I Couldn’t Finish My ‘Romance Novel’ Until I Fell In Love for Real

Experience. It matters.

Love stories captivate me. They always have. I grew up in the ’90s, so Disney movies did a pretty good job of filling my head with images of what it was supposed to look like when two people fell for each other.

I am not a romance novelist. But as many stories do, mine always feature characters struggling to figure life out — which often means trying to figure out how to fit another person into their world.

For a long time, I had pretty low expectations for my own love life, and tried to give my characters as many satisfying endings as possible (IMO, the guy doesn’t always get the girl, and all that). I tried very hard not to let my own loneliness and discouragement get in the way of telling good stories.

I never realized the problem might have been the absence of a real-life love story. Not until it happened to me.

I’d been taking a break from my ‘romance’ novel for almost a full year when love rudely and unexpectedly disrupted my life in all the best ways possible. I’d set the book aside for reasons I couldn’t really figure out or justify. It was, at its heart, a love story — though a tragic one (because of course). Was it too sad? Or maybe I needed to take some time to think through how to make the characters more likable… or unlikeable, in some cases.

Those things were factors, sure. But I was also a mid 20-something who had never been in a serious long-term relationship trying to write a deeply emotional narrative about two people who weren’t sure if they could live without each other. Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about how that felt.

Then Life Happened, as it tends to do when you stop expecting it to. And when I found myself opening that document again, there was no doubt in my mind that I could do a much better job of telling that story now than I could have before.

Funny how things sometimes just … work out.

Experience is the best writing prompt you will ever come across. It is also the best writing coach, the best motivator, and the only way to learn how to tell believable, emotionally driven stories.

Before I’d figured out what it really meant to love another person, my story was still believable. It still made sense. But up until that point, I’d always felt there was something missing. It turns out what was missing was the real, raw emotion I needed to put behind the story’s ending — something I couldn’t do before.

I think the strangest part about writing is how much your stories change as you do. Maybe not in style or by topic, but most certainly in depth. I’ve always adored love stories. The difference between the ones I wrote when I was 16 and the one I’m writing at 26 is that I get it now. I “get it” in a way 16-year-old me didn’t even know she needed to, or ever could.

This isn’t to say you couldn’t write a love story if you’ve never been in a serious relationship or a sad story if you’ve never felt loss. But I think there are many different kinds of love and loss and friendship and betrayal and grief. I think to some degree we’ve all loved and hurt and healed and grown up.

I just didn’t know how much I didn’t know until I knew. You know?

You cannot connect with a reader without real-life experience. Whether you get that through casual living or through research or spending time with people who have “been there,” it’s an essential part of the process. I mean, don’t go looking for a partner so you can write a better book. That’s probably not the right way to approach it. Just … make sure you let life Happen for you, and use what you learn to be a better storyteller.

But also, enjoy your experiences. Not just so you have something to write about, but so you can one day say you lived many lives — the real one, and the ones of all your characters.

If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that you can write a million stories. But it’s your own story that will mean the most to you down the road. Don’t fear living. Fear not having lived. Take chances. And risks. Say “yes” more often. Stop fearing failure. It may not work out. But it may also change your life forever.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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