recipe, in fact. I thought about all I learned from my mother and what she learned from my grandmother. I thought about all that female power in the act of rolling out dough, just as women have been rolling out door for generations. Then I imagined a young woman just ripe and ready to change her life. Cookies. That was the thing.
So you don’t have to have the topic du jour, the platform of perfection, the weirdest of weird. Try with what is around you and see what happens next.
Writing in many genres has helped me fill my toolbox. Poetry, short stories, fiction of all kinds. I feel lucky to know enough to pull out a metaphor when I need to and a sex scene when necessary. I hope my list helps you, no matter what you’re writing.
— Detailed descriptions of more than 20 subcategories within the romance genre
— Tips for avoiding clichés
— How to create the perfect romantic couple
— Guidelines for drafting those all-important love scenes
— Submission information for breaking into the genre
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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.