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.