Romy's Blog

Writing for the 21st Century

Many years ago, I attended a fabulous romance writers' conference (my first) at the University of Greenwich in London. It was here, in a setting of majestic buildings and even more majestic history, that I first found my 'tribe'.

Though I have many wonderful memories of that weekend, one memory has stuck with me longer and stronger than any other: the presentation by three editors from Harlequin Mills & Boon on what they look for in new writers. Their talk was titled 'Innovate, don't imitate' and for years afterwards it became Mills & Boon's catch phrase for aspiring authors.

That presentation was a lightbulb moment for me, because it explained why all my books before that date had not achieved any success. I was so busy trying to write what I thought the editors wanted, that I was copying the romance novels I was reading instead of creating my own unique romances. Editors don't need the books they've already published, they said. They need new books, with new styles and new ways of looking at the world.

Writing in the way that only you can write is a major component of finding your Voice as a writer. Developing your voice takes time and will be the subject of another post, but for now the point I want to make is this:

Do not write in the style of another writer. Write like you.

And do not ever, ever try to write like Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, James Joyce or Georgette Heyer. No matter how great their writing was, just don't do it.

Want to know why? They're all dead.

And you are very much alive, right now in the 21st Century. And so are your potential readers!

Even if you are writing historical novels, and your readers only read historical novels, the truth is that we are not isolated islands cut off from the world around us. We are creatures of the 21st century, and deny that at your peril.

Today's style of writing is faster-paced, less prosy and descriptive, than in years gone by when books didn't have to compete for attention in a market saturated with fast-paced, action-driven television, movies, games, and YouTube videos. But it is so much more than the way we write. It's also what we write.

The world has changed dramatically in the last two decades, and I'm not even talking about the use of cell phones and the internet. Our culture has changed, our values and priorities have changed, and your writing must acknowledge this.

An example:

If you are old enough to remember the 1980s (even vaguely) you might remember the scandal when Hollywood legend Rock Hudson died of AIDS? The denial, the incredulity, the shock and horror. Because how could a leading man possibly be gay?!

Imagine that same scenario today. Would there be the same level of shock and horror today if a heartthrob celebrity came out as gay? Actually, you don't need to imagine it, do you? Matt Bomer, Amber Heard, Zachary Quinto, Gillian Anderson...

So how differently would you write characters today compared to a writer back in the 80s would have written them? If you wrote a contemporary story today in the style of your favourite 80s writer, would your audience relate to it or feel distanced from it?

(#WriterTip: reader distance is not a good thing!)

Imagine you're writing a scene set in a coffee shop. Is everyone in this coffee shop white, straight and middle class? In Hemingway's time, the answer is most likely yes. In the 1990s of Friends and Sex and the City the answer might still be yes. But how would that same coffee shop scene look in your 2017 manuscript?

Even if you write historical novels, or maybe especially if you write historical novels, you need to be aware of the attitudes of today's readers. Yes, in another time and place people kept slaves and didn't think twice about it. And yes, otherwise ordinary people who lived as colonialists in foreign countries didn't think twice about setting themselves up as lords and masters over the native people whose country they'd invaded and plundered. But that doesn't mean you can ignore it. You as the writer need to think about and address these changes in values and beliefs within the context of your story, or you risk being trashed by readers. (And trust me, you don't want to get on the wrong side of Goodreads readers!)

In next week's blog post I am going to look at changes in cultural mores that have had a dramatic influence on romance novels in particular, so if you write any kind of fiction with romantic elements, tune back in here next week. Same time, same place.

Until then, if you are a beginner writer, I want you to look at your current WIP (work in progress) - do the characters' attitudes represent current values, or do they represent the values and attitudes of the books you read in your misspent youth? Is your style contemporary, or does it echo the classics you were taught in school?

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