The “right” way to write romance

It’s said that the effectiveness of a story lies in the storyteller’s unique approach to revealing a fundamental truth of the human condition. By nature, writers must ponder a provocative array of existential questions, draw sketchy conclusions at best, envision a stirring character monologue about the death of consciousness mid-shower, fail to get dressed as the slow realization that this may be a poor vehicle for exposition descends upon them like an albatross, waste precious time thinking about the precious time they’re wasting, envision an omnipresent goat, burn their tongue on hot coffee while experiencing an epiphany, return to the drawing board, and frantically type eleven pages before breakfast.

I mean, what? I have never done this.

But few things about the human condition fascinate me more than the psychology of love.

I consider myself agnostic, a strong supporter of science, and a deeply passionate person. In fact, I’m a hopeless, bleeding heart romantic. But these traits aren’t mutually exclusive.

And I can’t describe my outlook on love and romance without telling the story of the first time I fell in love.

I met my future husband at age 16 at an outdoor summer concert in our Central Oregon hometown (Beck was playing), upon introduction by a mutual friend who I arrived with.

Up until that point in my adolescence, I had only pined for crushes in monk-like silence, as though if I channeled my feelings through osmosis they’d magically pick up on them. The few times we did have conversations, I resented always being the first one to make a move (little me and adult me are similar that way). So something about this guy was especially disarming, because we actually managed some mutual awkward flirting before the show started. At one point, he asked if I was able to see over people’s heads.

“Not really,” I said.

He asked, “Do you want me to make you tall?”

I replied in the enthusiastic affirmative, and he hoisted me up above his shoulders, literally sweeping me off my feet, reader. I gazed above a small sea of hipsters and watched the sound techs checking the equipment on stage as the sun set.

About halfway through Beck’s set, my concert-going-pro friend had slyly noodled her way up to the front row (I would learn later that this was a deliberate move, and the whole thing was a set-up. As far as I’m concerned, I owe this clever friend a life debt).

By the time night fell, a mosh pit had broken out among the rowdier attendees, causing the two of us to lose our balance, toppling into bystanders and each other. An unanticipated circumstance (this was a Beck concert, after all), but nonetheless, there we were.

In the throes of those sweaty bodies, pot fumes, and Beck’s sweet sweet crooning (seriously, we’ll never remember how the moshing began), future husband took it upon himself to gently scoop me into his arms to prevent potential bruising or trampling. There was no grand romantic intention — he just thought, “There is a petite girl here and I’m going to keep her safe” and did the thing.

Lucky for both of us, I thought it was romantic as hell, and proceeded to cling to him for the remainder of the entire evening. He didn’t let go, either, even after everyone around us calmed down. Instead we just kind of hugged each other, both avoiding eye contact while looking at the stage. (It was hard not to look at this cute boy, though, and that’s saying something as Beck had a back-up band of puppets. Puppets.)

I’m not going to pretend this wasn’t anything short of meet-cute cliche. This was a scene straight out of a Cameron Crowe rom-com. This was a summer night, two strangers in the middle of a crowd feeling like the only two there, and as the haunting strains of Beck’s “Broken Drum” echoed in my bones while my head rested on future-husband’s chest, I knew I was having A Moment. I like to think I knew right then, because even if love itself doesn’t exist at first sight, the possibility of it felt very real, and is basically the same thing.

We’ve been together ever since (11 years), and yeah, he proposed at the same place too. Surrounded by our friends. With a ring he had made from his mother’s diamond.

I’m telling this story to illustrate the point that love can be entirely unpredictable and entirely like some love stories lead you to believe. It can be both, and that doesn’t make the romance less valid.

That’s why when I read a romantic narrative that others complain of being “forced,” “unrealistic,” or “cliche,” I hesitate to be so critical. If you’ve ever fallen in love, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve loved long enough and hard enough you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes it’s not a problem of characterization, but of personal preference, which is why readers ship different pairings and love what they love. It’s all good.

But don’t confuse my romanticism with a rose-tinted outlook. I’m also one of the quickest to challenge the things society romanticizes — superficial and performative “romantic” gestures, the patriarchal roots of institutions such as marriage, the white/heteronormative/cisgender/monogamous narrative most often imposed on us by the media that neglects so many beautiful ways to love.

Other love-related tropes in stories I roll my eyes at (and occasionally viciously skewer with my pen of justice):

  • “Marriage is a prison that will make your life miserable.” I mean, your mileage may vary, but why is it culturally accepted that married couples hate each other? Why is it so difficult for media to portray a married couple that isn’t just functioning, but is actually respectful, playful, healthy, and passionate?

I’d just love to read a story about a married couple whose marriage isn’t the main source of conflict. I just can’t relate to that constant level of drama, but beyond that, it’s a pretty damaging way to view relationships.

  • “Romantic love is superior to platonic love.” The concept of the “friendzone” is often painfully sexist, reducing women to being valued only as romantic partners, and reducing the inherent value of friendship. Conversely, I’d like to propose the concept of “defriendzone,” when a man who was once friendly toward you, upon realizing you’re in a long-term romantic relationship (or the value you place on it, as if you can’t simultaneously value male friendships), effectively denies your very existence.

