Elle Says Stuff

Some notes on why I do it

Someone asked me recently what got me into writing romance. It’s kind of like one of those “where were you when…” questions, except I actually remember.

At some point during the pandemic, I discovered Kindle Unlimited. I haven’t read for fun since before college, and though I enjoyed some of the assigned reading, I rarely read for fun during and afterwards.

I signed up for the trial, and here’s where my memory gets a little hazy. The first book I “borrowed” was an erotic romance. It was hetero and written for the bullies-to-lovers trope. I don’t even remember what encouraged me to check it out. But I devoured it. Binged it like a comfort show.

And then, I started poking around. I found the subreddit r/eroticauthors and started reading experiences and researching the trade. I discovered a whole system behind self-publishing romance to make money, an entire process that could be learned and implemented and potentially mastered. The more I read, the more it felt like something I could actually do.

I grew up like a lot of other queer writers probably did—reading a shitload of fanfiction. I wrote some too, though thankfully it is all lost to the sands of time (not for lack of trying—I still have documents on my computer that pre-date high school). Back then I gravitated toward m/m slash and often stayed up late chatting with my fanfic writer friends over AOL. At some point, I grew out of it, or I stopped making time for it, because you can’t exactly turn in slash fanfiction for your school writing assignments.

The first teacher who saw something in my writing was my sixth grade English teacher. She gave me extra credit projects where I published mini poetry books. She encouraged me to try out for a specialized school in the area, where I later attended.

I participated in a lot of academic writing classes. In high school I was able to “major” in creative writing. In junior year we were required to take a class that delved into the possibilities of taking our craft further—colleges, submissions to lit journals, all that jazz. I found a college in Chicago that had an entire department devoted to Fiction (may it rest in peace) and I was hooked.

The fiction department’s methods were unlike the rigorous peer critique I’d experienced in high school. We sat in semi-circles and read our stories aloud, after which classmates recalled the parts that spoke the loudest to them and talked about what was working. We didn’t revise, we rewrote. We studied forms of storytelling and then imitated them and then read published works that also imitated them. It drew me back to loving writing at a more basic level—just get the story on the page. Worry about everything else later.

But after college, I struggled to keep writing. I don’t think it’s fair to say that academia ruined my ability to write, but post-college I couldn’t seem to get my ass back in the chair. I moved home from Chicago and got an adult job and got caught up in life for a while. I think there was too big of an expectation to “make something” of my writing, and even though I had come in contact with a lot of different ways to write and be published in college, nothing fit for me. I didn’t want to be a journalist, I didn’t want to write clever copy for Groupon, and I didn’t want to teach.

I’d lost my love of reading, too. I couldn’t focus on the words on the page long enough to get invested in any story, no matter how interesting it sounded or how much I felt I should read it or how many people said it was the best thing they’d ever read. Instead I put my post-college time into video games, stories I could interact with and control to some degree. I caught up on movies and TV shows I’d missed out on during childhood.

So, fast forward (almost a decade now, sheesh), and I have a spouse and a kid and it’s a global pandemic and I decide I’m gonna start reading again, goddamn it. Turns out it was the skeleton key that unlocked my need to write like discovering an abandoned workshop.

The first romance book I read wasn’t even a niche I wanted to read again, but it cracked the newly unlocked door wider. Of course after spending so much time in academia I thought romance was beneath me; that’s a hard stigma to escape regardless of where you study creative writing. But now I was reading something that actually did captivate me, had me reading at night before bed like a kid under the covers with a flashlight. And there was sex.

How the fuck did I forget you could write stories with sex in them?

I happened to be working on a Serious Piece at the time that was going nowhere. I was 40k words in and vaguely knew what I wanted to happen, but I kept chopping it up, taking parts out that I later slid back in, changing characters, changing plot. It was like I wanted too badly for it to be something instead of just letting it grow.

As a break, I started toying with one of those fresh out of bed ideas you get sometimes. I’m an avid user of Google Keep, so I jotted down a note: “High end restaurant run by vampires, only open at night, and only hires vampires.”

From just the idea, I sat down and wrote 20k words over the course of a weekend. I sat back from it and wondered how it had come so easily, realizing it was fun, and it didn’t feel like it had to be anything.

And now I’m self-publishing it. I wrote a book, edited the fuck out of it, made a cover, made the inside fancy, sent it to a few friends to give me their thoughts (all positive and encouraging!) and now it’ll be posted to a place where other people can read it. It’s kind of surreal, even though it’s not exactly something I can write home about.

As I started down the path of branding (ick) and marketing (ugh), I discovered there was an incredible queer writing community on Twitter. I dug through Amazon, following authors and adding books to my “to read” list as if I was scavenging for rations. Then, when I actually got around to reading some of my finds, I encountered stories that pushed the shallow boundaries of romance in my head. Stories with raw feelings and flawed characters who sometimes hurt one another and then had deliciously dirty make up sex. There were stories that touched on mental health, consent, and BDSM safety without detracting from the story at all.

I wanted to write stories like that, because I was beginning to learn that romance didn’t have to just be about getting the girl or the guy in the end—though if I took anything from all my research, it’s that you better have a goddamn happy ending or so help me! Romance could be about growth, about the complexity of relationships, about how we see ourselves anew when someone accepts the good parts with the bad. An entire world I hadn’t thought possible seemed to bloom in front of me, and I realized the bi teenager writing Harry Potter slash that I’d grown up as was still very much a part of me. I’d done a disservice to myself as a writer by leaving her behind, by forgetting the things that made me love writing, because of what I thought storytelling was supposed to be. I feel impassioned again, I have ideas that I want to grow and flourish, and I’ll be damned if I let myself lose that again.