Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bonnets and Bees

I had something I was going to blog about this week... but then I went on a small tirade on one of my loops last night, and Molly convinced me to blog about that instead -- saying we could use a little controversy.

Not that I'm sure it's that controversial. Ah, well.

Source of my tirade:

It never ceases to amaze me how tied up in knots people can get in RWA-land. Now, everyone who knows me knows I love RWA. I think it's an amazing organization filled with amazing and talented and generous people, but in any organization of 9,000 or so members, there's going to be some element of "crazy".

The current source of my crazy fodder comes from my membership in a relatively new RWA chapter called "Elements of RWA". For those of you not riveted to the ups and downs of RWA, there's a category defined for the two big RWA contests called "Novel with Strong Romantic Elements". (One of my projects was a finalist in that category in the Golden Heart last year.) There was some controversy a while back when the RWA board proposed eliminating that category from the unpublished contest, while leaving it in the published one. Sorry for the backstory... But it was around that time that this new chapter was formed and because some great published authors I really respect, (like Allison Brennan), were involved in the forming of this new chapter, I decided to join.

But in reading many of the chapter discussions online, I'm getting the impression that the chapter's become a home to many unpublished romance writers who think the reason they aren't published is because what they're doing is "too different" for romance. That the reason the editors aren't snapping up their work is because they as writers aren't willing to color within the defined lines of romance or follow the formulas.

To this I say, WHAAAAT?

I admit, as many of you know, when I first got involved in the romance writing/publishing industry, I came in with some preconceived notions about romance and formula. These misconceptions are so prevalent it's hard not to. And based on the advice some people will give you, there can appear to be a lot of rules in romance. Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jayne Ann Krentz do a workshop where they call these advisers the "romance nazi's" and claim the one thing these people have in common, beyond thinking they know all the rules about romance, is that they are either unpublished or have sagging, lackluster careers. From what I've observed, I agree. (Oh, I agree with SEP and JAK. How daring of me. LOL)

Sure there are common elements, plot devices, styles and techniques, that work well in romance and are therefore used often... but anyone who's tried to write a novel, knows that these things are just the tools or skill set of a professional fiction writer. Not a freaking formula you can plug things into and out pops a book. I wish.

In reading the romances I've picked up and enjoyed in the past year or so... Authors like Sherry Thomas, and J.R. Ward, and Marjorie M. Lui, and Eve Kenin, and Joanne Bourne etc. etc. etc. It's so clear to me that breaking the mold, being different, garners more success than being derivative. Pushing boundaries is so the new black.

So, what got me all riled up last night was people trying to define "romantic elements" so that it might include just about any freaking romance written, claiming we RE writers were the ones trying to break free of the boundaries of formulaic romances. And I suppose I should be okay with a really inclusive definition of RE. I mean, why not be inclusive. But seriously... IF YOU'RE WRITING A ROMANCE, CALL IT A ROMANCE!!!

Romance is a huge market with a plethora of sub-genres for just about any taste, and oodles of dedicated and voracious readers, so it baffles me why anyone would try to claim a book that has a romantic relationship at it's core and a happily ever after ending would try to categorize their book in any other way. (Especially if they want the book to be popular/commercial fiction vs. literary fiction that might be up for the big awards.)**

To me, the RE category is for books where plot elements other than the romance are more important to the story, but there's still a strong romance subplot in the book. The main plot might be a "women's fiction plot" (like family or friend relationships, or a woman's journey spurred by a major change in her life), or a chick lit plot of coming-of-age self-discovery, or suspense, or thriller, or mystery, or sci-fi, or fantasy -- but all books where the romance plot isn't central enough to call the book a romance. Now, obviously, no black and white lines here... Whose to say when a book crosses the line from being a suspense with romantic elements or a chick lit with romantic elements into being a romance. But I really don't think -- in spite of the totally ambiguous, and in my opinion too vague to be helpful, definition that RWA came up with for this contest category, (BTW. I don't envy, and completely admire the people who took on this task) -- that they meant for stories with a central romance plot to fall into this category. At least not often.

I think the problem is contests... Contest have their place, (great way for newbie writers to get feedback and experienced, unagented writers to get onto the desks of agents and editors) but by their nature, rules have to be defined for contests and categories described. And this makes the entire industry look more rule-oriented than it is. I'm sure many of the more innovative romances on the market these days wouldn't have done well in contests for unpublished writers. But who cares? Shouldn't writers care more about what agents/editors are saying about their work than contest judges? If they think their craft is up to snuff, but they're still bombing in contests because judges "don't get" what they're doing, or think their romance novel falls outside the "rules of romance", then they should submit it to some industry professionals and see what they think. If they get rejected all over the place with little positive feedback, chances are the problem isn't being too different, chances are it's not being good enough.

And if your book's a romance, I say call it a romance. I'll bet many queries get rejected because of unnecessarily complicated genre descriptions. "My novel XXXX is a sexy sci-fi fantasy with suspense and romance elements, and inspirational overtones." It behooves writers to know the market and where their novel fits into it.

Believe me. No editor is going to say, "Boy, I'm just dying to find the next great romantic elements novel." WHY??? Because that category of books does not exist in the publishing industry. RWA just made it up for contests.

Rant over...

**I've just thought of an exception. A time when you might not call a spade a spade... and it's based on industry trends. For example, 3-4 years ago, tons of books I'd call romances were published as chick lit. Some people say chick lit was "about the voice", but to me, the plethora of romances put out as chick lit was just the romance publishers trying to glom onto a trend. And, of course, I think it was those romances-in-chick-lit-clothing that KILLED the market for chick lit... But that's another rant.


