I made the decision in January of 2018 to return to my childhood passion and life-long dream of being a writer when I was in the midst of reading Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma by Jen Cross and I knew exactly what to write. I was going to tell the story of a woman, reeling from a history of trauma and deeply enmeshed in a denial that served only to drag her deeper into the clutches of depression and anxiety, who somehow managed to arrest her devolution and claw her way out of it.
My book was going to be called Finding Annie, it was going to be a single standalone novel, and while she found her inner strength, my protagonist was going to be just as alone on the last page as she was on the first.
I’ll put this another way – my protagonist was somehow going to find herself by herself. She was somehow going to realize that she was worth loving, that she was more than the sum of the things that had been done to her, and that she had the power to drive her own life in whatever direction she chose. Without any real help from anyone. Sound a bit unrealistic? I would agree. But before we go any further, let’s examine the two key motivations that drove this intended storyline.
Motivation #1: I wanted to show the protagonist developing a sense of self-worth and learning to love herself without relying on anyone else for validation. Okay, fair enough, I believe that’s a reasonable and worthy goal. Ultimately, I hope to do that with all my novels.
Motivation #2: I absolutely, positively, vehemently refused any possibility of my book being classified as Contemporary Romance.
You might be wondering at this point why I would be so averse to a Romance classification when I have a deep-rooted love of the genre (just check out my favorite books)? And the answer is because contemporary romance has very strict rules for the storyline, secondary character development, word count, and the list goes on.
I didn’t want to be stuck within such stringent confines – I wanted something more to happen in my stories. I desperately wanted love to play a role because I truly believe that it’s a vital ingredient for a fulfilling life, but that love doesn’t have to be strictly romantic. And I really didn’t want a romantic relationship between two of the characters to be the only driver of the plot.
As a newbie author, though, I was eager to follow the rules after reading so many posts, books, and testimonials about how genre crossing for the unpublished writer is a huge no-no. So, somewhat emotionally unsatisfying end it was going to be because that was preferable when compared to the alternative of removing the other developmental elements I wanted to capture.
But then something happened. I started writing. And lo and behold, my story morphed unrecognizably from what I had determined it should be in advance. My characters refused to be kept in the neat little box I had created for them, insisting on leading me down a completely different and unexpected path, which I found myself all too eager to follow.
And at the end of that path? I had a story of love. Of friendship. Of redemption, and self-discovery. A story about finding strength in the most unlikely circumstances and forgiving some of the most unforgivable offenses. In the end, I had the story I’d really wanted to tell all along, but had been too afraid would not fit neatly into a pre-defined genre.
And you know what? It didn’t. It had romantic love, but it wasn’t just a romance. It told the story of a woman’s struggle to find and love herself, but it wasn’t just women’s fiction.
“One day, you will learn how to give and receive love like an open window, and it will feel like summer every day.” -Sierra Demulder
If it was a television series, it would be classified as drama; think This is Us or Parenthood, but diving deeper into the lives of fewer characters and with more violence in the past. If movies are more your thing, think The Choice meets The Notebook, but with significant childhood trauma sprinkled in and a few mind-bending mistakes. If you’re into racy contemporary romance books, think character flaws and trauma along the lines of Rough Hard Fierce by Skye Warren meets Possessive by Willow Winters, but with a lot more emphasis on character development, and without the mob connections or graphic sex.
You see where I’m going here? It’s romance, but with more to the story and characters. It’s women’s fiction, but with romantic love and emotional satisfaction.
I had allowed my story to follow its intended path, but in the end, I still didn’t know what to call it. Because it had a romantic element that played a large role, I gritted my teeth and labeled it initially as contemporary romance and started sending it out into the world to get some initial feedback. But when I tried to describe it within the confines of that genre, what I ended up with was a lot of confusion – some people thought I was asking them to read what’s known today as “dark romance.” I was up in arms over that description; what I’d written, all the stories I have yet to tell – none of it could even remotely be classified as dark romance.
Not sure what “dark romance” means? There are some variations on the definition out there, but the main thing they have in common (and what I am most averse to as a comparison to my own writing) is taboo behavior and frequently romanticizing – even eroticizing – dubious consent. While I make no pronouncement on the subgenre overall because there’s nothing actually wrong with it as a category, it’s a far cry from the stories I have to share.
Sparing you the boring details, I performed an embarrassing amount of research on well-established genres, remarking the entire time to my husband that I needed a genre that blended romance and women’s fiction because what I was writing was more like romantic women’s fiction.
In a bid of desperation, I decided to try that exact term in my search and bingo! I discovered that Romantic Women’s Fiction is in fact gaining traction as its own genre. At last, after an almost two-year dilemma, I had found a labeling home for my stories.
And that was my emotionally satisfying ending.
Want to read more about the exciting new genre of Romantic Women’s Fiction? There are several posts on the topic in the blog archives of the Romantic Women’s Fiction division of RWA, such as this interview with Barbara O’Neal or this one with Edie Claire. There’s also this guest post by Karen Stivali on the Women’s Fiction Writers Blog.
Interested in learning more about the devastating impact of childhood trauma and abuse, PTSD, or anxiety? Check out my Resources page.
Do you have other resources to share or comments on the topics discussed above? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below or send me an email.
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