Answers for Authors
Genre This – Romance
I’ve interviewed over 80 authors for the WROTE podcast. I’ve self-published. AND… I’m a production editor for a small, non-fiction press, and am connected to a larger publisher. I’m in a unique position to answer any questions you may have about the business of being an author. I reached out to a group of authors, asking what questions they might have, and received some GREAT starting questions. Here’s the next:
Vance, I’ve recently heard some harsh criticism about the romance genre. But, I feel really strongly that the stories are a great escape from life’s harshness and I want to keep writing under that banner. Am I missing something?
No – you’re not missing anything! First and foremost – you should write for the genre that calls to you in the way that you feel the story in your soul.
Having said that, I also believe you need to be intentional about your choices. So let’s explore the meaning of “genre.”
According to Wikipedia, writing or Literary Genres are:
… determined by narrative technique, tone, content, and by critics’ definitions of the genres. Writing genres may be fictional or non-fictional.
If you’re going to be a romance writer, you need to think about how you’re applying each of these to your writing. So in the spirit of being intentional, let’s dig in:
What is the Narrative Technique of a romance novel?
While technique is certainly individual to the author, there are some commonalities in the genre. Romantic imagery is usually strong, as is the emotional content of the narration. Here’s a quick list of narrative techniques you can play with: List of Narrative Techniques
What about the Tone?
Tone and Mood are often confused. Mood is the atmosphere within the work. If you really deconstruct it, suspense surfaces as the most common Mood. Not suspense in the way of a horror or thriller, but it’s emotional suspense between the characters. Will they come together in spite of the elements conspiring against them? Of course, there are other moods – sometimes the characters start as a team and have to maintain their love in the face of adversity. But no matter how you spin it, Romance implies an emotional Mood.
Tone, however, is how the author/narrator feels about the subject matter and relates it to the audience. It’s easier to see tone at play in a 1st-person narrative, but it’s there in 2nd and 3rd person narratives as well. In written works, this is relayed through character action, diction, and syntax.
So then what is the Content of a romance novel?
I believe Content is the meat of this genre’s definition. According to the Romance Writers of America:
The main plot of a romance novel must revolve about the two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love. Furthermore, a romance novel must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”
Holy crap does that leave a lot to interpretation. Why only two people? I know a trio who’ve been together for over ten years. What is an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending?” In my mind, only the reader can answer that! Gah! It feels on the surface like this definition hasn’t kept up with the times… or maybe isn’t inclusive enough.
That’s where the critics (from the basic definition of “genre” at the start of this article) come in.
How do the critics define a romance novel?
By the gods, NOW I’ve opened a can of worms! If you believe it’s true that EVERYBODY is a critic, then you might need to come up with your own definition of the genre and let other people have their definitions of the genre and relegate all the bygones to the bygones bin. Or… is there some sort of accreditation you expect from your critics? Have they published X number of books? Have they reviewed X number of books? Do they have the financial backing of a globally-wealthy family? Do they have a voice in the media?
I could go on, and really make your mind spin with possibilities. Or I can get to what Vance Bastian looks for in a critic:
1. Critics are most useful when they specialize in a sub-genre.
It’s true. When someone tries to claim dominion over ALL Romance (or ALL Science Fiction, or ALL Fantasy), I tend to discredit and dismiss them. If a critic can show me some expertise in a sub-genre, I’m at least willing to listen. If the critic’s view comes anywhere close to mine, I’ll follow their social posts.
The hidden wisdom there is that I’m pretty comfortable with what I know I like. I suspect most readers are. So I’m only willing to have my mind expanded by someone I’ve come to trust as a representative of the things I like. I suspect that’s true for most readers as well. If an unknown critic comes at me guns blazing, my walls go up before any real conversation has a chance of starting.
2. I prefer critics who strike a harmonious balance between the way a genre is right now, and the way that genre can develop to mirror or influence society.
Let’s face it, the Romance genre is where it is because it’s been selling consistently. And it sells very well. The balance between fantasy escapism and price point seems to have reached a positive equilibrium. To borrow from The Romance Writers of America – it seems that romance writers have, on the whole, been delivering emotionally satisfying and optimistic endings.
I know more than a few sub-genre critics, though, who are very passionate that these writers should be writing about the way lives really are. That these writers are in a perfect place to raise awareness and foster brilliant social change. So where should the escapist-fantasy line between “Realistic Fiction” and “Romance” be drawn? A critic who seeks balance while making gentle nudges is going to be the most powerful.
I know other critics who believe that Romance is “real literature.” Umm… that’s highbrow bullying. Get off your elitist horse and come read something new. You may just find yourself blown away by some of the amazing strides authors are making. You also may connect to more readers if you accept that what they’re reading is literature in their eyes.
3. A critic needs to have some cred in the industry.
A wealthy family is not cred. Sorry. That just means the critic won the birth lottery.
A publisher who receives reader reviews, and analyzes sales trends, and guides authors to help write books people want to read? Yeah, that’s cred.
An author who writes from a place of passion, and has a lifetime of reading and analyzing literature for both technique as well as story development? Yeah, that’s cred.
A reviewer who stays on top of the industry they love so much that they’re putting professional time into helping readers find authors? That’s cred.
A reader who loves books so much they give freely of their time to read, rate, and review book after book? Yeah, that’s cred too.
So how can we distill all of the input from all of these critics into one genre definition? (I admit, my entrepreneurial spirit just had a tiny moment where I thought forming the International Genre Association was a good idea. Then I realized nobody would ever reach an agreement.) I mean, can the input be distilled down? We’re all so passionate about what we love and look for in our genres.
So… Who are the genre classifications for?
The easy answer is: Genre classifications are for the buyers.
Love it or hate it, you should get used to the idea that buyers and readers use the genre classifications as discovery tools, not mind-opening tools. It serves your work best if you use a classification that will appeal to the readers of the genre and sub-genre you’ve written.
If you disagree with any genre’s core definition, then don’t classify your work under that heading. Even if your work has some of the elements. Margaret Atwood eschewed classification – much to Ursula K. Le Guin’s lament. It’s probably more common than you think!
Should your goal be to guide and shape new meaning into an established genre – then start with reviewers. Offer them a sample of your work, and in your offer letter – explain to the reviewer that you’re adding new meaning to the genre to bring it in line with where our society has come. If you preface it that way, then their final review will be more likely to guide readers into trying something new.
However you choose to classify your writing, I quite optimistically wish you an emotionally satisfying career!
If YOU have a question you want answered from inside the biz, send it my way and I’ll pose it to the professionals!