| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Once I Publish This Romance Novel, Please Don’t (Slow) Burn Me at the Stake
After being an avid romance reader for years, I’m finally writing a romance novel—and I am terrified of messing up.
I like to think of myself as a romance-novel evangelist. When I was around eight years old, I discovered Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 sensation The Flame and the Flower and, since then, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have a stack of romances around me.
But then I went through a phase of shame because people constantly mock the genre and the people who read them. Because romance is written largely by and for women, it gets scrutinized and criticized far more intently than other genres of fiction. A common criticism is that romance is porn for women. So what if it is? There’s nothing wrong with women expressing their sexuality. Another reason romance is mocked is because of how popular it is; for many literary snobs, the idea that something having mass appeal means it’s for less intelligent readers. So I had to deal with people teasing me for reading the genre because somehow it meant I was a horny idiot. After I shook that off, I began to speak loudly and often about how wonderful romances are: The authors often have such great research skills that I frequently end up learning something new; they help me escape the headaches of the world by giving me fictional low stakes; they’re often very funny; and yes, I get to indulge in a healthy fantasy life about true love and incredible sex.
Since opening the pages of The Flame and the Flower , I’ve grown up to be a writer myself: of poetry, cultural and personal essays, and most recently a memoir. However, now, I’m finally writing a romance novel—and I’ve never had to work this hard in my life, and I’ve worked retail the day after Christmas. My respect for the authors in this genre, already high, has grown exponentially. And I am terrified of messing up.
It’s been over thirty-five years since I read my first romance novel, and I’ve read almost every subgenre within the romance world that is even remotely interesting to me. My favorites are paranormal romances, historical romances, and romance thrillers. Give me a monster hunter who ultimately must decide between a vampire and a werewolf. A widowed English lady who can’t help noticing the town’s blacksmith. A newspaper photographer who teams up with an ex-military officer turned bar owner to solve a recent rash of murders. Those are the kinds of stories that get my blood pumping. I’m also into contemporary rom-coms that have helped fill the hole left after the theatrical versions have all but disappeared. (If anyone knows of a contemporary rom-com that’s essentially Something’s Gotta Give but where Diane Keaton’s character ends up with Keanu Reeves’s character and he’s a werewolf, let me know immediately.)
The book I’m writing is a contemporary second chance. In second-chance romances, the main characters have been together before but something got in the way and now they have the opportunity to make it right. In my manuscript, the couple once had a vacation fling and they end up running into each other again five years later. Is the magic still there and will it last this time? Hopefully, it’ll get published and readers will love it. But first, I have to get around the overwhelming fear that my book will be the worst romance ever written.
I have stress dreams where an angry mob of romance readers appear outside my castle window with pitchforks and torches and demand that I come outside so they can burn me at the stake, using copies of my book as kindling. No, seriously. Sometimes there are even faceless, bare-chested men from various book covers (historical and indie erotica) beckoning me to come down. And they’re not interested in declaring undying love. They all want to tell me I’ve destroyed the entire genre and must pay for my crimes. I wake up with a sheen of anxiety sweat against my neck and tell myself I’ll avoid looking at the pages today. Then another day passes, and another.
The draft calls out to me throughout each day, writing itself in my head, scenes forming and dissolving before reshaping themselves. But lately, almost every time I sit at my desk to commit them to the page, I panic. What if it’s not good? I’ve spent almost my entire life reading, defending, and promoting romance novels. When I hosted Thirst Aid Kit , a podcast about the ways pop culture shapes desire, my cohost Bim Adewunmi and I would write drabbles—very short fan fiction—about the celebrity focus of the episode, like Chris Evans, André 3000, Manny Montana, and more. I still get emails about the drabble I wrote featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and kissing insecurities. Those quick stories were often romantic, like the time I imagined meeting my man John Cho at a bar and he soothed my silly concerns about the strength of our love:
He presses his forehead to mine and whispers, “I missed you.” It’s hard to accept such tenderness from him sometimes. How did this man come into my life? I place a hand against his heart, feel how steady and sure he is. I tell him, “We just saw each other yesterday.” He leans back and searches my face, a mock sternness fighting his smile. “And your point is?” He always knows how to lift my spirits but tonight, I feel overwhelmed by the love between us. I close my eyes against a sudden wetness and ask him, “How did you find me? What did I do to deserve a love like yours?”
