(thanks to WriteSex, where this article originally appeared)
For new writers, the temptation is obvious: after all, if you don’t know something, shouldn’t you seek out a way to learn about it? The question of how to educate yourself as a writer is a necessary and important one, of course, but an often-invisible second question follows: how do you sift through the piles of would-be writing coaches, teachers and other purveyors of advice to find the ones who will lead you toward genuinely better writing? The problem isn’t that there are over-eager teachers galore, but that far too many of them are preaching from ignorance—or just dully quoting what others have already said.
This is particularly true of erotic romance. Now, I have to admit I’ve been more than a bit spoiled by other genres, where you can write about whatever you want without much of a chance—beyond clumsy writing—of getting rejected for not toeing the line, so approaching erotic romance has been a bit more of a challenge. Romance authors, after all, have been told time and time again that there is a very precise, almost exacting, Way of Doing Things … and if you don’t, then bye-bye book deal.
But times have changed, and while a few stubborn publishers still want erotic romantic fiction that follows established formulas, the quantum leap of digital publishing has totally shaken up by-the-numbers approaches to romance writing. Without going too much into it (maybe in another column…), because ebooks are so much easier to produce, publishers can take wonderful risks on new authors and concepts, meaning that they don’t have to wring their hands in fright that the new title they greenlit will go bust and possibly take the whole company with it.
Because of this freedom, erotic romance can be so much more than it ever was: experimental, innovative, unique, challenging, etc. These are no longer the Words of Death when it comes to putting together a book.
One of the great, underlying tasks of teaching—one I love, but with some reverence and an occasional pang of dread—is challenging the boring, formulaic, way that so many talk about writing (which is also to say that a huge part of the reason I love to teach is that it’s a weird form of revenge against all the bad writing teachers I’ve had over the years). There are, however, far too many writing teachers who relentlessly parrot that erotic romance has to follow a strict formula to be successful. They spell out this formula in stomach-cramping detail: what has to happen to each and every character, in each and every chapter, in each and every book.
This is not to say that new authors should put their hands over their ears any time someone offers up advice on romance writing; there is, after all, a huge difference between a teacher who inspires from experience and one who is just a conduit between you and a textbook. A publisher, for instance, who looks at their catalogue and can see what is selling for the moment—they’re worth listening to. On the other hand, one who sets down unbending rules on what Not To Do and What To Do, regardless of the changing interests of readers or the innovations of writers, is only mumbling at you through the sand in which their head is lodged. Case in point: I once had a erotic romance novel rejected by a major publisher not because of the writing, the plot, the characters, or the setting but because it was about a painter and, according to this publisher, “books about painters don’t sell.” Needless to say, I didn’t let this feedback stop me from sending the book to a different publisher—where it sold quite well.
The A-to-B-to-C form of teaching writing is likened to cutting up a frog: certainly an efficient way of finding out (ewwwww) the contents of an amphibian … but totally useless as a way of creating your own. A good test of a writing instructor, by the way, is how you feel at the end of the class or how-to book: if you’re shaking like a leaf that you might have made—or will make—some kind of horrible erotic-romance-writing mistake, then the lesson was a bad one … but if you leave feeling elated, inspired, confident and ready to build your story into something powerful then, you guessed it, the class was good.
Folks have come to me with questions like “Can I start my story with an email?” “Can I start with the weather?” “Can my setting be in a foreign country?” “Can I write about an artist?” I think you can guess what my answer always is: just write! One, you can always change it later and, two (most importantly) write what you want to read: don’t suffocate your creativity with formulas, set-in-stone rules, mandatory character arcs and Hero’s Journeys, or any standardized thing that isn’t relevant to what’s really happening in your story. Instead, think of writing—especially erotic romance—as creation. Sure, you’re going to make some mistakes, but everyone does. That’s what learning is all about. Taking class after class after class doesn’t write books: you do! Taking class after class after class doesn’t even make you a better writer: you do!
Sure, you should seek out some teachers—especially when you are ready to step into the completely terrifying world of publishing—but don’t think that there is a guru out there who has all the answers, who is the Sacred Keeper of the Great Romance Writing Secret. If they were, wouldn’t they be sitting on their yacht sipping immaculately prepared daiquiris?
The best advice, the best lesson that anyone can give a writer, is the simplest: write. Create stories and books and on and on and on until it begins to flow and the words aren’t words anymore but just notes in a composition, until plot and character and setting and dialogue aren’t separate things but part of a greater, beautiful, whole. Once you can hold what you wrote in your hand—or on the screen—and say to yourself that what you have created is good, then you can study the lessons of how to put it out into the world.
But, until then, do everything you can to keep yourself inspired, enthusiastic, creative, thrilled, and excited about writing—by staying away from the tired idea of formulas … and keep that frog intact.