Romance 101

As a slight corollary to our Rules discussion below, I have a question for y’all. While doing my “romance in the news” search today, I found an article about an author, Lori Wilde, offering a course online through Kent State’s Trumbull Campus titled, Romance Writing Secrets. Wilde, according to the article, will instruct online students “how to structure a romance novel, how to get a novel published, and gives tips on students’ writing samples.”

(Tangent alert: does anyone else love how every single article about romance and the writing or publicizing thereof features the same fraking set of statistics from the RWA on romance sales? I wonder if the PR director for the RWA has a recording of herself just for reporters, so that when they call, she can rattle off the standard set of often-published statistics without hurting her voice. None of these news articles ever really branch past the “look at all the sales- can you believe that?” tone to deal with much else in the way of romance as a market. *Le sigh.*)

Anyway, here’s my question: do writing classes, specifically those targeting romance, help? Published authors, did you take a class or merely take the plunge into writing? I don’t mean the question to demean Ms. Wilde’s course, as I haven’t seen a syllabus or assignments for her online course, but having seen a few similar course offerings, I have to wonder what is ultimately gained from the course assignments, because many of the most popular authors in romance today are largely, to the best of my knowledge, self-taught. They learned their craft through writing, rejections, sales, pitches, and manuscripts. I haven’t heard many authors discuss creative writing courses or instructional guides to romance in their bios, leading me to believe that for the aspiring writer, the best training is, “Pick up pen. Write words down. Repeat.”

Back when I taught remedial composition to college students, I used to quote Nora Roberts to them when it was time for drafting an essay, or editing that essay: “I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one.” It didn’t matter how bad the first draft was; it was only important that they had one. I’m guessing that the best way to learn to write romance is to actually write said romance, and not read about or talk about writing romance. Certainly a familiarity with the genre and skills in writing dialogue, plot, and conflict would help (oh, laments the Smart Bitch, would it help), but can one acquire those skills through a course or a book, or must they be learned through practice?

When I look at all the book available to teach aspiring romance novelists the skills needed to craft a novel, I have to wonder: do the guides and the courses help at all? Or is it a good step for some, but unneccessary for others? Perhaps the real goal of these guiding options is to offer the aspiring writer a way into the writing process, aside from, “I bet I could write one of these.”


Random Musings

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  1. La Nerdina says:

    After going through the gauntlet of writing classes, conferences, groups, and considering MFA programs, I came back full circle to my original hunch: the best writers are self-taught, make time to write, read widely, and craft their careers from modest beginnings. The writing classes and conferences can give you valuable insight into the writing craft and how the publishing industry works, but it’s up to you to fill the blank page. And keep at it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  2. AnimeJune says:

    Well, sometimes classes can be helpful if they have a workshop element – even the students in the class aren’t the best, they can still give insightful and helpful comments on your work. I got lots of cool comments on my stories in my University’s writing class.

    But then again, the story I have that’s currently published was one I wrote before I started taking those classes – so they’re not a guarantee.

    So, maybe classes isn’t the best idea – but workshops can definitely help.

  3. Kimber says:

    I have a knee-jerk mistrust of any book, article, or course that purports to reveal the “secrets” of any industry or endeavor. (And that especially includes the current NYT bestseller “The Secret”—but that’s another rant.)

    The reason being that “secret” is just a marketing buzzword for “short cut” or “miraculous guarantee of success that requires no skill or effort on my part.” It implies that the people who are successful at (making millions on the internet, influencing others, losing weight) are only successful because they know a bunch of tricks the rest of us don’t.

    As Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

  4. SB Sarah says:

    Reminds me of my other favorite quote: “Luck is when preparation and opportunity meet.” – Roy Chapin, Jr.

  5. Charlene says:

    They can teach you a lot of the meta-knowledge you need to be a professional writer, such as advice on publishing and self-publishing scams, how to submit manuscripts (you wouldn’t believe the people who submit the same manuscript simultaneously to a dozen or more houses), how to get an agent, when it’s wise to hire a lawyer, the politics and economics of publishing, etc., etc.

    Much of this just didn’t exist 50 years ago, when writers mainly had to know how to write.

