I Learned How to Write Romance by Avoiding It

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by Charish Reid, author of Hearts on Hold

I was twenty-four years old, sitting in a creative writing class, surrounded by young men and our professor. As the only woman in the class, I stuck out in more ways than one. I was black, older than most of them, and I wore my insecurities on my sleeve. All of the boys pray at the altar of white male writers like Bukowski, Pynchon, DeLillo and of course David Foster Wallace (who was a professor at our university before his tragic end).

I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I just knew it had to be funny, profound and about a woman who was smarter than I felt at that moment. That moment being Workshop Day. It was my turn to read a short story, I’d written, to the class. We sat in a circle, mimicking a feminist pedagogy technique that felt anything but, while I read a story about two young women playing tennis. The women discussed a one-night stand over a volleys and slams, exchanging trash-talk, and coming to the conclusion that men ain’t shit.

When I finished the boys laid into me.

“It’s kind of derivative.” A very popular thing to say back then.

“What’s their motivation?” To talk about their sex lives?

“Does anything happen?” I don’t know…

“I don’t think women really talk like this.” Well, fuck you, Derek, we definitely do.

As mad as I was in that moment, I tried like hell to keep my face immobile. The one thing that stopped me from crying in front of my peers was my professor’s encouraging tone. He told me the plot could use a little work, but my dialogue was full of playful banter that conveyed a natural humor. And while he shut the others up, the damage was partly done. I took two things away from that workshop:

  1. I know how to write dialogue.
  2. Stop writing about sex.

Armed with that knowledge, I made a mess of my last semester of college. Every creative writing class I took, be it poetry or short fiction, I did what my peers did and mimicked Bukowski, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace…and Hunter S. Thompson (for my creative non-fiction class). My poems were Ginsberg-wild, my short fiction included drawn-out footnotes, and my creative non-fiction was peppered with cuss words. I was writing like the boys.

But we all know that the things you try to suppress eventually pop up somewhere else. For me, the romance I tried to bury at school ended up in fan-fiction forums on the internet. In my own time, I wrote about smoldering stares, fogged-up windows and urgent kisses. And my dialogue was FIRE. I reimagined Anne Rice’s characters with lots more sex. I rewrote The Mummy with lots more sex. I shared my writing with my girlfriends and it was their love for my words that kept me going…in secret, of course. I tried to keep these two worlds separate: literary and seminal on this side, passionate and vaginal on the other side.

Midway through graduate school, these worlds began bleeding into one another. I think it was all the academic writing that did me in. When trying to fit myself into a small formal box, my passion and creativity always leaped out in unexpected ways. The papers I wrote were beautiful messes that earned me Bs, which were basically Fs in grad school. At this point, I slowly realized how long I had traded my passion for what was expected of me. I wanted to write and I wanted people to read my work, but I couldn’t keep writing like the boys and I couldn’t write for the narrow audience of academia. If I wanted to be happy, I’d had to write what I knew: Sex and Banter.

I went back to reading romance full-time. I read paranormal, historical, contemporary and anything else people on Twitter could recommend. Then I started imagining my own characters. They were funny, witty and tangled in each other’s sweaty limbs beneath the covers. And I finally claimed them. They were mine and I spoke on their behalf. My first timid confession of secret romance writing happened on Facebook a couple years back. I posted steamy samples of my first book, The Write Escape. My audience was friends and family, but more importantly, former classmates and professors. I think I said something self-deprecating about finding joy in writing stuff that wasn’t considered “high-brow.” Looking back on it, I regret being so sheepish and insecure. Love stories, if told right, can be magical and transcendent. There’s nothing “low-brow” about falling in love.

My back is straighter when I talk about romance. When I finished writing Hearts on Hold, a story about a professor who struggles to fit passion into her super-structured life, I felt like I had made a stronger, louder declaration. I had finally answered all of the dumb questions from those boys at Workshop Day.

About Hearts on Hold:

HEARTS ON HOLD by Charish ReidWhat happens in the stacks stays in the stacks…

Professor Victoria Reese knows an uphill battle when she sees one. Convincing her narrow-minded colleagues at the elite Pembroke University to back a partnership with the local library is a fight she saw coming and already has a plan for. What she didn’t see coming? The wildly hot librarian who makes it clear books aren’t the only thing he’d like to handle.

When a tightly wound, sexy-as-hell professor proposes a partnership between his library and her university, children’s department head John Donovan is all for it. He knows his tattoos and easygoing attitude aren’t quite what she expected, but the unmistakable heat between them is difficult to resist.

And then there’s the intriguing late fee on her record. For the Duke’s Convenience… A late fee and a sexy romance novel? There’s more to Dr. Reese than she’s letting on.

John might like to tease her about her late fee, but when he teases her in other ways, Victoria is helpless to resist. Mixing business with pleasure—and oh, it is pleasure—always comes with risks, but maybe a little casual fun between the sheets is just what Victoria needs.

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2 thoughts on “I Learned How to Write Romance by Avoiding It”

  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you for sharing. I completely related to trying to fit the mold you’re expected to.

    Everyday at my university, I come to a “T” in the hallway and turn right to walk down the halls to my pharmacology department and, ironically, the writing department is the left turn of the T. I feel like I don’t quite fit into either side…

    My school has realized the asset they have in my writing capability and I am a published writer in scientific academia, but it doesn’t satisfy my soul like fiction – romance, specifically. I thought just writing in general would, but it doesn’t.

    I’m glad you found your voice and confidence in it. Your book sounds fun and sexy. Can’t wait to have the time to read it this summer. Best of luck and stay true to yourself!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Your piece really resonated with me, thank you for making it public.

    It’s fascinating how many incredible writers have come up against this ‘high brow’ wall. My wall wasn’t built by my place of study, it was cemented, brick by brick, by my extended family. There is a ‘literary writer’ amongst them, you see, and anything else is considered ‘lesser.’

    I write what I would like to read, and to be honest that’s always been romance of one form or another. If I want to read tragedy I’ll pick up a newspaper. Writing to me is like reading on steroids—escapism on a grand scale.

    When I finally got the guts to tell my family what I was writing, it was because I’d won an award for a national First Kiss competition. A really prestigious win, I thought. The reactions were a mixed bag.
    “What, like Mills and Boon kissy stuff?”
    “Ha, ha, ha… with a naked man on the cover!”
    “Is there much money in Mummy Porn?”

    I’m pleased to say, my husband was the rock under my suddenly-nervous-all-over-again feet. From him I hear things like “I’m proud of you. That’s amazing. You’re amazing. I don’t know how you do it, how you come up with all of those ideas.” And when I’m feeling low about querying or publication: “It’s just a matter of time.”

    I’m more careful who I talk to now about my work, because who wants to have a major part of themselves ridiculed? I surround myself with positive people, who get me. My writers group are fantastic, and it’s somehow easier to see we are all facing the same struggle, and overcoming it.

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