L.A. Mitchell said...

I could see the steam from down here :) I, too, have watched the Elements discussion unfold. I think it's human nature to want to fit in to a niche and be able to define what that is. The mere fact that Elements has now become a niche has made it a destination. Does that make sense? Good, explain it to me :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Enjoyed your rant, Maureen.

I really liked several people involved in the formation of the Elements chapter and was very curious about it last year...but, ultimately, I didn't join because one of the posts I read came across as very "us" vs. "them"--and I'd been dealing with enough divisiveness in some of my other groups :).

Interesting that it's kind of gone the other way now with this attempt to include traditional romantic plots within the category. I didn't know about this...

J.K. Coi said...

Ah, I love a good rant! I know absolutely nothing about "romantic elements" as a separate genre. I kinda just figured it was mainly written for a genre other than romance, but since it had a hint of romance in it, the marketing gurus decided to maximize on the popularity of the romance genre and double their potential readership.

I didn't realize that it was more than just a sales tool, that we had actually gotten an RWA Chapter devoted to it.

Anonymous said...

Love it when you rant.
Lots of people are looking for reasons why their work don't sell, and the market is a really easy reason, far better than really working on our weaknesses and getting better.
The market is tough right now, but the right book, no matter what the romance mix will sell in time.

Maureen McGowan said...

Marilyn, I don't think the chapter's board is trying to do this, but they've basically said anyone writing anything can call it RE if they want to. Which I guess is fine. And I'm sure the people I'm ranting about are just a vocal minority... But it's getting annoying.

Some people were taking umbrage with contest coordinators who make up their own definitions for the category... defining it "wrong" which I supposed I did for the Toronto Romance Writers contest... Because my definition made more sense and was clearer to me. :-) And I'm running it. So there.

Maria Geraci said...

Well said, Maureen!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Sing it Maureen!

I'm leery of any writer's group whose members concentrate more on what's wrong with the industry that isn't allowing them to sell thier book, rather than what writers can do to improve thier chances of selling books.

Every group needs to have the freedom to rant and rave and nash teeth -- but in the end if the group isn't offering you ways to get better and is only letting you wallow in the frustration -- time to go.

If a book is really groundbreaking, really different it's going to get rejections, but it's going to get rejections with feedback. And someone somewhere is going to love it - but probably not in a contest.

I think going on L.A.'s point that Elements has become a destination -- RWA has niched it's niches. We're niche crazy, trying to find a place for everyone and every book - and Maureen is right - so much of it is just for the contests

Annette Gallant said...

Great post, Maureen! RE is a tricky one to define, as are some of the other genres out there.

At first I was classifying my manuscript as chick lit. Then I started calling it a contemporary romance, and even entered it in an online contest as such. The agent running the contest said it sounded more like women's fiction, so now that's what I'm calling it.

And personally, I think you did a great job of doing the contest categories. Spelled it all out really well.

M. said...

food for thought.

a friend forwarded a recent agent blog post about how the term chicklit ' dead - feel free to remove from your writer's terminology'. apparently, now there is simply women's fiction, light or regular flavor. who knew?

Wylie Kinson said...

Hey - anything taking the sh*tstorm away from erotic romance vs porn has my gratitude *tee hee*
Let the in-fighting begin!

Maureen McGowan said...


Yup... I like the term light women's fiction SO much better, anyway. Sadly, changing the name of the genre didn't open up the market. But I've heard from a few places, the tide might be turning. Let's hope.


LOL Sadly I think this is a controversy largely in my own mind. :-) I just felt like the attitude of a vocal minority in this chapter was wack. (Wack. Am I cool or what?)

Anonymous said...

I'm unpublished and the 'us vs them' picture came across clearly to me as well.

Thanks for that rant, Molly. I continue to hear comments from my unpubbed author friends like, 'Oh, I shouldn't do a flashback or 'they' say not to begin with a prologue' or 'I worry about multiple povs.'

So many rules stifle the imagination if you concentrate on them more than your own style.

I was reading a Greg Iles thriller recently and was struck by its Romantic elements. This niche business could become a monster. lol

Anonymous said...

All excellent points, Maureen. I was a member of this group before it was RWA-approved and I was thinking about rejoining but I'm not sure it's for me.

I saw the same thing when the Chick Lit chapter was first formed - I was excited to have the focus be on chick lit but so many members were romance authors not writing chick lit - and I think there's a difference.

Interesting point, too, about knowing if your book isn't selling because of the genre or the writing or the market or what, exactly, the problem is.

I have many problems with contests, but I don't need to list them here. :)

What other brilliant points did you make that I was going to mention? Oh, just all of them. :)

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, Kathy... it really does remind me of the early days of that chick lit chapter. Hopefully it doesn't lead to another melt down like happened there... I should stop posting on that loop and keep my trap shut here, too. Only going to fuel people's fires...

Kimber Chin said...

I SO agree that if your novel is a romance, call it a romance. Sure, it might not impress hoity toity literary buddies but you'll more than make up for it with warm fuzzies from the very supportive romance community.

Wylie, someone told me that my first novel Breach Of Trust is erotica. I don't think it is (because my publisher prides herself on resisting the dollar lure of erotica) but if it makes folks happy to slot it in that category than darn it, it is erotica.

I simply write the books. I'll let someone else shelf them.

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