A couple of years ago, my friends and I were standing in the courtyard of our college, getting lung cancer from second-hand smoke, talking about breaking into the publishing world, and how difficult it is these days. We were all writers, hence the conversation and the smoke. And then Brian, who is probably the most talented person I have ever been privileged to attend a workshop with, said, “I’ve thought of writing a romance novel.”
There was a moment of silence as we all tried to get our heads around the idea of Brian, composer of the most lyrically disturbing prose about death and betrayal, writing a fluffy little novel about some girl too cute to say “Boo!” to a goose and the Prince Charming who bravely manages to make it scram and thus wins her heart. And then the sheer genius of it struck us.
There we were, paying through our noses to formally understand what came most instinctively to us and playing around with structure and language – we couldn’t just write 200 pages of a love story; we were overqualified for it. And God knew, the romance market might see swings just like any other in the publishing industry but it’s one of the most stable markets that exist. Women make up the majority market in most cases anyway, but add a little romance and you have yourself a success story.
Brian got the idea from working at a bookstore – he’d see the women march past with a stack of paperbacks, all of them with dark-eyed Italian men who sweep English roses off their feet, or American cowboys dishing out some down home lovin’ to the prissy city girl in her shiny new Macy’s boots. I was in a position to reinforce his observation – my brother and I had been wiggling our eyebrows at each other in the library for years as we watched one auntie after college girl stagger out of the Mills and Boon aisle with 10 or 20 slim books. I could well remember the day when my own aunt had decided that it was time I began to read some grown-up literature – and bought me a copy of my very own Barbara Cartland, which nearly robbed me of my parents as they tried hard not to die laughing.
Digression: for those of you poor mortals who have no idea what I’m talking about – Dame Cartland was an old lady much addicted to Romance. Not only in her work but in her own life too. She stared out at her readers from the back of her 8,000-word “novels”, which she churned out by the dozens every year and which eventually turned her into the most published author ever, dressed in frothy pink with some unfortunate canine midget dressed in a jewelled collar lolling around on a daybed in some drafty mansion in cold England. Her books were all about the most improbably named heroines, blonde if they were English, red-haired if Scottish and brunettes in rare cases. They would all get into trouble, usually of the financial or sexual kind, be rescued by a titled gentleman, frequently a Prince from some unheard of, tiny, Balkan kingdom and then after marriage were “taken to the Sun and the Moon and the Stars.” Insert your own orgasm joke here.
Back in my college courtyard, we kicked the idea back and forth and then laid it aside, too caught up in our ‘real’ work. But over the last year, I was in an odd position. Drained by my normal work, I still wished to write – if you’ve ever had an addiction, you’ll understand perfectly – but I somehow couldnt get into my existing project. I was still resisting the idea of a blog for reasons unknown and so decided to recharge my batteries with a romance novel.
The first thing I did, as anyone my age would do, is consult my friend Google. It got back to me in a matter of seconds and told me that where there is romance, there is Harlequin. This juggernaut of the romance industry owned the lionshare of the business and with a deep understanding of its market, had set up a website that was shortly to prove very useful to me.
It provided a community for writers, it offered to critique my finished or unfinished work for what it called a reasonable fee, although if I had that kind of money to waste on somebody else’s opinion it is doubtful that I would be writing a romance novel in the first place. It offered guidelines and contact information, it had message boards, writing tips, classes in the nitty gritties of novel writing – in short, apart from the excellent teaching staff, the website almost had more resources than my school and it didn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars. Thoughtfully, I closed the browser and decided not to mention my discovery to my parents, otherwise known as Footers of All Bills.
The two major pieces of advice the webiste gave me was to acquaint myself with the product and write what I loved the most. So I went out to the library and got a few dozen paperbacks while studiously avoiding the eye of the librarian who’d witnessed many a snicker between my brother and I. I went on Amazon and ordered me a few of those .01 cent romances they have in the used section because I sure as hell wasn’t going to pay full price for supermarket checkout lane reading.
I then settled down to read what was ‘out there’.
