If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that Inkling Creative Strategies was inspired by the relationship between C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the rest of their pals at Oxford University.
What amazes me about the Inklings is that they cared about not just the work but the people writing it. Lewis and Tolkien in particular lived out this reality, as neither of them really cared much for what the other was creating. Still, they recognized the passions they each had for their projects and that they’d been blessed with the responsibility to help bring them to fruition.
I try to embody these same values in the work I do as an editor, regardless of what the project I’m helping with might be.
But—would it surprise you to learn that the top genre among people I’ve worked with in the last couple of months is . . . romance?
Before I go any further, let me give a quick disclaimer: Inkling Creative Strategies is selective about its approach to this genre. My sensibilities as a writer disqualify me from working with erotica and overtly sexual plots. If you are a romance author interested in working with me and aren’t sure if your book qualifies, let’s chat.
I do, however, accept clean romance novels, particularly those with humor or where the love story at the center provides a setting for characters to deal with personal conflicts that aren’t directly related to relationships.
[End disclaimer here and resume the blog post proper.]
Romance novels aren’t what I read and are even less of what I write. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story with a functional romantic relationship in it, ever (which might say more about me than the characters).
However . . . I’m here to help writers reach their full creative potential to impact and inspire readers, which means I’m also here for the love stories.
I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about the necessity of reading things outside your personal preferences. Those same principles apply to helping writers with their projects. However, the thing I have loved about working on these romance novels is that I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good story. So, given that we are in the final days of the month that brings us Valentine’s Day, I want to share some of those lessons with you.
It’s Not About the Romance
Romance novels may have love as the central focus, but if your characters are well-rounded, realistic, and complex, the book is usually about more than that.
The best romantic stories portray budding relationships that cause the characters to confront serious personal and emotional issues that have been holding them back from fully experiencing life.
My client Havelah McLat is a master at weaving the psychology of her characters together with the potential for them to find happiness in love. Her debut novel A Forever Summer tells the story of Katherine, a young woman with PTSD and memory loss due to her mother’s death in a car accident that also injured Katherine.
Moreover, the book begins in the aftermath of the loss of her father. Katherine struggles with severe mental health issues, including fear of losing people close to her, rejection, and even guilt over her mother’s death.
When Katherine meets Janson, a charming real estate agent she’s hired to sell a house her father left her in his will, there is an instant attraction (as well as a lot more stuff I won’t ruin for readers). She wants to be close to him . . . but she also is terrified.
What if he rejects her because of her complicated past? What if she is forced to deal with complex feelings she’s buried since her mother died?
Also, Janson’s got a LOT of stuff of his own going on.
McLat never actually comes out and says any of this. But as a reader, I connected the dots and saw that there is much more to Katherine than she is aware of.
The real question isn’t whether Katherine and Janson will end up together. Instead, it’s whether the two characters can get themselves out of their own way enough to discover that they are the key to dealing with each others’ issues.
Good writing is about the external elements of a story as well as the internal ones. Just because the key external conflict is a love story doesn’t mean the interior lives of the characters don’t exist.
In fact, I’d argue that they have to exist even more.
It Can Be Genre-Bending
The funniest book I read last year, bar none, was David Allen Edmonds’s Unexpected Love. Edmonds, a fellow local author, wrote this romance during the lockdown of the pandemic after watching hours of Hallmark movies with his wife.
Fully familiarized with the conventions of the channel’s notoriously saccharine films, he decided to try his hand at writing one himself in a way that puts a satirical spin on the genre.
In the book, Maggie and Brent are the sweethearts of their small town of Benton Center, Ohio, to the point where their personal lives have become the business of everyone in the gossipy community. So when the two are ready to take the next step in their relationship, its citizens take to social media and the local coffee shop to speculate on the details of their wedding, when Brent will propose, and even where they’ll live.
So Maggie and Brent decide to take matters into their own hands. They’re going to teach their community a lesson by taking control of the narrative themselves.
What follows is a hilarious story of revenge and deception with echoes of Shakespearean comedy. The genius of this book is that it takes a genre that is both commonly known and commonly ridiculed and mashes it up with the Bard himself.
It’s like a modern-day small-town romance adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Maybe with some Pride and Prejudice thrown in, too.
Romantic stories don’t have to be purely Hallmark-ish. Borrowing those seemingly lackluster conventions and combining them with other types of stories can create something pretty genius.
You Don’t Always Have to Like the Characters
I’m working with an author on the final edits of the third book in a unique series she’s writing: basketball romance.
The series centers around Mae-Belle, a young woman who becomes the heroine of her own Cinderella story when the star player on a new basketball team in her hometown falls in love with her. But dating a professional athlete comes at the price of her anonymity and quiet life in suburban Ohio. Throughout the series, she fights opposition to the relationship on every side. The first two books are currently available on Amazon.
I wasn’t familiar with the previous two books, but when I heard “basketball romance,” I expected as a reader to be entertained at the very least.
What I didn’t expect was to be yelling at the characters like I was the one at a basketball game.
Here’s what makes Brown’s work so great: these characters already break the mold of what you would expect from a romance (read the books to see what I mean), but they are so humanly flawed that there are times in the story when you do not like them.
Brown has even told me that she doesn’t even like her own characters sometimes, which I think is a testament to the power of the story.
Romance characters aren’t cardboard cutouts or cookie cutters—not if the author is really doing her job. The fact is, relationships are messy in real life. People do stupid things. They aren’t just magical and romantic all the time.
Romance novels are often accused of portraying an unrealistic, overly-idealized version of love that can be toxic in real life. I’d argue that truly excellent writers can find a way to portray the passion of the relationship while still showing the flawed humanity of the protagonists.
Curious to learn how I work with clients and make books like these happen? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss your project, burning questions, and current writing hang-ups and learn more about my services for authors.