Why Writing What You Think You Should Write Doesn’t Work

I know, I know, I know—this is not new info. But bear for me for a second, while I still remember what I wanted to say. And hopefully, I’ll never fall into the old trap again.

If you’ve been around for a while, you might have seen me mention (over and over again) how my first published novel ever was a historical werewolf romance. (No, the guy’s not the werewolf. Not the main guy, anyway…) And let me tell you—never, in a thousand years, could I have guessed that this simple, fun fact would become a staple of my bio. I wanted to write either epic (albeit low key) fantasy tomes, or intriguing (alright, I’ll say it, khmintelligentkhm) social commentary sci-fi, or, at the very least, good vs. evil urban fantasy. Instead, romance happened. And werewolves.

And it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, a gift that keeps on giving even years later.

(I’m not writing this to share yet another story about how internalized romancephobia is a byproduct of a misogynistic society, although the observant reader might notice a slight undercurrent of that exact narrative. I’m writing this to note another sort of lesson.)

I’ve tried writing contemporary urban fantasy. I’ve tried writing low key historical fantasy of a more general (European) flavour. I’ve tried writing socially engaged sci-fi (in an unfinished novel I’m still itching to go back, once I get the skills I actually need for that exact plot). And yet none of them made me tick. What did do it for me were gowns (purple), braids (elaborate), courtsies (underused), people who don’t call each other by their first names and women who go feral in the night. And it worked so well I went and wrote two more novels in the series (still in editing, m’afraid). And I’m really not sure whether anyone who’d ever met me was suprised. Some muggle acquaintances must have been.

I’m still not sure why I was surprised. I’ve been reading romances most of my life (starting, quite notably, with The Tombs of Atuan and Planet of Exile, somewhere around The Valley of Horses, which is what happens when you’re growing up in the nineties and you devour whatever you can get your hands on which isn’t awful), and I’ve loved them almost as much as said fantasy, sci-fi and what have you, which didn’t focus on romance as a part of the main plot. I’d been writing shorter romances, too, ever since I was 14. (Oops. I thought it was at least a few years later, but no, I remember the exact short story which might’ve started it all for this side of my journey and… yeah).

In the past few years, apart from the occasional venture into awesomeness the likes of Yoon Ha Lee and Aliette de Bodard and Ben Aaronovich, some entertaining whodunnits and the occasional one hit wonder every now and then, I’ve read… well, you guessed it. Romance of all flavour and genre, almost exclusively. I even read contemporary paranormal romance, because I still read het (because I read a lot and not every subgenre I love can still be found among the ranks of queer romance, and because nobody’s perfect). And then the inevitable moment would come when the effin badass heroine would succumb to the effin not-that-good* alpha hero and my stomach would go ungh and there went another week of my time spent on a series which’s not going anywhere for me and then I have to venture onto Goodreads to try to find yet another series… or just read mysteries and procedurals until one of my (currently fiveish?) favourite romance writers launches another book.

And still I never thought I would be writing romance. But sci-fi and fantasy romance are the only things that actually made me write with purpose. Premeditation, too. It just required a little re-wiring in my brain, and, well, the way I define my work. What I did to embrace this weird new label was to continue defending romance in my professional capacity as a librarian against the neverending tide of shit (yes, I’m not sorry, it is shit) I keep hearing daily at work. I also started reading more about (and non-fiction by) romance writers who have ‘made it’ in the past decade or two. (It’s an important timeframe because a lot of them weren’t available in translation back when I was reading mostly in Croatian—that is, before Ao3 became the haven it now is—and because a lot of them are still not available in my national market. None of my five-ish current favourite writers are available in Croatian, although the biggest two are slowly creeping into German and Italian.) Oh, and, because it’s what one does, I went on Twitter (strike one) and followed, among many others, Courtney Milan (strike two) and now I have more food for thought than I know what to do with in the next decade or two. It’s a fun journey.

I almost lost my train of thought, and I will not hold it against you if you’ve lost patience with this article, too. In summary, what this author actually wanted to say was: write what you love, because the other way lies madness. And that’s it.

There is so much bullshit going around about what you should aim for, as a beginner writer. How to find a genre you can prosper and get prosperous in. Weirdly enough… romance is one of the biggest genres out there (I would argue the biggest, but I don’t keep links to everything I read and, to quote an awesome friend, I won’t be your Google). Even for people who don’t write alpha males (at least not in het). Even for people who just can’t help it but have to put every problematic trope ever in a novel they have such hopes for that, umm, their biggest dreams ride on it. Nobody’s perfect.

Thus, if you find yourself (riding in the green fields, um) writing something you never would’ve guessed before, and loving it, don’t, and I mean it, don’t go bringing yourself down just because it wasn’t in your five or twenty year plan. (I don’t have either, for the record. They never work out for me, and I live to learn to work around that.) What I’d warmly suggest you do is try to find other writers who are doing a thing similar to your own and learn from them, even if all you can find are interviews and PR snippets here and there. (Or, as with one of my favourites, publishing schedules, series crossovers etc. Highly educational.) Learn, try and, as always, find out what works for you.

Or, if you can’t find anyone doing the exact same thing (outside Ao3, which has somehow became a major point in this article, despite my best intentions), find people with similar sub-genres. You don’t need me to tell you that vampires weren’t nearly as hot in the early days of Anne Rice’s career as a random reader in the 21st century would presume. And, to borrow from one of my partner’s fandoms, in a tweet presumably by Kameron Hurley (which I can’t trace now to be certain because I suck, and I’m really sorry), you need to write your weird little book because recently a weirld little book called Gideon the Ninth become a New York Times bestseller.

I never could’ve predicted how big the market will be right now, in the early days of the future ’20s. I still sometimes wonder what people think when their Kobo statements show they have an avid fan in Croatia (you know, the GoT and SW filming set, where rich people apparently buy real estate? that  was from a recent novel by one of my five-ish favourite writers, btw). Who knows what countries you might discover with your writing?

Even if it’s historical romance. With werewolves. And no alpha males. Because there’s only so much any of us can go faking it before our true narratives come shining through our writing. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Good luck embracing your weird, folks. You’ve got this.


*not worth a flat in Zürich, either way

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash.