November 2, 2015

Talking Shop: Breaking the Rules of Romance

Last week we discussed Redefining the Romance Genre with Maggie’s Song, a novel featuring an African-American lead struggling with identity and self-esteem as a “plus-size” woman in the music industry. And I think it’s safe to say that, as writers and readers, we’re excited to see a story told from the point of view of a POC main character who isn’t runway-model flawless. By that token, I think Maggie’s Song deserves it's applause. It's actually not wholly alone, though...

So what is redefining the genre, really? For many of us in the genre, we struggle against more than the pre-conditions by editors and readers expecting our characters to be perfect white women with all the ideal beauty traits and a totally winning personality to boot. In fact, while those certainly are some frustrating expectations of the genre, I’d say they are less predominant in recent years, and less binding than some of the Sacred Commandments that truly limit us.
I’ve never received a rejection of a manuscript because of the race, size or sexual orientation of my main characters, and I’ve submitted several interracial stories as well as those written about multiple sexual orientations and lifestyles. I have, however, been rejected on and received poor reviews on the grounds of:
·       No “Happily Ever After” ending.
·       Infidelity or Playing the Field
·       Characters “not human” enough.
That third condition is probably one more specifically pertaining to paranormal authors, people like me who write about ghosts, werewolves, and tentacle monsters. But it is still in play, and it drives many romance and erotica authors who explore aspects of speculative horror erotica into shades of obscurity.
Really “redefining” the genre means breaking some of these old, severely limiting rules. Authors know that not all stories end happily, and that not all characters are faithful all of the time. We know that heartbreak, angst, fear, obsession, and the utterly unreal all have a place in love, lust and adventure. To exile these things from story writing waters down the romance genre into a collection of too-sweet tales, questionable characters, and repetitive clichés. I’ve already discussed my feelings on stories where characters are supernaturally destined to be together or where plot is sacrificed in the face of generating a love/sex scene. Romance writing has been crafted by editors and publishers to be a formulaic assembly line of the same characters, same plot, same conflict, same resolution, and at the end of the day that means none of any of these things, really.
What’s funny is that editors and publishers still want these tropes, even when some of the most successful titles in the industry blatantly break them. I think 50 Shades of Gray is a terrible, terrible book and absolutely takes romance and erotica writing back several steps, but publishers tend to look at profits made, and no one can argue 50 Shades is not a money-maker. But the ending is not Happily Ever After. It’s not even’s not even Happily For Now or Happiness is At Least Somewhat Foreseeable In The Next Book.
Let’s not forget some of the most beautiful, award-winning dramatic films are built around and deal with issues of infidelity. American Beauty, Unfaithful, and Lost in Translation, for example. The subject is one viewers respond to, on several levels. Most audiences can agree that infidelity can force characters to evolve, free characters from emotional or psychological restraints, and drive them to a greater understanding of themselves and their real, enduring love match (mind you, the love match isn’t always the spouse; sometimes it’s the partner in the infidelity.)
And for those of us in paranormal/supernatural genres, we deal with incredible scrutiny when it comes to some of our paranormal beings. Werewolves and other shifters especially must conform to some very subjective views of exactly how “human” they are, and whether or not they cross the line into bestiality. Now, I’m not here to trumpet the virtues of bestiality (although, honestly, Bear by Marian Engle is an award winner and that scene in Dracula where Lucy fucks the wolf monster is so popular they make resin figurines of it for collectors).
But you’re not going to tell me that books like Cum For Bigfoot, The Horny Minotaur and Taken by the T-Rex aren’t getting attention and pulling down 4-star reviews while Immortals After Dark and The Cursed Satyroi have to tiptoe around their werewolves, shifters and satyrs being too inhuman. I’m an avid supporter of written tentacle hentai, werewolves that are actually werewolves and not particularly hirsute individuals, and shifters that retain hints of their non-human nature, and I think these stories retain an honesty to them that is lost when the authors feel they have to make absolutely sure their characters in no way hint at being more or less than perfectly human.
The fact is, very, very few romance and erotica writers are noticed when they color within the lines. The “safe” stories that avoid issues of angst, unhappily-ever-afters, betrayal and hurt, or perfectly normal characters...well, they all stay in the same shallow corner of the pool together and rarely make a name for themselves. Meanwhile, 50 Shades of Gray and Cum for Bigfoot are getting all the attention, and American Beauty, Unfaithful, and Bear are getting awards.
Playing by the rules doesn’t get you very far. And that’s not to say you have to write a story about an unfaithful, cheating pterodactyl-monster who leaves the heroine heartbroken, in order to redefine the genre or get noticed in the mainstream. What you have to do, more than anything, is write a good story. Write something genuine and real...and if that means it isn’t happily-ever-after or it doesn’t get kinky and unrestrained enough to forgo that happily-ever-after for a “strictly erotica” label, or if your characters stray or if they are Casanovas before they finally settle down with the loves of their lives, or if you want to write about mythical humans like satyrs or nymphs or werewolves without turning them into vaguely costumed that. Break those rules, write what is true. Remember that nobody ever got noticed by being just part of the crowd.
If you do write stories that break the rules, you are definitely going to be swimming upriver in the publishing world. So self-publish, if that’s what it takes. Find like-minded writers and create a collaboration or anthology. The worst thing you can do is sacrifice what is true, for what is “within the acceptable parameters”.

My books don’t always have happy endings. They don’t always have characters who are perfectly-behaved, faithful and celibate virgins until that perfect somebody comes along. Reagan, in Goblin Fires, is an unabashed Lady Casanova, and I love her for that. Rhiannon in Lotus Petals doesn’t always conform to the trope of the hero, and things don’t always end up happily for her. I’m happy with these stories—and I’ve seen some modest success with them—because they are real stories.
If you’re a romance writer, take a chance. Redefine the genre. Take it back from the formulaic assembly line dispensaries of billionaire erotica and bodice rippers. Break the rules, and write your stories.

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