  6. Catherine J. says:

    I’m currently in the process of finishing my first novel (not a romance), and I confess to taking creative writing classes. A lot of what writers need to learn is networking and market analysis—as Charlene said above—and while you can teach yourself to write, it’s a lot more difficult to teach yourself the labyrinthine ins and outs of the publishing business.

    My first CRW class had a very good book for its textbook: “The First Five Pages,” by Noah Lukeman, subtitled “A writer’s guide to staying out of the rejection pile.” The author is a New York literary agent, and he offers some great tips on what agents are going to look for, what errors merit an instant rejection, and how to find the right agent and market for your genre piece. It’s really quite helpful, and I’d recommend it to the other aspiring writers out there.

  7. Kalen Hughes says:

    What La Nerdina said . . . I’ve never taken a class that taught me how to write, though I do have an MFA. You learn to write—and how not to write—by writing, showing it to other people, getting feedback, and writing some more. You can’t teach talent or voice or perseverance, all of which are necessary, IMO.

    You can teach the technical points though (like POV, and “show don’t tell”), and show what works in a genre and what doesn’t, and how to go about getting an agent and selling that great manuscript when you’re done with it. This was one of the criticisms I had of my MFA program. I think we should have at least had an opportunity to learn about the business side of being a writer: how to market our writing, how to submit to journals and magazines, how to pitch a book, how to find an agent (I didn’t even know such people existed for writers until I joined RWA).

  8. Classes can be useful, but in conjunction with self knowledge. Very few writers are proficient at everything – grammar, plotting, point-of-view, description, character etc etc, but the writer needs to do a bit of analysis. A bit of crit work, some ‘good’ rejections pointing out where the author needs to do work, and a bit of self knowledge.
    If you want to write for publication, you’re asking people to shell out their hard-earned money. So they deserve a professional effort.
    But taking courses and reading books willy nilly, unless you’re writing for fun and the classes are part of that, is a bit time-consuming and a waste.
    I’ve taken courses and read books, but because of that I’m a bit wary of recommending them to every other author, because my problems may not be yours!

  9. Zeba says:

    I’ve just sold my fifth romance, and what I have learned about my writing has come from my writing. I’ve read a lot of books about creative writing, but I’ve found the exercises and ideas more useful as a teacher than as an author. Ultimately, the only real way to write a book is to get the words down on the page. There is no right, no wrong, and as the infinitely wise Jennifer Crusie says, there are many roads to Oz when it comes to the writing game.

    What that does mean is that there are no secrets. There are no insider tracks. There is just night after night at the computer.

  10. Lucy-S says:

    I’ve taken workshops, and they’ve been helpful. 

    Everything a writer does has to be learned so therefore I still believe it can all be taught; however the teaching is probably harder than the learning, so some portion of what every pro writer has learned was/is inevitably self-taught.

    The main intangible in the whole learning-to-write equation is learning what your own strengths are as a writer and learning to develop a style and voice … that you can only do through practice.

  11. Nora Roberts says:

    There are no secrets to writing, and no shortcuts or guarantees to publishing.


    If taking a course fills a need, or helps you to improve certain writing skills, even to brush up on nuts and bolts, or simply gives you the chance to network with other people doing the same thing, that’s great.

    It’s all about what works for you.

  12. Jenna says:

    The main thing I learned from any writing class was how to give and take criticism. (And how to pick out the ones who are too thin-skinned to be completely honest with.) Read, read, read and write, write, write is the only way to really learn, at least for me.

    (Just sold my first. Only took twenty years to get to this point.)

  13. AJ says:

    I’m not published. I’ve never even submitted anything, so I’m not sure what my opinon is worth. I can’t read books on writing. All the author of said books can tell you is what worked for them. Personally, I get all wound up thinking about what works for them and question what works for me. I did take a great creative writing class. It was focused more on writing and less on how to write. I wonder how many of the people who read these books actually write something they feel is successful, whether it’s published or not.

  14. I was pretty much an auto-didact for the first large chunk of my writing development; I got maybe two critiques before I was eighteen and at college.  And even then, my college group was mostly useful for prodding me to write, as the feedback was very hit-or-miss.

