I’m hardly a veteran in Romancelandia. In our patch of the publishing world, it’s not uncommon for an author to published 50, 100, 200+ books in their long and prolific careers. It’s not just the sheer volume of words they’ve written, but their ability to continue to find new readers and keep afloat in a constantly changing environment that I truly admire.
Since getting published in 2014, my career has encountered its share of turbulence. This year I hit a milestone of twenty books written across three publishers. In that time, I’ve written for five different category lines, worked with eight different editors and written books with word counts ranging from 30,000 to 95,000 words.
I have learned A LOT. And I have been asked to do a lot.
In that time I’ve been asked for : more sex scenes, less swearing, more tropes, higher concepts, something “sticky” (and no, that wasn’t related to the sex scenes). How about an accidental pregnancy story? Oooh, not another office romance. The book needs to be set in the USA. Actually, don’t set this book in the USA, set it somewhere else.
I asked myself a question that many career authors face: how I find the balance between telling my stories and staying relevant in an ever-changing market? (although, let’s be real, when I asked myself that question it was way less coherent and contained way more sobbing and expletives.)
One day I had a lightbulb moment. I will always make sure my books were the stories I wanted to tell because tropes and settings and heat-level don’t define the story, they’re simply the window dressing.
WHAT READERS LOOK FOR
Some months ago I asked my reader group on Facebook what they expect when they pick up a Stefanie London book. Not one of them said “I like Australian books” or “I like romantic comedy” or “I like fake engagement tropes.”
Instead, they told me that they loved how my characters always had great dialogue, that my stories often made them laugh, that they enjoyed how “real” my characters and their problems were even if the story had more of a fantastical setting or plot. They enjoyed that my books had great sexual tension, snappy banter and quippy one-liners. They enjoyed that I always gave them heartfelt HEAs and that I never left them disappointed with a cliffhanger.
I’d been doing something smart all along (although I can honestly say it wasn’t a conscious thing until more recently). I had cultivated an authentic voice that went beyond window-dressing.
I had written my books to suit the “reader promises” within each publishing house, and yet I had always given my readers a true Stefanie London story. A story that’s guaranteed to have humour mixed into the emotion, that’s going to have sizzling tension regardless of how the heat-level might fluctuate, that’s going to have characters who feel real and fleshed out. Everything else—the covers, the title, the tropes, the word count, the number of sex scenes—is simply a sandbox for me to play in.
CULTIVATING A VOICE
This isn’t something you can “learn” from a book or a blog post or a workshop. It takes time, practise, missteps. The more you write, the more your voice will develop. Each time you learn something new and apply it to your work, it will help shape your voice.
But there are a few questions you can ask yourself now that might help you figure out what kinds of stories you want to tell:
What do I want my readers to feel when they read one of my books?
What are the bits of the book I love writing most? How can I incorporate them strongly into each story?
What themes are important to me? What message do I want my books to impart?
Why do I write? How does that affect the stories I want to tell?
It’s a good idea to revisit these questions, too, as our writing evolves. And as we evolve.
I know a lot of people fling the advice of “staying true to yourself” around a lot. But it is true. Publishing will shift, lines come and go, editors change jobs, and genres fall in and out of favour.
But an author’s voice can rise above all that, and readers will still get the stories they love from you.