Bestselling romance novelist Milly Johnson discusses why she writes romantic comedy and what the genre means to her.
Let me start by saying that writing romantic comedy is not an easy option. For some reason it’s seen as a ‘lesser’ skill than some genres. I've never understood that, as every author worth his salt makes sure that every one of those 100k+ words count and contribute. And I certainly have my work cut out because my readers need and expect the happy ending. But they also demand that the ending is not too predictable. They insist I drag them into the story, make them laugh and cry and leave them satisfied, smiling and full of hope. They require that I throw in curveballs yet they want to relax into my story. They desire to feel safe, but ask that I batter them with unexpected shockwaves from left field. And that I write my book in an instantly recognizable ‘Milly’ way, but also ring in the changes. It’s a tough brief.
I never balk at the pigeon holes we’re put in: ‘chick-lit’ ‘romcom’ but many of us in this genre write far grittier stories than the covers suggest. The outside of my books might feature a beautiful care-free woman, but inside there are deep, dark storylines and that’s where having a readership comes in handy, because people know what they’re getting with one my novels: I write about real life and the full spectrum of light and shade, laughs and heartbreaks. Once upon a time, I thought nothing could top the feeling of landing my first book deal. I was wrong because building up a massive, loyal readership who get you is where the best thrill lies.
Our books are often as layered and complicated as crime novels. Mine certainly have lots of plots and subplots and every storyline has to tie up neatly because that’s what my readers expect. They don’t want to finish a book with their mouths open asking ‘What the hell happened?’ I think of my books as macramé projects with lots of strings which all have to be crafted into a neat, finished piece by the end. If not, I’ll alienate my readers and they’ll go elsewhere… you really are only as good as your last book!
Setting is important to me. I see every house and street in my head and I have no idea who builds them in my brain during the night. They might be fictitious places, but in order to pull readers into my world, the settings are as detailed as my characters. In fact, they almost are characters in their own right.
As for the characters themselves, I trawl the internet (hair style sites are good) to find as near a match to the people I’ve imagined, print off a picture and write their vital statistics at the side to be easily referred to. My hero and my heroine are never perfect but they’re good, decent people on the right side of flawed. (Who can identify with Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff? Jane Eyre and Rochester, however, are a totally different kettle of fish!) I spend a lot of time on their names: names reinforce character, but be sensible: Edward Rochester is a strong, rich name. Lancelot Eagle is OTT - unless he’s a porn star.
I have a lot of fun with my subsidiary characters but I also take care to colour them too, rather than leave them as grey, unfinished sketches. They are often the ones who drive a lot of the action. Every one of my characters is real to me, however brief their appearance, because they all have a job to do.
Description weights a story down so use it sparingly. Even if you are queen of the adjective, you’ll bore your readers rigid. Dialogue is what ups the pace in a book. Dialogue is a fabulous way of moving the story forward, of revealing information AND character traits at the same time. But remember that those involved in dialogue listen and react to what each other says. Only then it will sound like real conversation.
Every writer will be accused of cliché and stereotypes but life is bursting with clichés – hey, that’s why they've become clichés! Life is also full of stereotypes, people who become caricatures of themselves: the corporate boss, mid-life crisis man, the pushy mother, the doormat wife. Within each cliché and stereotype there will be something to lift them from textbook standard though. No one in life is all good or all bad, all pushy or all doormat. They all have their little rebellions against type.
Humour is difficult to write unless it comes effortlessly if it doesn't, I’d stay right away from it because you can’t try to be funny; you either are or you aren't. You don’t set off to write humour in books, it shows through your writing naturally. Force humour and it looks like forced humour – and that’s not funny.
So far as the heart of a classic romance story goes, the formula is a simple one: boy meets girl, there’s an obstacle, a love rival, boy and girl get close, closer, closest – the end. The object of one of my love stories is the eventual happy ending. The reader knows I’m going to deliver - it’s a given, so they sit back and enjoy the journey. A good writer will raise a teasing question mark over that certain happy ending though. They will pull the action from the sure path, throw in seemingly impossible obstacles, snatch hope away then feed it back in tiny morsels but they will never let a reader’s interest starve to the point of losing them.
My last point: I think the writers in my genre have the closest relationship with their readers. They find hope and comfort in our books and write to us to tell us so as if we were old friends. They feel as if they know us personally because we connect to them through our words in ways that no other genre can boast. That is the joy of writing rom-com. Which writer can ask for a better compliment than that?
Milly Johnson was born, bred and still lives in South Yorkshire. As well as an author, she is a newspaper columnist, poet, after-dinner speaker, professional joke-writer, creative writing lecturer, copy-writer and sometimes broadcasts for local radio. Up to press she has written twelve full length novels and four novellas, including White Wedding and The Yorkshire Pudding Club. She currently holds the Yorkshire Society award for Arts and Culture and has appeared on the shortlist for Romantic Novel of the Year three years running (won in 2014). Follow her on Twitter here and visit her Facebook page.