    I learned the business end of publishing online.  There are a lot of good resources out there these days, if you look, and ditto what others said about the “secret” usually being a promise of a magic bullet.  The real information is free.

    Workshops, I think, can be deeply useful, but I’m very dubious of classes.  You learn by doing, then by getting somebody to tell you where you screwed up.  I think a lot of the classes are focused more on “here’s a formula; now follow it!”  And to speak of MFA programs, most of them don’t like genre fiction anyway.  They exist to produce MFA writers.

  15. Jeri says:

    I’m self-taught.  And self-medicated.

    But what works for one person might not work for another.  If a deadline or a grade is the only thing that will get someone to actually finish anything, then a class might be worthwhile, as long as they don’t look upon the teacher as an all-knowing guru whose Extra-Special Secret Formula is the Only Way, without which you’re doooooomed!

    Certain workshops, though, like Iowa for lit writers and Clarion for sf/f writers, are gold.  They work you hard, make you a better writer, and give you amazing connections.  It might be cool if the romance industry (“don’t say industry”—Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation) put together something like that, where the top authors taught a weeks-long intensive course that focused on both craft and the business.  Like the other workshops, you’d have to apply to get in.

    Wait, all the top romance authors are too busy actually writing books.  And most aspiring romance authors are too busy working full-time jobs and having a life.  Never mind.

  16. I meant to bring up Clarion myself, but forgot.  It’s really short-story focused, though, and romance seems to have a different relationship to “short fiction.”

    Wait, all the top romance authors are too busy actually writing books.  And most aspiring romance authors are too busy working full-time jobs and having a life.  Never mind.

    This is just as true in sf/f as it is anywhere else.  (Except that more of the top sf/f writers are probably writing books and working full-time jobs.)  But there’s a big cultural imperative among us, I think, to pay it forward.  I don’t know if that’s common in romance, being as how I don’t really interact with the romance community except for here.

  17. Wry Hag says:

    Either ya got it or ya don’t.

    Workshops, conferences, seminars…none of those money eaters and time wasters will do shit to make somebody a writer if he or she isn’t naturally a writer to begin with. It’s like a birdhouse-building hobbyist thinking he can become an architect in six easy lessons. 

    Hell, that became abundantly clear to me when I “taught” creative writing at a university.  Either people are gifted storytellers or they aren’t.  Either they have a feel for the language or they don’t.

    Sad to say, too many publishers (especially e-pubs) are taking on wannabes of questionable talent just to churn out crap they think the dumbed-down reading public wants to read.  Sad to say, the dumbed-down reading public all too often gobbles up that crap.

    I’m sorry.  I’m no fan of the Henry Higgins School of Authorship:  “Any sow’s ear can be turned into a silk purse…given enough guidance.”  No.  It doesn’t work that way.

  18. Jeri says:

    Marie, you’re absolutely right that most sf/f writers are working full-time and writing books.  But most of them aren’t putting out more than one book a year.  There’s a huge pressure in romance to produce at minimum two books a year.  As a romantic fantasy writer, I get a lot of “Huh?  The sequel doesn’t come out for a whole year?”

    In straddling the fields of sf/f and romance over the last ten years, as a wanna-be and then a pubbed author, I’ve noticed that both do a lot to help new authors.  The aid that romance authors give is a little more structured and obvious due to RWA, because it accepts unpublished members.  Pubbed authors critique contest entries, teach workshops at conferences, etc., and are generally available and happy to network with aspiring authors.

    Sf/f authors as individuals are equally as helpful and nice as romance authors, but there’s no standard, structured way to network with them.  You can meet them at an sf/f con, but since those are more fan-oriented, it’s a little more awkward to “talk shop” with an author there.  If you’re not already in the club, it’s hard to become a member.

  19. Jeri, you’re absolutely right about the pace.  In fact, the sf/f world tends to look skeptically at anybody who puts out more than one book a year, as if they can’t possibly be any good.

