Decades ago, I recall having a conversation with a creative writing teacher in high school. She looked down her nose at the books I had in my backpack (at any given time I carried four or five books because I used to devour them during the day) and I’d made the unforgiveable error of pulling out a Harlequin romance novel at the end of her class to read. This singular act earned her disdain—how could I read such tripe? Didn’t I know the books were formulaic?
Beyond the fact that a teacher should never bag on a student for reading, judgmental snots are not my thing. Also worth mentioning, she told me she’d never bothered to read one. So how the hell would she know anyway?
A couple of years later, a journalism instructor in college snorted when she saw me sprawled on the steps near the lake reading, yep, you guessed it a Harlequin. She folded her arms, gave me this long, level stare then said, “Reading those will rot your brain. They all follow a formula, no way to be original.”
Uh huh. In the war between fiction (not real) and non-fiction (just the facts), she couldn’t provide me with comprehensive evidence of her thesis statement. Just saying.
Then in my twenties, when I worked at an IT company, I was reading a romance—it may or may not have been a Harlequin at that point—and eating my lunch outside when one of my co-workers sat across from me, snagged the book and snorted. “It’s all plug and play, I could write a computer program with a handful of variables and generate a hundred of these in a week.”
Isn’t he special? For the record, never did see that program. I’ve written nearly a hundred books, so…definitely I possess a little more empirical evidence than he did.
Let me tell you a secret, there’s no such thing as a formula to writing a romance book. People have been looking for one for years. I hear publishers tell me all the time they have cracked the code because they had one successful book or they produced ten best sellers from a sea of hundred or more. Raw statistics will tell you the same thing, if you repeat the same thing a few hundred times, one will likely break out and strike a nerve.
So if I tell you there isn’t a magical formula, I bet you may want to ask me about:
- Virgin in the title, that sells right?
- Billionaire romance, those sell?
- Forced engagement? Manufactured engagement?
I will bet you my last cup of coffee you can find a person who will say those are guaranteed to sell books and you know what, you might write one and find that yes, they do indeed sell books—for the record, I’ve written several that fall into those categories and yes, some did indeed sell.
But here is the trick, they didn’t sell because they had those items in it. They didn’t engage the reader because the tale was about a wolf or a cowboy or a Marine. The one true hard and fast rule is that the largest piece of my job when I tell a story is to engage the reader.
A cover can catch their eye. A blurb can intrigue them into opening the front. The story inside though? It has to do more than just make them pause. It has to make them feel something. At the end of the day, the story can be about anything, but if it doesn’t engage the reader, if they don’t feel something—this is why some stories fail and others succeed.
I know there are a lot of books out there that I roll my eyes when people mention or say they’ve read. Most likely because when I’ve tried to read them, I didn’t feel what the author wanted me to feel. In one case, I experienced a plethora of emotions, most negative. I didn’t like the character and you know what, that’s okay. I’ve written books, one I can think of in particular where a reader left a very heated note about how much she hated the heroine, so it happens.
Guess what? That review made me smile. I made her feel something. Now do I want the readers to experience negativity when they read me? No, not really. Yet at the same time, it’s a win.
There’s an old saying and I don’t know who to attribute it to, but my crit partners say it all the time and so does one of my editors: no tears in the author, no tears in the reader.
So before you buy into the “I have to write to a formula” or if I don’t “add this one thing my book won’t sell” remember—write what you feel, follow your joy, your tears, and your anger. If you aren’t feeling that story—if you think plug and play is the only way to go—you may find some success, but it’s not a guarantee. If your reader doesn’t feel what you intended or if you fail to make them feel at all, they might have bought that first book, but chances are they won’t buy the next.
Is it fair that there isn’t a magic formula? No one ever promised you fair. I write because it’s my passion and sharing my stories is important to me. Feeling those stories is what brings me back to my computer day after day even when my body aches and my old injuries complain. I can go to bed dry-eyed and sore, wake up the next morning and rush out here to see what happens next.
I cry for my characters. I laugh. I actually lean back and fist pump (I swear, I do, Mini once said she wanted to video me writing because apparently I have whole conversations in half-aloud, half internal while I’m writing). This is the key, I’ve written those books where the feelings aren’t there, I’ve followed my “orders” and rewritten when an editor didn’t get it or said you have to add element a or b or c because that’s what the readers want.
Truth be told, that book didn’t sell and it failed to grab the readers. Sometimes I know why—it’s because there were no tears or laughter or joy in the author. How the hell did I expect the reader to feel it, too?