Ever since I started rewriting Bound to the Heart, I've started to recognize things I've learned through writing that WIP and others along the way. Combing through multiple iterations of the same story, you start to see how far you've come as a writer—and, sometimes, how far you have to go before your work will be ready to see the light of day.
The writing process is one of trial and error, and it’s taken a few mistakes to put me on the path towards better storytelling.
There are so many cringe-inducing things and mistakes I didn't realize I was making that I now know to look out for. As my writing has evolved and grown, so have I.
All of this has me mulling over what I wish I knew when I started writing romance. To hopefully spare someone out there the headache and cringe, here are four of them.
Getting Your Tropes Up
Often, writers who are just starting out are told to avoid cliches, and there is fair reasoning behind that.
As a writer, you want your work to stand out from the crowd. To create something completely new, you don't want to tell the same old story.
I remember one writing instructor saying something to the effect of, "If it’s a classic, it's a cliche."
This left me hesitant to weave tropes into my romances, with only genre conventions as my must-haves in my writing.
The thing about tropes, though, is the sense of familiarity they carry with them.
If I said I was writing a Rags-to-Riches story or an Enemies-to-Lovers romance, you would have a pretty good understanding of what that means.
Tropes are pretty important to romance. Like subgenre, tropes might be the thing that readers look for when choosing their next book. If they are in the mood for an outlaw protagonist or a fake dating scenario, they'll seek those out specifically.
Tropes don't always mean predictability or repetition. They do, however, let readers know what they're in for. And they can even help you get unstuck when you don't know where to take things next.
Can tropes be done poorly? Of course. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be done at all.
Remember, the tried-and-true can become tired, too. Embrace tropes by making them your own.
Writing What You Don't Know
"Write what you know" is one of the most known adages out there. It can be a great piece of advice when you're looking for a starting point and inspiration, but it doesn't sum up the entire writing process.
Research is a huge part of any genre. Whether it's the physics involved in a character's demise, tracking down recipes from a different culture, or spending hours scrolling through the internet to find a map from a different time period, being a writer means you are also a student.
Early on, there were quite a few key romance plot points I shied away from because I myself had not experienced those things. Maybe part of what drew me to the genre was a desire to explore those feelings and sensations vicariously through my characters.
In any case, I was under the impression that I couldn't write those scenes because I hadn't experienced them in real life.
In the grand scheme of things, though, there is a lot I write about that I know little to nothing about going into the project. It's okay to consult resources for guidance while working on those scenes.
Writing is fun because it lets you pretend to be someone else for a while and live their life. That includes falling in love and everything that comes with it.
I allow myself to research those things the way I research my protagonists' careers. Have I ever worked as a blacksmith? No. But I can learn about it.
Even today, I'm still Googling things I'm not sure about. I admittedly conduct a majority of these searches in Incognito Mode because there's always the chance someone wants to dig around my history and because I don't always want to explain why I'm looking into a specific topic, but I've gotten myself past my initial trepidation.
Doing The Deed Isn't Mandatory
Romance novels are often associated with bodice rippers, those paperbacks with bare-chested men and scantily clad women gracing the cover—typically on the verge of a kiss or tangled up in each other's arms. Because of this, the genre has a reputation of being scandalous and sexy.
I was about twelve years old when I read my first romance. At that time, I didn't know what I was getting into per se, and my mom wanted it to be relatively age-appropriate. PG-13 basically.
Much of this judgment came from its cover, which featured a pair of high heels rather than people.
Since it didn't have the traditional bodice rippers appearance, it was deemed okay. After all, many readers use the cover art of a romance novel to estimate the steaminess and determine if it’s something they're going to be comfortable with.
This, however, proved to be a poor way of measuring the steaminess of a romance novel.
As it turned out, this particular book had a few sex scenes, one of which was my introduction to bondage (which I wouldn't realize until Fifty Shades of Grey became popular a few years later), and taught pre-teen me about condom use and the many varieties out there.
But all of this also taught me something about the genre that isn't true: that every romance novel you write needs to involve sex—ideally on the page and not as a fade-to-black that only alludes to it. I rationalized this as sex being such a significant part of life that not including it wouldn't properly capture life itself in writing.
This notion was quickly proven false as I read other romance novels. And honestly, I find it humorous that I ever assumed sex in romance was a non-negotiable requirement.
When you think about it, not every character is going to want to have sex over the course of their story. Just like real people, they might abstain for religious reasons, because they're figuring out their sexuality, or due to a medical condition that makes intercourse uncomfortable, and for an infinite number of other reasons. While part of their arc could include becoming comfortable with having sex, that's not mandatory.
There's also no rule that says you have to show those scenes if you want sex to be included in your writing. If you're not as comfortable, you can always "close the door" and step away, only mentioning that the intimacy occurs without explicitly going into great detail. Less can sometimes be enough.
Nowadays, I don't have as much difficulty writing sex scenes, and a lot of that has to do with understanding that it's not a requirement for the romance genre.
That kind of heat might be the thing some readers desire, but that doesn't mean you need to include it if it’s not something you're comfortable with or something that doesn't fit your story.
And let me tell you, writing sex scenes is far more enjoyable when it's on my terms.
It's Not An "Easy" Genre
In addition to the steaminess of bodice rippers, romance has a reputation of being an easy genre.
It tends to be looked down on and not taken as seriously as others despite its being the best-selling genre. This usually has to do with the idea that these books are frivolous and silly little love stories.
I didn't get into the genre because I anticipated it being easy, but I also didn't expect it to be so intricate.
Aside from learning the art of writing itself, you're also studying the nuances of the genre, the way words flow together and the conventions readers expect. There's the research aspect. And after you've got a first draft, there's the plunge into edits and rewrites which can be its own, seemingly endless Hell.
And don't get me started on how complex and challenging the publication process is!
I have a feeling I would be making a similar point had I found my writing home in any other genre, but romance's reputation of being quick to write and easy to publish is far from the truth.
Don't underestimate romance writers. There is a lot going on behind the scenes and a ton of work and time that goes into each of our "silly little love stories."
Writing is an art of continuous growth. Along the way, we discover quite a lot about the craft and ourselves. Preconceived notions often end up disproved and corrected—which tends to be for the better.
Some of my past assumptions are laughable now, and can't help but wonder why I didn't know better or believed otherwise.
Mistakes are how we learn. We all start somewhere with our writing and it's through changing perceptions, experimentation, and simply exploring that we grow into the writers we are meant to be.