He places the bouquet on the bar and gathers my hand against his cheek. He waits until I return his gaze and says, “Maybe we wished on the same star as children. Maybe you’re the princess I died fighting a dragon for in another life. Maybe this is a type of hell where our punishment is knowing we’ll never have another love like this. I don’t know. But whatever I did to deserve you, I’d do it again and again and again.”
The woman behind me lets out a soft “damn.” John kisses my fingers and winks.
Listeners gave me such encouraging feedback and frequently asked when I would write a romance novel. I’ve wanted to do just that since childhood, and I thought I finally had the skills to make it happen, but this process is harder than a duke accidentally brushing up against his youngest sister’s comely governess.
I wake up with a sheen of anxiety sweat against my neck and tell myself I’ll avoid looking at the pages today. Then another day passes, and another.
Because I’ve been reading romances for so long, I knew better than to start writing without any preparation. An idea didn’t seem like enough. There’s a lot to consider when writing any kind of book, but what makes a romance novel a romance? To make sure I was on the right path, I took writing workshops with two of my current favorite authors: Sarah MacLean and Alyssa Cole . MacLean writes mostly historical romances and Cole writes a mix of historical, contemporary, and thriller. These workshops were extremely helpful. I learned the key elements of romance, things I’d absorbed from decades of reading but had never broken down. For example, the introduction of the main characters does not necessarily have to be their meet-cute moment or the idea that what draws the protagonists together can also be what drives them apart. After attending these workshops, I felt more confident that the story I wanted to tell made sense.
I took what I learned from the romance-writing workshops, outlined my story, then began to write. When I told close friends the premise, they were all very excited. My agent was intrigued. I wrote up a treatment: Here’s the meet-cute; here’s where things go left; here’s how it all works out. I was making good progress. I’d written some chapters, and my phone’s Notes app had snatches of dialogue and steamy love scenes I couldn’t wait to incorporate into the larger manuscript. The playlist I made (which I’ll share if/when this thing gets published) kept me inspired and grooving. I started to feel excited, as well; then I hit a brick wall.
For a while, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency, there was a wave of contemporary romances that evolved around the tropes “enemies to lovers” and “fake dating.” Rival coworkers forced to work together on a career-making project fall in love. Someone asks a neighbor to pretend to be their date to avoid meddlesome parents but the ruse has to continue much longer than planned and they fall in love. Neither of these tropes are my favorite, and they’ve been around a long time, but I think the flare of “enemies to lovers” coincided with the country trying to figure out how to get along with people with opposing ideals. And I have wondered if “fake dating” exploded because there was so much subterfuge in the world at large. How do we navigate relationships when everything is a lie? I prefer “friends to lovers,” forced proximity (like getting stuck in an elevator together or a very expensive hotel room got double-booked), and second chance, of course. In too many “enemies to lovers” romances, the protagonists are often mean to each other at first, and the whole “pulling pigtails” thing hasn’t done much for me, even in elementary school. But I suffered through those tropes because that was what was coming down the romance-industry pipeline.
However, recently, I’ve noticed more second-chance romances cropping up. I started to doubt myself. Was I riding a wave in the zeitgeist, or was I being a biter? It sent me on a spiral, wondering how fresh my idea was. I’ve been reading romance for over three decades. What if I accidentally copied a story I read as a child that’s been buried deep in my subconscious? How do I know what I’m writing is mine?
To calm my nerves, I asked MacLean for advice. I told her I didn’t want to risk the chance of copying other contemporary authors but I didn’t want to stop reading romance altogether. She suggested I turn to other subgenres I liked. I stopped reading contemporary romance as much and turned back to historicals. There’s no way I could avoid reading romance entirely. I love it too much. It brings me peace and joy. But I had to rationalize with myself. There are certain elements all genre fiction has to have to make it sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, etc. Romance has to hit certain beats, like having a “happily ever after” or a “happy for now” ending where the protagonists end up together, just like science fiction must incorporate some kind of technological advancement that doesn’t exist in the present day and fantasy must feature magic and intricate world-building. In mystery, there is a crime and someone must figure out whodunit and why. There are thousands of ways for that to play out, just as there are thousands of ways for people to meet and fall in love.
