Your Fantasy, Or Mine

Some of my friends talked me into entering my latest book in the RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s annual contest. One of the requirements for entering is you have to judge seven books. And since they don’t want you to judge the category you’re entered in, the books they send are a random mix of other sub-genres. The entries I received were all over the place: I had a short historical romance (the same genre as I write although with fewer words), two short contemporary romances, two contemporary novellas, a romantic suspense and an M/M romance (love story about two guys).

You might think the M/M romance would be the hardest for me to evaluate, because it’s a genre I don’t read and also completely outside my own experience. But actually, the only trouble I had with the M/M romance was deciding if it really was a love story or a mainstream, coming-of-age novel that featured a romance. (One of the RITA eligibility requirements is that the book has to have a romance as its main focus.)

The books I really struggled with were the short contemporaries. At first reading, they seemed hopelessly clichéd. For one thing, in both books the heroes were billionaires, and in a position to provide the heroine with a life of total ease and comfort. Right. And we know how often that happens in real life. And there were other well-used tropes: a secret baby, a mix-up between twins, and a hero who is a shallow playboy until he meets the one woman, the heroine, he can’t live without.

I sighed as I started the first short contemporary. Then I began to get depressed. Both of these books were published by the biggest romance publishers out there, and had worldwide distribution. I’m sure the authors have made several times as much money on their books as I made on my romance published by a small press. But that wasn’t really what discouraged me. What got to me was the realization that these books were much more successful than mine because of the fantasy they presented. No matter how trite and ridiculous it seems to me, that fantasy is clearly shared by enormous numbers of readers. These books were successful because they gave those readers what they wanted, and what those thousands of readers wanted was a fantasy that had no meaning for me.

This realization put me in a tailspin. I began to wonder if there was any point to my continuing to write romances. For a couple of days, I considered changing genres. But the vast majority of the story ideas that come to me are romances, and they’re what I enjoy writing. They are also the only genre in which I’ve ever had any real success. So it seems stupid to stop writing romance now.

I shook off the mood of gloom and defeat and finished reading the two contemporary romances. And one of them, I have to say I actually enjoyed. It seemed silly in places and some of the plot twists made me roll my eyes, and the author changed viewpoint so much that any editor I’ve ever had would have thrown up their hands in despair. But overall it was a fun read. A bite of cotton candy compared to the dark, gritty mysteries that make up a large portion of my reading fare.

The book was gone from my mind nearly as soon as I finished it. But while I was reading, I have to admit I experienced a pleasant escape from real life. I can almost understand why books like this are so popular. Because it is fun to completely forget reality for a time and pretend. Fantasies are wonderful things that can get us through our often unlovely, sometimes miserable lives.

I still struggle with the fact that my preferred romantic fantasy is a lot different than most readers. But I remind myself that there are some people who share my vision. Who want a love story where the characters are a little more flawed and realistic and face real danger and conflict. Over the years, I’ve sold quite a few books and some have been nominated for awards. I’ve received fan mail and interacted with a number of readers who thoroughly enjoyed my books. Not many, maybe. Not enough to make this a career that will pay my bills. But enough to make it worthwhile for me to keep writing. Because although the number of readers may be small, as a writer, I’m providing an enjoyable escape for more people than simply myself.

On a final note, one of the novellas was exceptional, and the historical romance was pretty good, too. And I learned a lot, not only about romance and romance readers, but about myself.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

9 thoughts on “Your Fantasy, Or Mine

  1. A couple of years ago I decided to try my hand at young contemporary romance. I read a bunch, had the same impression as you described about not great literature, and whipped one out in less than two months. Started another, got 3/4 of the way through and had to quit. It is not my genre. I thought I could fake it, but I found I disliked it too much. They sure sell well, though. I watched three seasons of Married At First Sight, so I can’t judge anyone on the quality of entertainment they wallow in!

    • Although I’ve known a few writers who can easily switch genres based on market trends, I think most of us have to write what we write, whether it’s popular or not. But it does help me to realize what are the key fantasies that romance readers are looking for and try to weave a little of that into my books.

  2. I don’t read a lot of romance, but every Christmas season I watch every single one of those Hallmark Channel holiday love stories. They really do put me in a happy place, and I think that’s what romance should be about. I’m trying to write a short romance (and I do work on it from time to time), but writing is a whole lot different from reading or watching a movie. It’s a struggle. Writing about crime is so much easier for me. I know my mother and aunt would like to see something a little kindler and gentler from me…

  3. Good morning, ladies!
    Mary, you can be counted on to introduce meaty topics in your blogs. I hope writing continues to bring you joy. Thanks to indie publishing, high quality stories can now also find the light of day, i.e., readers who fall in love with the stories, too. I believe I read recently that the New Adult genre (not my cup of tea, but hey) originated in the indie publishing camp. When the trad camp saw the sales numbers, they hopped in, too, so once in a while (and I predict with growing frequency in the future), indie published writers will define more new genres, so keep writing!

    • I agree. Indi-publishing has been a huge boon for writers who write in the less popular sub-genres. That knowledge has given me the encouragement to rewrite this medieval book, knowing that there is a market out there (small though it may be) for more realistic, historically-based stories.

  4. When I read other books, I’m reminded of why I started writing to begin with – because I have stories in my head I have to tell, and because no one else is telling quite exactly the stories I want to read. Many come close, but a lot fall down on the job in one respect or another. So I write them.

    • That’s so true. Good reminder of why I started to write in the first place. I would read books I enjoyed but they were not quite how I would have told the story. And I do believe there is room in the market for all kinds of stories. So, as you say, that’s why we keep at it.

  5. Great post, Mary, and a great conversation. I spent a year, a long time ago, trying to write a genre romance. I just couldn’t get it right, which amazed me because I have to have a romance in everything I write, because I love romance. All the comments are right on. What a fun subject for all of us to talk about. Maybe a panel at conference? Go for it, Mary.

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