‘Out there’ was a strange world. There were a few basics that I understood immediately such as:
1. The girl is pretty. In the rare event she is not jaw-droppingly do-able, then she is sweet, brave, vulnerable, smart and competent. If you’re a dimwit and you have PMS then you must be a tramp. God help you if you’ve ever had an abortion because that’s who it will take to save you from the serial killer/car accident/plague/pestilence/hellfire/etc. that’s coming your way. The heroine, however, because she is pure, will escape said fate.
2. The man is rich. And he is always a man. Not a boy. Young love and blah blah blah but everyone knows the men is where it’s at. It doesn’t matter if he’s ugly as sin because he’s rich and powerful, often physically. He is either manically happy [in case the heroine is depressed about life] or else he’s dark and brooding [in case the heroine has a savior complex]. Also, millionaires are passe. Let’s bring out the billionaires. Oh, yeah!
3. Every man should read one. Women understand women best. It’s true. I almost found out more about sex by reading those things than listening to Sue Johansen [the Sex Grandma anybody?] on the Oxygen channel. Please note that I said ‘almost’. That’s because the Sex Grandma talks about oral sex and anal probes and other fascinating things. In the world of the genteel romance, the former might be euphemistically and briefly alluded to but the latter is frowned upon. Well, I don’t know actually. The word ‘anal’ was entirely absent from all the books I read. I think it comes under Perversions to be Practised Solely by Tramps.
After I’d been at it for a while, enough at all events to determine who were my favorite authors – Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer and Betty Neels – I settled down and thought of a story. It had to have a girl and a man and they had to end up happily ever after. In between first sighting and the riding into the sunset, they had to resolve a conflict. Those were my parameters. I then mulled over the second valuable piece of advice shelled out by the Harlequin website – love what you write.
I wasn’t so sure about that part. I mean, after all those weeks of reading, I could see why so many people loves these: they were comforting in a way. This was a world where you knew you were going to have a happy ending, no worries. They let you explore the big emotional highs of hate, anger, jealousy, fearn and love for a short period in which you could either translate all of those feelings which occur in your real life to this imaginary world where everything retains the capacity to turn out perfect or you could immerse yourself in this character’s feelings and feel them for yourself.
But I wasn’t sure whether I could learn to love it, especially when I had to write it. Anyway, I opened up a fresh page of Word and began.
The first thing I learnt was that I was a condescending jerk. Romance novels might be considered fluff, but they’re hard work. You need to keep on top of dialogue and you need to tell a story cleanly and simply in about 30,000 words and you have to rework plotlines and characters that might seem hackneyed to you but learn to overcome your prejudice and deliver in such a way that it doesn’t come across as cheesy to the reader.
It didnt work out in the end – after struggling manfully with everything, the structure defeated me… I needed more to work with, what with my rambling style and my addiction to million dollar words and frankly, I was a little uncomfortable with the sex scenes. Erotica isn’t in my immediate future, I’m sad to say. Repressed Indian chicks will eventually exhibit their repression at some stage. I sniff.
And to carry honesty one step further, I’ll admit that I was also a bit afraid of success. Not success itself, mind you, but success in this genre. At the back of my mind was the worry – what if I’m really good at this? What if this is that one thing that I am good at? I could see the obit already, “Amrita Rajan, the Second Cartland, died today…” At least Cartland was an original.
But the dialogue was fascinating. I had always had problems interjecting dialogue into my work and the romance novel is mostly dialogue-driven. After an inital awkwardness, I was able to jump the invisible hurdle I had placed between myself and the characters and let them talk to each other. I then worked on a couple of short stories – romantic ones, with possibly very little literary merit but ones that drew on the dialogue.
By the time I went back to my original project, a piece of literary memoir, my style had changed drastically. While traces of my indulgence towards language and style remained, I was no longer wallowing in pages of rambling prose as I groped my way along a plotline. I could not only recognize structure when I saw it, but I could even take a fair stab at sticking to it.
The novel itself remains incomplete, with just one copy in existence today – the first 150 pages, neatly bound and double spaced, autographed and given to my best friend as a gag gift. It is our sincere hope that one day I will be in a position to be blackmailed with it. Amen.
I may not have contributed much to the romance genre, but it sure contributed a lot to me.
[Originally published at Blogcritics.org, 2006]