    The fan-orientation of cons varies wildly depending on the con in question, and a decent number include workshops as part of the programming, though certainly not all.  As for RWA accepting unpublished members and SFWA not—well, that’s a periodic argument over here, and what it boils down to is a difference in mission statement for the two groups.

    I don’t find the sf “club” hard to join, personally; I’ve seen a lot of pros reach out a helping hand to aspiring writers.  But it depends, no doubt, on the authors one encounters, and the context.  And for those who find face-to-face networking awkward, there’s online groups galore, including workshops.

  20. I took a writing class and found that it was not terribly helpful; however, the workshop we formed after the class ended was really productive.

    A good spur for those of you who are having a hard time writing without a deadline (those of us unpublished) is NaNoWriMo which happens every November.  I’ve known several friends who wrote novels during this – although they’ve never gone the next step to polish it and send it out.

  21. Sarah Frantz says:

    FWIW, we had a paper at PCA this past weekend almost exactly about this:  it was about the handbooks.  See An Goris’ paper.  An Goris basically seemed to say that handbooks claim that the one intangible that can’t really be taught is “voice,” that inimitable thing that makes a romance great rather than passable.  So all the teaching about plot and “show don’t tell” won’t teach you the thing that’ll get your book sold and read.

  22. While it’s true that voice is the intangible ‘something,’ that makes all the difference, if the story is full of pov shifts, plot holes and written on lavender notepaper, you still aren’t going to sell it.
    Writing has two elements – art and craft. Craft is the part that can be learned. Art can’t, but in order not only to sell the one book but to make a successful writing career, you need both.
    Plus a thick skin.

  23. PC Cast says:

    I took an undergrad creative writing class when I was writing my first novel.  (I’d had my BA for years by then.)  I took the class for two reasons: 1) the teacher was/is an incredible icon in the local writing community and I wanted to learn publishing details from a woman who really knew what she was talking about.  2) it made me get focused by imposing a deadline.  I had the book finished by the end of the semester.  A publisher bought it two months later.

    I teach creative writing at the high school and college level, and I agree that writers tend to either have that storytelling thing or they don’t.  The talent doesn’t seem to be a learnable skill – the nuts and bolts are learnable.  Practice usually helps everyone to some extent, though, and for some people a class setting is a good thing, especially for those people (like moi) who work best under deadline pressure.

    I say whatever works is “the right way.”

  24. I think there is something about workshops, maybe just hearing people talk about writing in a professional yet passionate way, that inspires new ideas and new approaches in me.

    But then when I get home, those ideas and approaches are often no easier to implement than the old ideas and approaches.

    In the end, taking creative writing classes (not that I’ve ever taken one) might be akin to getting a class on child-rearing (haven’t had one of those either but I used to read parenting magazines).  You’d get some good practical tips, some good guiding principles, maybe even some useful roleplaying.  And then, when that kid throw his next tantrum in the middle of a supermarket, good luck applying what you’ve learned!

  25. I don’t read how to books because they frustrate me – following “the ten steps to write a novel” is just insane to me. However, I love workshops. I love the feedback, especially the criticism. It shapes the story.

  26. I’m self taught. What I did was read alot of books, blogs, articles etc, joined eHarlequin’s Learn to Write message board and hung out soaking up the pubs knowledge…

    Before I did this, my first effort was well received by agents and eds because of my natural voice. The structure of the book, however, stunk. So over five years or so, I absorbed technique until one day (literally) it sort of became a part of my writing and I wrote the book that ultimately sold.

    So yeah, technique can be taught, art can’t. But one class ain’t gonna teach you in an applicable way, I think. What you need to do is practice, practice, practice.

    I’m still practicing! LOL.

  27. I will raise my hand and say I love taking apart rainbows and seeing how they work.

    There are several things at work here:

    1 literary talent—this is more common than people realise. You don’t need to tell a story to write beautiful prose.

    2. Story telling talent—the ability to hold people enthralled. This is much less common and appears to be something people are born with.It is the page turning story that holds you. If you find an author who (for you) can combine both—they go on the keeper shelf.

