I got my start writing category romance. I have also done ghostwriting, and I’m looking at doing some work-for-hire. There are a number of reasons for that, not the least of which being my son enjoys things like food, and a roof over his head.
That said, I think that people who pan the “formulaic” quality of this kind of writing are missing the beauty and inherent creativity that the constraints create.
The Top Chef Parallel.
Quick segue: I am a huge, psychotic fan of the show Top Chef. I’m a foodie, and wildly competitive, so it hits me on all the right cylinders. But the thing that always amazes me is the level of creativity that the contestants are able to bring to the challenges.
“Create a three-course meal… with only ingredients you’re able to find at a gas station convenience store.”
“Cook a Thanksgiving dinner… with only toaster ovens and microwaves.”
“Make the most decadent, sumptuous meal… with two hours to prep and ten dollars to spend.”
It’s insanity. Some of the chefs just dissolve into puddly little blops of tears and duck fat. But others rise to the challenge, making incredible gourmet dishes out of Fiery Hot Cheetos and Spam with aplomb.
Writing under pressure.
In some cases, as in Top Chef, the pressure is time. As a category romance writer in the nineties, I was told in no uncertain terms that success within the house came with a certain productivity. Go big — to the tune of three books a year — or go home.
Other times, special projects would come up. Due to the success of Westerns/Dystopians/Whatever, a continuity project comes up, and you’re invited if you can write fast and to “bible.” An author implodes and there’s suddenly a hole in the production schedule — can you write a book in a month?
Suddenly, it’s NaNo with a possible paycheck.
Writing within constraints.
If you’re writing romance, you need a happy ending. In the majority of the cases, it’s boy meets girl, a force opposing love rears its ugly head, but we know how it’s got to end.
If you’re writing mystery, someone’s gonna die. And someone’s going to be guilty, and someone else is going to solve who and how.
If you’re writing fantasy, some sort of quest probably takes place. A journey with a band of companions is usually involved. Magic, swords, and some kind of kingdom are also tried and true elements.
If you’re writing a Western, there’s probably a cowboy, sheriff, Marshall or similar involved, in a frontier setting. (I have yet to read a Western set in Paris, for example.)
Those that don’t know the genres assume that publishers hand out a template that says: “by page fifty, we want the couple to have gone on their first date… we want them to have sex by page 174, and then have an awful misunderstanding by page 2o0 that gets resolved by page 232.”
But really, it’s more like the Top Chef challenges.
“Write a historical romance. It must be set in Regency England; it must have a happy ending; it can’t be longer than 280 pages; and you’ve got three months to write it. Good luck!”
Yes, you’ve got parameters. But there’s an amazing amount of leeway… and a lot of areas where you can take chances, reinterpret, and make things fresh. And you’ve got to. Why?
The final aspect: the judges.
On Top Chef, the contestants are grilled by a panel of experts. In some cases, these are professional chefs themselves, but they are also simply gourmands and aficionados. Pro or not, they are obsessed with food, highly opinionated, and very vocal.
For genre fiction writers, every frickin’ reader we have is an expert. Most of them have been reading this particular genre for years — their whole adult reading lives, in most cases. Don’t let their voracious appetite for fiction fool you: they are freaks when it comes to a good story. They are obsessed, highly opinionated, and often very vocal.
Not every chef goes on Top Chef.
It’s not necessary. But it shows that, under pressure and constraint, amazing things can happen.
Rather than judging work-for-hire series genre fiction, I think that it, too, can show that, under pressure and constraint, amazing stories can come to life. Not everyone looks at it this way. Not all writers treat it this way — it’s not like we’re competing for a $100,000 prize, after all.
But if I’m working with metaphors this year, why not re-frame what could be a stale cliche… and create something amazing instead?