“Love is a better teacher than duty.”–Albert Einstein
It’s unfortunate that romance has been labeled … well, let’s be blunt and say ‘formulaic.’ Part of this, of course is more than a bit true – but then it’s the truth for every genre in every form of entertainment: the audience wants what it wants and so the business side of things wants to give them that.
From comic books to television, from science fiction to erotica, from movies to food … if you want to create it there always seems to be ‘the way’ to do it. In the case of romance, though, ‘the way’ for many authors/editors/publishers seems to be been boiled down to such a A to B to C to D formula that there’s little, or absolutely zilch, room for innovation. Even more than quite a few publishers of romance have taken to spelling out this recipe for success in their Call For Submissions or on their Write For Us websites.
Now there’s nothing wrong with knowing your audience – in fact it’s a universal key to success both critically and financially: if you look, say, at blockbuster or bestselling [Insert Genre Here] you can see, in hindsight, how the creator(s) looked right into the heart of their readers/watchers/eaters and delivered exactly what they were looking for.
Which is where those formulas always seem to spring from: hindsight. But the problem with hindsight – and I know this is an old chestnut – is that it means looking backwards. The books/movies/TV shows that rocket off into the stratosphere, yes, may have known and respected their audience but they also did something that’s even more important:
They took risks.
If you look at just about every skyrocket in every genre and media you’ll see that, while some of the basis of storytelling and structure were there, the creator(s) also did what no one else had done before them. Now for some genres that’s a bit easier – usually when the audience isn’t in the millions – for the simple reason that when the profits go up creations get more and more under the nervous microscope of publishers and producers. I recently read a very fascinating article on the history of comics, which pointed out that in the beginning years it was a bunch of guys having fun throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what stuck – but that now everything to do with capes and superpowers has to pass through the eye of a needle of corporate marketing: all because of the tremendous success of superhero flicks.
Romance has been dealing with this situation for quite a while: tales of Boy Meets Girl have been pulling in dollars for publishers for a very long time – leading, of course, to formulas … and, sadly, a fear of the “R’ word.
But Risk is what makes a blockbuster – but what is also good for a romance writer’s soul. Stick with me: if you write only what people want you to write – over and over and over again – doesn’t that sound like a good definition of Hell? Donuts are sweet and … man, I really want one right now … but I wouldn’t want to eat nothing but. Like every other literary genre, writing only one thing is the quickest way to burn out a writer.
Yes, if you write what you want to write – and not just what The Formula (carved in huge letters in granite) dictates – you may have a harder time selling it, or if you do sell it the dollar rewards may not be all that great, but your creative spirit will be a lot happier … meaning that you will write longer and, if you have to write to The Formula, you will be able to do it much easier knowing that you can always go back to writing what you want to.
The very good news is that the world has totally and completely changed. I’m writing this on my iMac while a movie plays on my xbox (The Core, if you must know … don’t judge me) while my iPhone and my iPad display the time. My books still take months to write but then they are published in only a few days and can reach, as ebooks, thousands – and maybe even hundreds of thousands – of readers versus only a few diehard folks willing to drive all the way to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. This means that the publishers I work with don’t have to spend huge sacks of money on publishing, which means they don’t have to make money on every book they put out, which means they are more open to experimenting on accepting books that may not conform to The Formula, which means that readers can also taste books – and maybe be thrilled by – these new kinds of romance books.
The problem is a few of the old school publishers are still holding onto the pathology that every book has to not just follow The Formula but make buckets of money — or be considered a failure. My advice? If you are a romance writer look for a publisher that knows that it’s 2013, a time when printed books are an option and not a sole source of profit. These publishers may not be big – yet – but they are also willing to do what has made every blockbuster a blockbuster: by taking risks.
Yes, you should know your audience and try to give them what they want. Sure, romance readers often have very specific needs in their reading. But this doesn’t mean that you should try and copy every book – bestseller or just good seller — that ever came before . All that happens when that happens is that you, the author, will not just lose your creative mojo trying to be someone you aren’t but that you’ll also be seen as just another follower, an imitator.
The world has changed – for the better. Your sales may not be huge, at first, and foolish publishers will no doubt bounce you, but if you take risks with your romance work you will at least be joining the ranks of those writers who have not just had tremendous sales but also redefined the genre – by trying something new, by playing with expectations, by stepping off the cliff, by pushing the envelope, by challenging The Formula … by taking risks.