    3. the craft of writing—why can music be taught? Why can drawing be taught but not creative writing? There are certain elements that go into making a good story. As Robert McKee already said it better—Anxious inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters form. I see nothing wrong with attempting to master the form of romance writing in order to give the reader a better experience. A good grasp of craft maximises the two types of talent. All any course/book/blog can do is to give an idea of the craft. They can only enhance the talent is that is already there.

    It is the desire to write, and to keep on writing that is important.

    How much a writer strives to conquer is another question. How much perfection does a writer require or is it just good enough? As John Stienbeck said—it is the tantalyzing mystery of the medium. Creative writing is something that can never be fully conquered.

    For me, I have discovered that I can’t colour within lines, and I can’t follow other people’s assignments. Writing courses as such don’t work. I can however craft my stories, and I am very passionate about trying to improve my craft so that my books are page turning reads. It is whatever works for a writer.

    The five things every writer needs is desire, dedication, determination, discipline and perservance in the face of overwhelming odds.

    Just my take.

  28. Jenny Crusie says:

    My MFA made a HUGE difference in my writing.  And a screenwriting workshop from Michael Hauge taught me to plot.  I’m not a natural storyteller, I can’t tell a story at all.  My first drafts are all people talking, often with no conflict whatsoever.  I write in the rewrites, drawing on what Lee K. Abbott taught me at OSU and Hauge taught me in that hotel conference room.  And I read books on writing all the time, and unless they’re those “How to Write A Novel in Fifteen Minutes” things, I usually learn something.  I don’t think you ever stop learning. 

    I also think workshops with structure and an agreement among the participants on what the criteria for criticism will be to be hugely helpful.  I workshop everything I can with the critique groups I’m part of. 

    Having said all of that, I’m not sure what a romance writing class gives as opposed to a fiction writing class.  Romance is fiction, fiction is fiction, what’s good writing is good writing.  The only thing a specific romance class could give, I would think, would be some of those damn “rules” people are arguing about now.  There are no rules except writing a good story and you find out how to do that by writing and getting that writing critiqued by people who are looking at your work as writing, not as something that should fit into the genre or provide a certain worldview.  She said, essentially making a new rule.  Sorry.

    Also, I don’t think publishing info should be taught in a creative writing class.  You want that stuff, get a class on publishing.  Publishing industry stuff and creative writing should never touch.  They leave marks on each other. 

    Or not.  You know, whatever works for you.

  29. ROFLMAO—Jenny Crusie saying she can’t tell a story at all!

    Somehow you must make it work out okay, Jenny, because between those covers are dang good stories!

    As for writing workshops—hmh. I haven’t gone to a bunch of them, save for the RWA conference last year. But I usually get one or two small nuggets out of any class I take. I’m never too old to learn.

    For me, Q&A’s from authors and actual critiques helped me the most. I still (holding my head in shame) remember not knowing that every book had to have a Big Black Moment and it needed to be connected to GMC. I thank eHarlequin’s very patient pubbed authors for teaching me that.

    I learn a lot from reading, from watching movies, and from listening to gifted story tellers. I can learn just as much from a bad book as I can a good book (likewise movie), so it’s out there. A would-be writer just has to soak it up. AND THEN WRITE.

    Mainly good writing is all about OBSERVING and TRANSLATING. The thing that jerks a reader out of a story the quickest is some action a character does and the reader thinking, “There’s a snowball’s chance of THAT happening in real life.”

  30. Oh, just needed to add that probably the biggest help to my writing was my upper level lit courses—NOT composition courses.

    If you are a writer, then you must, no arguments, READ, and read all sorts of writing.

  31. Lauren Dane says:

    I think it depends on how you learn. Me? I don’t get anything from classes on writing. I don’t read books on how to write. I will say I’ve read lots of books and learned from other authors by reading them even if I’d never be able to write that way. I can take things apart and see how they structured the novel or novella and that’s a help.

    BUT, I have learned a hell of a lot each time I write a book, edit it, submit it and if I’m lucky selling and editing to final. The way I learn, doing things over and over is what helps. So when an editor says, “deepen this here” or “Put this in just his POV for emphasis” I learn about pacing and structure far more than I ever have from an article or a class.

    I have no problem with classes and seminars, it’s just not how I learn.

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