I’m back to school now, which means that you are probably going to be hearing a lot about my students over the next few months. This is not a bad thing, though, because those 18-year-olds actually have a lot to share. So this semester I think I’ll write about some of the lessons I learn from them or because of them. And I hope those lessons will help us all.
I am currently staring down the barrel of my first-year college students turning in their first drafts of papers. It’s a scary time for them and the deluge of panicked emails and text messages has already started. Students love asking me to “just one more time tell me what you want me to write for this essay.”
I’m ready for that deluge, though, because I am armed with my standard — and incredibly frustrating for them — response: I’m looking for whatever you want to give me.
I was discussing this with a colleague recently and as we chuckled about the frustration we cause by saying this to our writing students, I realized that I act exactly like my students when thinking of the next book or story to write. I want to beg my reader or those editors I’m sending my manuscript to, “Please, just this one more time, tell me exactly what it is you want me to write!” And just like I do with my students, my readers will shrug and tell me, “We’re looking for whatever you want to give us.”
So here’s the lesson: write what you want to write and not what you think someone wants you to write.
Easy to say. Harder to do.
As writers, we always aim to please. We always want approval for our stories. And we want to be able to sell what we write. So we examine the markets, read books in the genres we write, follow Facebook and Twitter feeds of editors and publishing houses, and do whatever we can to figure out what it is our readers want.
The problem is that this pressure can lead us to write books we might not really want to write. Especially in the romance genre, it can be hard to make a dent. Oftentimes, big publishers are looking for very specific things in the books they buy. And, perhaps more than any other genre, romance is rife with cliches and stereotypes that sell very well.
Perhaps part of this post comes out of my recent frustration with the romance novels I’m reading. I love the promise of book descriptions. I love going on Amazon or Goodreads and finding a story that seems to have the things I want. But lately, no matter what subgenre of romance I read (cowboy and small-town stories most recently), the promise of the description quickly dissolves into the disappointment of the reality. The cliches overwhelm what might have been good characters and the knowledge that the hero and heroine must get to a happily ever after seems to take away the spark of emotion and connection between them.
I’ve realized that many of these romances now feel like the author was writing what they thought was expected. They took a barrel of cliches and set it in the story to do the work of storytelling. Like these authors didn’t take the time to work the cliches (which I’m not knocking, they can be very fun and useful!) into real people’s lives. You want to have a secret baby? Fine. A tragic past? Fine. A virgin who thinks she’ll never find the right man? Fine. But make sure that the hero and heroine deal with it like real human beings would. Don’t use it in place of genuine emotional connection.
Okay, that might have gotten a little ranty… but it was all to say that producing what you think a reader or editor wants will result in the kind of schlock that might get you by, but doesn’t really get you ahead.
As I buckle down to work on a new draft, it’s worth remembering that if I am writing the book I want to write, chances are that someone else will love it, someone else will see on the page my love for the story, someone else will think it’s good.
So just like my students, I will write the story that I want to write, turn it in, and hope that I get an A on this one.