Wednesday, August 29, 2007

About That Whole "Formula" Thing

So I was recently featured with two other local romance writers in an article written for my local newspaper, herein to be known as The Article That Shall Not Be Named or Linked To. All in all, it's not a BAD article, though there's definitely a sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-I-Certainly-Don't-Read-This-Stuff quality to it. I'm sure the local braintrust at the Newspaper That Shall Not Be Named or Linked To is too busy making their collective way through the Modern Library's Top 100 Works of Great Literature and developing a comprehensive plan for world peace this summer to read something for pure entertainment.

But I did want to publicly clear up a misquote in the piece about my having started writing romance "because there's a formula," as the thought of that quote sitting Out There, unanswered, is making my hair curl. And in this humidity, making my hair curl any more than it already does is just sick and wrong.

So anyway, here's the truth, which I told to said local braintrust in painstaking and carefully emphatic detail: I started THINKING about writing romance because I MISTAKENLY THOUGHT there was a "formula" that would make it easy, and I could use it as a stepping stone to writing a "real book." I know--how obnoxious. But I was quite young and I hadn't actually read a romance novel, so I was operating on the fumes of other people's stereotyped perceptions. So, my plan to rule the publishing world firmly in my head, I actually went and picked up a romance--Anyone But You, by Jennifer Crusie--and I discovered that it was a smart book; a very fun book; a book that didn't offend my feminist sensibilities in the least, but affirmed them; and a book I loved so much, I still have it on my shelf. And that's when I became a genuine fan of the genre.

That Crusie book was a great learning experience, because (and yes, I'm going to start trotting out my literature background--bear with me, I do have a point) I was just a couple years out of Boston College, where I'd gotten an M.A. in literature. At BC, I'd selected my courses so the majority of them were about women writers, and my papers were often about the "dilemma of women as artists," or, in plain, un-pedantic English, the critical response to women writers and how it impacted both their work and their careers. Needless to say, women writing about women's lives have very rarely been literary darlings, especially during their careers. Otherwise, George Sand, George Eliot, and Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell may not have found it necessary to adopt male pseudonyms--without which they may not have work that survives in print to this day.

I am NOT comparing my work to that of the Georges or the Brontes. But what I realized was that by giving in to the kneejerk, uninformed urge to look down my nose at romance, I was part of the same machine that had suppressed women's writing since women started writing. Why COULDN'T a romance novel be a good read? Why couldn't it be just as entertaining and fun and loved as a romantic film like When Harry Met Sally or Strictly Ballroom? Why was it socially acceptable to enjoy a romantic subplot in a mystery or general fiction book? Or a romance disguised as a general or women's fiction book? Or, my favorite, a "love story" (i.e. romance) with a craptacular ending written by a man?

Not everyone has to like romance--we all have different taste. I don't like tragic family sagas or cyberpunk. But slamming it just to make yourself look more well-read and intelligent? Ridiculous.

Also, there is NO FORMULA TO ROMANCE, other than the general conventions that bind any genre. For us, the story needs to focus on the growth of a relationship between two people, and we need to deliver a happy ending. End of story. End of formula.

Mystery has a formula, in that sense. Sci-fi does, too. Male "love story" writers have a formula, too--manly man of impeccable honesty meets woman, swoons, falls in love, says sappy things, and is pulled irrevocably apart from his One True Love by tragedy, often cancer.

I told all this to the author of The Article That Shall Not Be Named or Linked To, hoping that in supportive female solidarity, she would write a clever, unapologetic article about our clever, unapologetic genre.

Ah, well, at least we were upgraded from authors of "bodice rippers" to "pulp romance."

For a more respectful and accurate interview (although I was feeling a little snarkier than usual when I answered the questions), see my friend Rich Dansky's website. Rich writes the stories for Red Storm Entertainment video games, including the Tom Clancy tie-ins, and he's an accomplished horror novelist.


Cathy in AK said...

There's no formula???? Dang! I'm screwed.

I'm sure the missing "no" in your quote was accidental ; )

Tracy Montoya said...

Don't ever say that to a reporter. You know, I had a horrible feeling when I finished that interview that I'd given her some great material to splice and dice. Ah, well. Bridge, over it.

Angela said...

Now you're making me want to use google to find that article. But yeah, I stayed away from romance novels until I accidentally read one because my mother abhorred "Harlequin romances". Now I know better even though she doesn't. *g* Chacun à son goût!

Sharron McClellan said...

I’m so sorry to hear you were misquoted too further the reporters agenda. I wonder if she’s even read a romance? My guess would be that she’s read one or two, considers herself an expert on the subject, and made sure to write an article to show that while she read a few , it was strictly for work and she’s still ‘smart enough’ to distain romance and remain true to her literary leanings.


Tracy Montoya said...

Angela, just Google "pulp fiction" and "Fabio," and it'll probably come right up. I just refuse to help the paper get more hits. Chacun a son gout, unless you're publicly misquoting me and making me sound like a jerk!

Tracy Montoya said...

Sharon, you crack me up. And no, I got the distinct impression that she hadn't read a romance.

Mariann said...

I've found that the more I read certain category lines, the easier it is to find a formula. Or rather I should say a pattern. It's a pattern of incidences that make the shorter romance unique to its designation as category. For example, in tracking love scenes in one particular line, I found that the major moment almost always came (no pun intended) at the three-quarter mark of the story. Another frustrating element when analyzing the categories was the execution of the happy ending. To me, that doesn't have to mean marriage and babies, but rather a strong commitment. In many categories I've read, marriage seems so standard that I can see where someone unfamiliar with the sub-genre would say, "Oh, that's such a formula!"

I still don't tell people that I read romance because of that very attitude. Shoot, I don't tell people I dig sci-fi, either. :p I'd still like to write a category (or, well, any book, once I get my backside in gear) because I think there's enormous potential for good stories and good characters. I've found several that I've really enjoyed and placed on my shelves next to single titles and classics of literature. I'm just a lot more careful about choosing new categories, preferring authors who consistently given me great stories. [hint, hint]

BTW, great picture in that article!

Tracy Montoya said...

Hey, Mariann! It's always nice when you decide to pop up. : ) I think you're right--there are more rigid conventions for category romances, especially some of the hotter lines. We're lucky with Intrigue--we get a lot of flexibility. Although I bet readers could find a pattern with my, ahem, more intimate scenes--generally they have to be a little after the midpoint, because a) I want to give them time to get to know each other, and b)the last third is generally action-oriented, and it's tough to have an intimate moment when you're on the run from a crazed killer!

BTW, I'd love to know some of your favorite sci-fi novels. I don't read sci-fi often enough--the back cover blurbs tend not to appeal to me. But whenever I've read something someone else has recommended (Ender's Game, the Honor Harrington series), I've loved it!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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