Remembering there are many different ways to get to a happily-ever-after helped me over that first creative block, but then I stumbled into another. There’s a “bad guy” in my story and, I’ll be honest, I’m basing him on an ex-boyfriend. I wrote the character saying something that my ex once told me, and I thought to myself, Oh no. I’m revealing far too much about myself here.
Flipping back through some pages, I realized this work of fiction was perhaps telling more about myself than my memoir. I’m still suffering from a vulnerability hangover after publishing it. Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be is my collection of essays about how I used different aspects of pop culture to navigate life as a Black, southern woman. There is a similar theme in my poetry book Lilith, but Dark , but in poetry, I could be more vague and merely hint at certain things. In a memoir, I had to spell out my parents’ abusive relationship and how I use Kermit the Frog to ground me when I worry about becoming my father. I also shared the story of belatedly realizing I’d been a victim of sexual assault. I’m glad I wrote and shared my memoir with readers, especially when I get emails from people telling me how much my book meant to them. And yet, writing this romance novel seems to be putting more of myself on display. Can I do that again?
Writing this romance novel seems to be putting more of myself on display. Can I do that again?
And it’s not just that I’m being vulnerable on the page all over again . . . What if I spill my own blood for readers again and they hate it? When I wrote the memoir, I was more worried about being misunderstood than I was about writing something “bad.” With Sometimes I Trip . . . , I wanted to highlight the diversity of Black womanhood. I wanted to let women, especially Black women, know they are not alone in their desires for something more than what society says we should have. But with a romance novel, I want to write something so juicy and so good, you have to force yourself not to read it all in one setting. That’s a lot of pressure on myself. I know that I, alone, do not have the power to bring down the romance industry, but what if the book is so awful, people decide never to read romance again? I couldn’t bear it!
Romance readers are loyal and vicious, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Publish an essay about reading romance for the first time and mention Fabio. See what happens. I dare you. Romancelandia, the general social media community of romance readers and writers, will tear you a new one quicker than a bodice is ripped in a rose garden. We are fierce protectors of the genre because, despite the ways it helps keep the publishing industry afloat , it still gets ridiculed. How dare women want to read about being treated and loved well, often with great sex too.
I want to make sure I honor all the years of pleasure and escape romance has brought me, how it’s helped me become confident in asking for what I want in a relationship. I want to honor how difficult it is to take a subject like love, that’s been around since cave drawings, and make it fresh and new each time. I don’t want to ruin that.
In December 2022, I took a vacation with a friend to celebrate her birthday. We made an agenda of topics we needed to discuss with more nuance than texting allows; my items included confessing my writerly struggles with this romance novel. As we sat around our hotel’s pool and sipped whiskey cocktails, I poured out my fears. My friend listened and asked me pointed questions to get to the root of it all. Writing, for me, has always been a very solitary and superstitious endeavor. I don’t talk about my projects because I don’t want to jinx them or give anyone unrealistic expectations I may not be able to achieve.
However, I’m trying to be more open about my writing, and talking about this particular project and my anxieties around it has helped. I’ve also adjusted my writing area by decluttering it. I’ve given myself permission to write in bed, when inspiration sometimes strikes as I’m falling asleep. (I try to keep my bedroom as tech-free as possible.) Since that tipsy discussion with my friend, I’ve written enough pages that might be either one giant chapter or two medium-sized ones. I’ll let my agent and future editor decide. But it felt good to make more progress. I still feel very nervous about this book because . . . well, I want to write more romances. There’s a sheet in my Notes app with the ideas of three more romance novels on it. I can’t get to those ideas until I get out of my own way.
I no longer have the same sense of dread when I sit down to write the love story of these characters in my head. The anxiety hasn’t fully disappeared, and I know it won’t. That’s what I’ve had to come to terms with. I care so much about the genre of romance that my fear of failing it had me stalled in place. Now, when I open the folder that contains my notes for this book, I try to imagine writing something eight-year-old me would get in trouble for reading, and then I smile. And if one of my favorite romance authors were sitting at her desk, describing me in that moment, she’d write that I had a devilish glint in my eye.