I write romance.
I also do a fair amount of critiquing for other writers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people talk about genre-straddling, or that they’re writing something that doesn’t fit into any particular genre. There is a time in every author’s life when they decide they either don’t need to fit into a genre category or have written something that defies genre categorization.
Trust me. Your work fits into a genre, and it can be categorized.
For the longest time, I didn’t know I was a romance writer. I knew I liked writing about relationships. The messier, the better. Newbie that I was, I threw everything at my characters. Romantic relationship? Yes! Dragons? Angels? Skateboards? Why not! Mystery and intrigue? Sure. A healthy dose of literary-style navel gazing? Absolutely. Bring it. I’d mash everything together, pour in all the things I could think of. Thankfully, my starter novels are lost to time. Like all starter novels, they were hot messes of inconsistency. No plot? No problem: I called it literary. No happily ever after? No problem, it was mainstream fiction with a strong romantic element and also spaceships.
Like a lot of beginning writers, I scoffed at the romance arc because I felt it constricted the entire genre. Why go into reading something, living through all that heartbreak and turmoil, if you know it’s all going to be all right in the end? I figured I could upend it with a non-traditional ending and call it a non-romance. (Note to past me: there’s a word for that type of story, and the word isn’t “romance.”) I read plenty of romance, but with the arrogance that comes from not understanding and definitely not appreciating the intricacies of the romance arc. Yes, at its core it’s A meets B. A and B fall in love, and it’s a love like no other. Then something happens, and A and B either break up or are torn apart by some terrible external circumstance. But eventually they overcome the terrible circumstance, learn to trust each other again, and live happily ever after. I thought, “how trivial. How dull. How expected.”
Being the sort of person who likes to buck tradition, I decided not to follow the romance arc at all. Which was fine. But what that really meant was that I wasn’t writing romance. I was writing something different–women’s fiction, or literary fiction, or a coming-of-age story. All of those genres already exist. Why try to warp them into something they’re not?
Now, as I sit toward the end of this year’s NaNoWriMo first draft (another romance! Score!), I can tell you that learning to work within the constraints of the romance arc is the best, most disciplined thing I have done as a writer. Yes, the arc is there because readers expect it. Beyond that, the romance arc is actually quite beautiful and quite complex. When I think of all the romances I’ve read, no two are exactly alike, even though the romance arc is the uniting factor in all these books. I have yet to see two authors independently pen the same book. Learning to work within the arc takes patience, understanding, and no small amount of skill. After all, nobody’s going to buy a book that treats the romance as a flat, boring, done deal. Even though we know the characters will be all right in the end, we read romance to live through the emotion of the arc with the characters. We get to experience them falling in love, losing that love, and working hard to get it back. In the meantime, if the author has done their job, the characters become so real to us that we root for them. We find ourselves yelling at them when they make some boneheaded move, or cheering for them when they get things right. Good romance novels are packed to the gills with emotion, so charged that readers often can’t put them down. We become invested in the characters, their lives, and their well-being.
Not every genre can make that same claim.
Once I’m finished with the mostly-finished books on my writing plate, I’m going to go back to a mystery I started during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. That, too, is an exercise in discipline, although writing a mystery is a challenge far different from the romance writing challenge. Will I be successful? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve learned my lesson about bucking the trend. Will my mystery have romance elements? Probably, because I’m a sucker for the human experience and believe that love is one of the most interesting topics a writer can tackle. Does it need a HEA/HFN (Happily Ever After/Happy For Now) ending? No. But the mystery has to make sense, and it has to be solved. If I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t actually be a mystery.
Know your genre. Read widely in your category. You’ll learn to recognize what makes a book a romance, what makes it chick lit, and what makes it women’s fiction. Yes, sometimes the lines get blurry, but there’s no shortage of information out there on how to find your genre. Probably the best thing you can do is find a group of other writers who happen to be working on the same type of story you are, and compare notes. Read for each other. Listen to their suggestions. Take their suggestions to heart.
After all this, if you find yourself writing a romance that doesn’t end happily, trust me: you’re not writing a romance. Go back and try categorizing it again.