Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Lament of a failed romance writer

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Writing so called 'bodice rippers' wasn't some passing phase for me. I persisted for several years diligently ticking off all the boxes. Photo / Thinkstock
Writing so called 'bodice rippers' wasn't some passing phase for me. I persisted for several years diligently ticking off all the boxes. Photo / Thinkstock

She may not be widely known in New Zealand but Auckland-based romance novelist Nalini Singh has hit the big time in the publishing world with such steamy titles as Slave to Sensation, Awaken to Pleasure and Bound by Marriage.

I've been delighted to read about her international literary success especially since we have a connection. Singh and I were both toiling away as trainee romance novelists at the same time.

In 2000, when Singh was placed second in the Clendon Award (a competition, also known as 'Finish the Damn Book', run by Barbara's Books in conjunction with Romance Writers of New Zealand) my manuscript was highly commended. To think that my name was briefly just five places below that of a New York Times best-selling author. Talk about being almost famous.

I think the biggest difference between the two of us probably boiled down to raw talent.

She was very good at this romance writing gig while I was very average. Yet writing so called 'bodice rippers' wasn't some passing phase for me. I persisted for several years diligently ticking off all the boxes.

I read all the 'how to write a romance' books, attended the annual conferences, started a critiquing group with a friend and attended several intensive weekend courses at the Northland home of Daphne Clair, one of NZ's best loved and most well established romance writers.

I completed at least five 50,000-word manuscripts, some of which I entered in the annual competition - and one of which finished a few places behind Singh's work.

In hindsight, I must have thought I could successfully ignore rule number one of being a romance writer: 'Write what you love to read'.

I have to confess I didn't read Mills and Boon novels for pleasure. I poured over them solely to scrutinise the structure, dialogue, character growth and plot points. I was a fraud and it clearly showed.

Romance novels are not universally held in high esteem. Quite the reverse. They're often scorned for being mindless chick lit and for being formulaic. You know, hero and heroine meet, have difficulties, fall in love, overcome difficulties, the end.

It's just as formulaic as more manly pursuits such as rugby. Two teams play each other, get muddy, one wins, one loses, the end. Neither reading romance nor watching rugby is exactly cerebral.

But romances are definitely cerebral to write.

I certainly couldn't master the genre. I spent maybe six years trying before turning to journalism.

For me, fact-based work came so much more naturally than fiction. And although I've written my fair share of lifestyle stories I've also tackled harder-edged topics such as blood diamonds, contaminated food from China, asexuality, sleeping disorders, feminism and divorce - and co-authored a non-fiction book. But none of the work I've done in ten years has been anywhere near as tricky as writing romance novels.

So why share this? Actually I think we don't talk enough about our failures.

Success stories are good but a solid diet of success stories can mask the fact that for every winner (like Singh) there are probably umpteen dozen losers (like me).

And there's nothing wrong with that.

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

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