I googled my name the other day. One of those, ‘I wonder if anyone’s mentioned me lately’ moments. You know, checking if anyone’s written any nice reviews or anything nice about my books or my writing that I’d previously missed.
I found a mention, but not one I was expecting – a reader’s angry post about my newly (back then) published short story, Love Through Time.At first I was indignant – that knee-jerk reaction that comes from anyone daring to criticize my work. But when I took a moment to calm and then read her post again, I hung my head in shame. She had every right to be angry.
As authors, we have a responsibility to our readers. We write a certain style, a certain genre, and as we write, we need to bear in mind the expectations of our audience.
For example, if a reader picks up a crime novel, they expect a crime. Not only that, they expect that particular crime to be solved, or at least some sort of satisfactory conclusion to the crime, by the end of the story. For romance, the reader expects a romance, and with it comes that sigh, that satisfaction, that long-awaited happy ever after.
All that said, there is one more responsibility we as authors must shoulder. A responsibility to our story. We need to be true to our characters, our plot, the world we’ve created. We need to follow our instincts and write what’s right for our narrative.
But what if one responsibility counteracts the other?
I met with this dilemma just recently. One which lead to this ‘mention’ on social media which gave me a well-deserved wake-up call.
My writers group, Melbourne Romance Writers Guild (MRWG), decided to release a second anthology following on the tails of success of our first silver anniversary edition last year. I was excited. I’d surprised myself last year with my ability to write outside my comfort zone and write something short, and this gave me a repeat opportunity. I’d be able to sink my teeth into something different. Shorter definitely, but more, I could transcend genres and dip into something I’d never tried before – time travel. After all, my next series will have elements of this, so why not see if I can in fact write it before I dive in?
So, with a deep breath I sat down and gave it a go.
As I began to write, I began to see a story unfold, unlike any story I’ve ever written before. This was darker. Doomier.
No happy ending.
I wrote one anyway. After all, I write romance, right? How could I produce a story that doesn’t end happy? I love romance. It’s my all-time, go-to read. In fact, even when I read other genres – crime, suspense, thrillers – my reading experience is all-the-more richer when romance enters the mix.
So why did I write something that didn’t end well? I can’t answer that question, any more than I can answer the question of where the story came from in the first place.
I ignored my instincts and wrote on. I rewrote that ending – tied up all the loose threads, made a happy ending I as a reader would expect if I picked up the story understanding it was romance.
It didn’t work. Every critique I had on the story said something didn’t fit. It was too forced. Too fake. My story wasn’t romance, so why had a written it so?
So here came my dilemma – what to do?
My story had romantic elements, it just wasn’t romance.
No happy ending.
At this point, I made a decision that I didn’t fully think through. I decided to go ahead and include my story – my non-happy-ending story – in the anthology. From that decision I made a trail of mistakes and I let my readers down.
Mistake one: I considered my story, but I didn’t consider my readers.
Big mistake. Let’s go back to one of the central responsibilities that we as authors carry – a responsibility to be true to our readers. I’m a romance author, therefore by definition, my stories should be true romance – they should contain a happy ever after.
Love Through Time doesn’t do this. Whilst it contains elements of romance, a hero that is very hero-worthy and a love that does continue through time, there is no happy ending. No satisfying sigh-worthy joy or bliss. Just sadness and a knowledge that nothing – least of all time – will ever change this.
It’s not a romance, should never have been labelled as such. And I’ve let readers down by not making this crystal clear from the onset.
Mistake two: I didn’t correctly identify the genre of my story.
I’m a romantic suspense author, right? So, I labelled my story as romantic suspense. Wrong. I should have stated it was suspense with romantic elements. I should have warned readers that although they were picking up a romance anthology, the first story in that anthology wasn’t romance. Through my decision to include my story, not only did I let down readers, I let down my writing group.
Because, let’s face it, if the first story isn’t romance, what stalwart romance reader will want to read on?
Mistake three: I didn’t give the readers an option.
There are several ways I could have done this. I could have made it clear there would be no happy ending and readers could have skipped my story if that was a problem for them. Or I could have provided the alternate ending for those so inclined – a kind of ‘choose your ending’ style story. Or I could have published my happy ever after ending, regardless of my thoughts that it didn’t fit, and self-published the original story at a later date under the correct – romantic element – genre.
In my defense I have little to say. I’m glad I came upon the mention of my name, as much as the post initially upset and disturbed me. It was an awakening I needed, and one I appreciate from the reader who wrote it.
I’m sorry I didn’t do right by my readers in Love Through Time. I’m sorry I didn’t give you the happy ever after you – rightfully – expected.
I’m human. As a consequence, I make mistakes. And I consider this a big one – one I intend never to make again.
I’m sure as an emerging author I’ll make other mistakes. I can’t promise I won’t. That’s all part of being human, and entering a world where everything is a huge learning curve. What I can promise is to listen to readers and learn from those mistakes. To grow from them and do better. And to own up and say sorry when I’ve done my readers wrong.
Taste of Romance is a celebration of all things romance. It was created to promote and support aspiring and emerging in the genre, and to provide my writing group with knowledge and insight into the complex world of publishing.
And as an author, it’s taught me one very valuable lesson, one I vow never to forget. When I write, when I publish, when I promote, I will always consider you, my readers.
As always, have a fabulous month, and I look forward to seeing you all again in the new year. Wow, where has the year gone!
What hard lessons have you learned lately? How did they come about? What changes have you made in light of these lessons? I’d love to know.
Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she's a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she'll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.
Michelle lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making. And Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia's 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.
You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at www.michelle-somers.com
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