Now tell me what’s worse for your self-worth: being told “I don’t want to date you, but I’d like to be your friend,” or being told “a man has claimed you, so I, a man, cannot acknowledge that you, a woman, have any value to me.” This used to hurt my feelings when I was younger — now I just say, “Cool, man — be careful not to slam your massive dick in the door on the way out!”*

*Sorry to any easily scandalized folks, parents, or professionals who may be reading this.

  • “Men want sex more than women.” This one is interesting because the consequences seem far less insidious. It is through stories that we are conditioned to laugh at the porn-loving perv, to nod our heads sagely at the womanizing philanderer, to feel sympathetic toward the overbearing father whose teen daughter has been discovered by boys. The message is that men desire sex, as if desiring sex is an exclusively masculine inclination. Men are the gatekeepers of sexuality.

Wow, where do I begin with this one? Sex is a human function? Women are humans too? Women don’t always have sex to procreate, and sometimes have bigger libidos than men? Or the most shocking truth of all: Women who love sex and own their sexuality aren’t morally corrupt?

I’ll just be over here then, burning at the stake.*

*Again: I’m so sorry, easily scandalized folks, parents, and professionals. So sorry again, for that.

I also can’t talk about romantic narratives without mentioning shame. If I’ve just met you, if I find you especially intimidating, or if I admire you, I’m probably going to be on the quieter side. As someone who has spent a great deal of her life wrangling a Cerberus of social anxiety, that’s just how I roll sometimes — and that can change once I get to know you. I thrive on deep, meaningful connections. On the outside I might be a calm facade with the occasional nervous giggle, while on the inside I’m spazzing out like a three-headed puppy that has just been offered treats.

I think women in particular are like this about things they enjoy. I think it’s because some of those things considered feminine — specifically the romance genre, or stories with a romantic arc — are also considered silly and frivolous and pandering. And I think that’s a damn shame, to be shamed into silence.

Just as ye olde “men desire sex more” trope gets so much airplay, it’s common knowledge that “women get emotionally attached” — and as a result, we mask our excitement. We don’t let on how we really feel, because remember, emotions are bad! And you should feel bad for having them!

Even when we do enjoy a thing, people forget that we can enjoy that thing in theory, but not in execution. I enjoy the shifter flavor of paranormal fantasy — and I’m a sucker for character-meets-physical-monster-with-a-heart-of-gold arcs — but a lot of those novels are awful. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the fun bits (legitimately sorry).

So before I get off my heart-shaped soapbox, I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts:

  • You can absolutely appreciate a romantic storyline while also poking fun at it or pointing out its flaws.
  • Open your mind to different kinds of love. Writers of romantic narratives should all strive for more diversity, inclusivity, and healthy portrayals of relationships.
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to love what you love.
  • True love is real! And it’s pretty cool.

Get spooky

Last October, I was just wrapping up my first round of novel submissions. Since then, I’ve spent every fortnight getting feedback from a talented group of writers, revising the manuscript, and preparing to come full circle for another round of submissions before Halloween.

More on the first part later, but today I want to focus on the last.

Today I want to tell you about fear.

There’s nothing that stops creativity dead in its tracks like fear. I can be as content as I’ll get with a draft, but once it comes time to share it, my anxious mind sows the seeds of doubt. My fear response talks in bold, full stops only:

Holy shit, why would you want to do that. What’s wrong with you. No. 

Sometimes it also demands weed and lying inert on the floor.

The trick is not mistaking the fear response for the voice of reason. Sometimes it keeps us from doing stupid things, makes us slow down and compose ourselves, helps us to survive. Other times, when it’s speaking from anxious impulse, it doesn’t have our best interests in mind. Rather, it keeps us from doing our best work.

Those who critique a piece of writing can be just as afraid as the writer. If they know the writer personally, it’s not an easy task to break it to the writer when the story dynamics just don’t come across.

I have a wonderful friend and beta reader who admitted they felt terrible at giving feedback, describing themselves as a “cheerleader type” critic. But there are so many flavors of critique, and while they can be informed by craft, they all come down to individual opinion.

I told my friend that not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with being a cheerleader; it is so important. Anyone who creates anything needs a support main as much as they need tough love to both improve and keep going.

There’s really no wrong way to critique, except maybe having no response at all. No response means no feeling generated, and that’s the essence of good storytelling. While I’d love to someday be a bestseller, to see my name in print, or even to have the bragging rights of a published author, those goals are self-serving.

When we do things for other people that feel performative or obligatory, or that are ultimately for our own benefit, we don’t get as much satisfaction as when we do things that others find pleasurable. Art is human connection, an evolutionary imperative vital to our existence.

The goal of writing should be to make your reader feel something. Anything. The goal of writing is not to please everyone, because you can’t. I might please a few people, and that’s enough.

However, the act of writing doesn’t live and die with reaction. That depends on familiarizing yourself with the trickster nature of the fear response, and knowing when it’s just noise.

My wonderfully supportive husband once gave me a pep talk to the effect of, “You need to believe that you’re good enough to do this, because you are. If you want to make art, you have to not be ashamed to be seen as an artist. Don’t sacrifice the importance of your goal for modesty. You didn’t work this hard for nothing. So you need to keep sharing it.”

Sharing is caring, and caring is creepy. It’s okay to put your work out there, raw and strange and fear-inducing as it may feel at first.

Because when we fear being vulnerable, we risk losing the comfort and validation of that vital human connection. When we share a piece of ourselves, we become better, bolder, and more authentic artists — and people find that energy refreshing.

Maybe then, they won’t be afraid to be themselves either.