The Secret To This Romance Author's Success? Breaking All The Rules.
When Kristen Ashley decided to ignore the "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" and just do her own thing, devoted fans followed.By Kristen AshleyMay 2, 2017 10:08 AM
I can safely say that every time I’ve been asked to speak to aspiring writers, afterward, I’ve had not one, but several come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you did what you said you did. I was told never to do that. I was told never to break that rule.” This does not surprise me, but it saddens me. When I started writing, I too had a set of rules for writing romance (my genre) that I was under the impression were unbreakable. And I wrote within the confines of those rules.
It was only when publishing house after publishing house, agent after agent had rejected my submissions, and I’d decided that no one was ever going to read my books, that I threw the rules out the window. I then simply wrote what I wanted to write, wrote how the stories came to me, was true to them and my characters.
Then I published myself … And I’ve sold more than two and a half million books.
What are the rules I broke? First, I didn’t write what I thought people wanted to read. I didn’t research what might be popular — what might sell — and write that. I wrote stories that felt personal to me, that I enjoyed completely from writing to reading. The first book that I did this with was Rock Chick, and with itand the Rock Chick series, I broke all the rules:
I wrote in first person, and at that time, romance novels in first person were available, but not customary.
I wrote my heroine’s thoughts in a stream of consciousness. I had paragraphs — many of them — that were just one word. I put myself, and what would eventually be my readers, in the mind of my heroine, Indy. Not describing what she was thinking, but thinking what she was thinking as she was thinking it. It’s important to note that not everyone could get into that, and that’s understandable, even expected. It’s also important to note that the ones who did, really did.
I allowed my characters freedom of expression. This meant that if they cursed, if the F-word was prevalent in their vocabulary, I let them use it (and cursing was very rare in romance).
For that matter, I didn’t censor my characters or their behavior. I didn’t think, “Oh, that might make her unlikeable, I need to switch that up, make her perfect.” I didn’t water down my aggressive, but loving heroes. I let them be them — real, imperfect, sometimes annoying, more times endearing (I hoped). They were great friends and good people, but they could (and often did) do stupid things (like we all do).
And my Rock Chicks were — and still are — hugely successful.
Once I let myself be free, my writing took off — not only in that people were reading it, but that I felt at liberty to create how I needed to create. To be true to what I was doing. It wasn’t about stepping out of bounds for the sake of it. It was about opening a cage and giving myself the freedom to fly.
In other words, I broke the rules for the sake of the stories. And I didn’t play it safe after my books started selling; I had to stay true to that process. I needed to keep spreading my wings, doing this for me, but also to give my readers something new and fresh, a story I was passionate about so they could enjoy it right along with me.
I don’t write the stories I want to write. I write the stories I need to write.
By this time, I was already an established romance writer and had hit the bestseller lists. But I was certain that The Will would never sell. You see, The Will had a hero and heroine who were in their late forties. I’d already written outside what I considered the “romance norm” by writing characters in their thirties and even early forties. But pushing them close to their fifties and showing them as sexual, vital, commanding, interesting, with flaws they were learning to embrace, baggage they continued to carry, and issues they were still working out (all of this is the case with people of any age) — I figured no one would read it. I thought that if I didn’t have leads in their twenties or early thirties, the book would bomb.
What’s more, romance readers expect a lot from their heroines. Give a heroine even a tiny flaw, this often doesn’t go over well. Many women feel the need to strive for perfection, and that makes my heart sad — that we can’t accept ourselves for the beauty of all that we are rather than pushing ourselves to something that is often unattainable, or even practical, much less something that, in the end, even if we were able to achieve it, wouldn’t make us boundlessly happy (but this is for another, far longer piece). And there I was in this series, putting my heroines in a huge hole they had to dig themselves out of and making my readers do that work right alongside them.
I still had to tell the story. It wouldn’t let me go. So I did. And The Will was a Goodreads Choice nominee, hitting #7 in the overall romance vote and it hit the bestseller lists.
When my readers engaged with me about it, those who were around the age of my hero and heroine were delighted someone told a story that they could more easily relate to…but it wasn’t just that. Much younger readers embraced it as well.
Another example where I broke my own rules is my most recent release, The Deep End. It was a new genre for me, but I was known for jumping genres, writing contemporary romance as well as fantasy and paranormal. However, this was me jumping into erotica. Although it’s not a huge leap for a romance writer, as erotica is (thankfully) now an established, popular genre, I took a twist in what was popular in the genre and what was considered my norm by switching up a D/s relationship so that the dominant was a woman and the submissive was a man. An alpha male, but still a sexual submissive.
I loved this story, was passionate about it, had wanted to write something like this for years, but I struggled against the pull of it because I knew it would take a giant leap of faith for many of my readers to engage with it. When sales started out slow, I was not surprised. But word of mouth started circulating and more people took the plunge, bought the book, and liked it. It was gorgeous and humbling. I wrote a book I adored, communicated about it openly and honestly, and prayed my readers would decide to take that plunge with me. So I was utterly delighted when many did.
I’ve broken other rules, too: I’ve written books where the hero and heroine get together with little to no drama. My vampires do not burn up in the sunlight (my Three series). I’ve killed the dog (you’re never supposed to do that, but don’t despair, I made up for it).
I don’t write the stories I want to write. I write the stories I need to write. And in doing that, I hope that my readers feel that need and enjoy the passion that prompted it.
One of my favorite quotes (and things to do) is “dance like no one is watching.” You do it because you love to do it. Get down, bust your own moves, and enjoy the heck out of it. I also like to say, “write like no one will be reading.” The most important part of the process is to do it because you love to do it.