When I learned via Twitter that Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was coming to Vancouver to do a one-day seminar on Writing the Romance Novel as part of Simon Fraser University’s Summer Publishing Workshops, I thought, “Hey, that sounds like fun, but I don’t want to write romance.” On the other hand, my chance of going to a romance conference is pretty slim, so why not have a kind of “mini-conference” experience talking to other romance lovers and learning from Sarah, whose blog helped introduce me to the wonders of romance? And probably I’d learn things that would make me a more insightful reader and critic of romance. So on Tuesday, I headed downtown to do just that.
There were six students, women (surprise!) of a range of ages; some were regular romance readers, others hadn’t read it for years; some were working on novels, some wanted to take a first stab at writing and/or editing romance. We spent the morning talking about our experience as readers and what our expectations of romance were, and getting an overview of the genre from Sarah. After a slightly boozy lunch, we worked together to come up with a concept for a novel (hero, heroine, basic situation) and then each wrote a scene, which some of us then read aloud.
It was a great day. If you’ve met Sarah, you know she’s just as smart, funny, and passionate about romance in person as she is in her on-line persona. I don’t really have anyone in “real life” with whom I can have the kind of conversations I have on-line about the romance genre, so a day of face-to-face conversation with an interesting and funny group of people was a treat.
And here’s what I learned (mostly about myself, it turns out):
1. You’re all glad you don’t have to avoid my self-pubbed romance offerings on Kindle. I could come up with a sense of what I wanted my scene to be “about,” the emotional core of it. But in 45 minutes I produced a scene with no dialogue. At least my grammar is OK! Could I get better? Sure. But I don’t feel any burning desire to write fiction. We could be hearing from some of the other people there one day, though. And I do think this exercise made me a more informed reader with a better sense of what goes into a good book.
2. I have learned a lot about romance as a genre and as an industry in the last couple of years. Because I mostly talk about romance with people on the internet who know a lot more than I do, I hadn’t really realized how much I know about the history and breadth of the genre, prevalent tropes in romance, the way it’s published, the impact of e-books, who writes and reads it, and so on. I tend to think of my web surfing as time wasting, but the discussions in the seminar made me see just how much it’s broadened my knowledge, and how much this knowledge has enriched my reading. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people I’ve learned from, thank you!
3. I’m a romance reader because of all the people in internet Romancelandia having smart, funny, impassioned conversations about romance. Although I’d read the occasional genre romance as a “guilty pleasure,” my reading of romance took off when my husband gave me an e-reader for Christmas three years ago. The first books I bought were the kind I’d been embarrassed to buy or be seen reading. And then I needed to find more good ones, which took me to Smart Bitches and Dear Author, both of which I’d heard of somewhere, and from the comments there to many other blogs. I think this makes me shallow and snobby, but finding out that smart women read romance and have interesting things to say about it really helped to remove the guilt from my pleasure. More than that, engaging in these conversations and learning from them has meant that I read romance more thoughtfully, not just as an escapist throw-away. There’s nothing wrong with escapist reading, but for me, reading has to be deeper and more intellectually engaged if it’s going to hold my interest for long. I’ve gotten so much pleasure from my reading of and about romance. For that, too, I’m grateful.
4. Reading romance has made me braver. I am a shy and anxious person, uncomfortable in new situations and groups of strangers (pretty ironic, but common, for a teacher–my job is stressful for me, though I’ve gotten more at ease in front of the classroom over the years). In the past week I asked Sarah over Twitter why she was coming to Vancouver, phoned up to register for the seminar, spent a day talking to a group of strangers (one of whom is “famous” in Romancelandia and whom I have a blogging girl-crush on), and read my crappy fiction aloud without too much apology or embarrassment. All of those things were hard for me to some degree, but I did them. I’m not sure I would have done any of them two or three years ago.
That’s not all. I’ve been brave enough to “come out” to some of my English department colleagues (OK, mostly the ones who blog about comic books, but still) about my romance reading and talk about why I like it. I’ve commented on other people’s blogs, ventured onto Twitter, and started blogging myself. I haven’t attached my real name to my blog, it’s true, but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out (I just don’t want it to come up if students google me); since people I work with follow me on Twitter, they can find their way here if they want. Other romance readers have been my role models for doing all this. Since the direction of my career has meant I haven’t engaged in scholarly writing for a long time, edging back into some form of literary criticism via blogging means a lot to me.
So Smart Bitch Sarah, Romancelandia, and romance novels, thanks for all you’ve done for me!