Published: January 18, 2005
|Sweet or sultry? Tempestuous or tender? When it comes to writing romance novels, one of the challenges is to create love scenes that capture readers' hearts while teasing their libidos. |
Savvy writers finesse a readable balance between sizzle and sensitivity, never losing sight of one key element--romance--which is, after all, why readers pick up the novels in the first place.
Romance novels are one of the most popular genres in publishing. In 1999, they generated more than $1.35 billion in annual sales, according to a study compiled by Libby Hall, past president of the Romance Writers of America, and the Book Industry Study Group.
Bestselling novelists such as Nora Roberts, Tami Hoag and Sandra Brown have enhanced the market and gained wider recognition for the genre.
At its heart, the romance novel centers on two people falling in love. The story doesn't have to end happily, but it should be optimistic. Within this broad framework, authors have plenty of leeway. A romance can be funny, mysterious, historical or contemporary--some have a little bit of everything.
Successful writers agree that strong, appealing characters, sensuous writing and an understanding of how to create sexual tension are the key elements of good romance novels. Writing strong love scenes that are neither too sappy nor too graphic is one of the challenges of the genre.
I talked with seven leading romance writers, with works ranging from funny to tender to sexy, to find out how they capture passion on the page.
In 1993, when journalist Sandra Hill--who has since published 11 romances, including Truly, Madly Viking (Love Spell)--started thinking of herself as a novelist, she decided, "I'm not going to just write when the mood hits me." While discipline (she spends at least three hours a day writing) and a computer system have helped, reading other writers was also key to her successful transition.
Hill continues to use her clipping file. "It's never to copy what someone has written," she says. She is more interested in how colleagues use details, "like eyes or the movement of a hand on the small of the back. What does this author do that I liked a lot?" To make sure she gets a well-rounded perspective, she subscribes to Men's Health and reads books on sexuality such as William Cane's The Art of Kissing (St. Martin's Press). She also recommends buying reference books, including Jean Salter and Candace Shelton's The Romance Writers' Phrase Book (Perigee). Although she admits that "it's the hokiest book in the world," she finds that the authors' extensive list of expressions can serve as a springboard for creativity.
Hill prefers writing in silence, but some writers agree with Shakespeare that music is the food of love--and love stories.
Karen Wiesner--who writes for e-publishers Hard Shell Word Factory and Avid Press, and does a monthly column on electronic publishing for Inkspot.com-makes a soundtrack for each of her books, which include the titles Vows & the Vagabond, Fire & Ice and Restless as Rain.
"Music," she explains, "is such a part of my soul, I have to listen to it while I create. My soundtracks are tailored to selected areas of the book, which really helps me get into the mood. I've often used a snippet of a song to create an entire novel."
Rochelle Alers (Private Passions, Arabesque) also likes to create a romantic atmosphere for writing. Spending her days as an administrator for state-funded substance abuse agencies, Alers finds she needs to switch gears before she sits down to write. "I always burn candles," she says. "I also turn on my Zen fountain and play background music. I love movie soundtracks because of the movements--the highs and lows."
No matter how romance writers get started on their five to 10 pages a day--a typical goal for many--there's still the problem of writing about the anatomy of love again and again. There are only so many ways to describe sex, not counting crashing waves or arching rainbows.
You have to make the readers care, says Hill. "It's much more important to have sizzling sexual tension than the actual sex." Keeping a love scene fresh "has nothing to do with technique or the kink du jour, it has to do with character."
Wiesner, who chronicles her writing tips in the soon-to-be-published The Productive Writer (Avid Press), combines desire and heart-stopping emotional intimacy. "The key is to not get mired in either aspect of it for long. Don't let your characters get so swept away that they're riding on a cloud of the author's purple prose,'' she says.
Keep it fresh
"Humor works very well, because it makes the reader laugh," Wiesner notes, and the tenderness eases the tension. In Fire & Ice, for example, when the hero and heroine are in the kitchen cooking together, the hero lifts her onto the counter, and they both hear a loud splat when she sits on a tomato.
Originally a painter, Susan Johnson (Temporary Mistress, Bantam) says that when she started writing in 1979, her goal was to be "the Henry Miller of romance." Chosen as one of four authors in Kensington's new Brava line of steamy romances, she's definitely a woman who likes to turn up the heat. She owns a Victorian erotica collection and likes to read diaries and memoirs about love affairs past. "For me," she says, "writing sex scenes is very time-consuming. You have to choreograph every move." She also recommends using dialogue to create sexy scenes. Remember Bogey and Bacall' s suggestive repartee in The Big Sleep? "Keep in mind that this is entertainment," she advises.
Vicky Lewis Thompson, who recently published That's My Baby (Harlequin), likes love scenes that seem real--which doesn't necessarily mean graphic. She compares the difficulty of keeping her work fresh--she's written more than 50 books--with keeping her marriage going strong. In both cases, she says, there are still a lot of variables that can affect the outcome. "You've got different people in each book, and you can vary the settings," she remarks. "You don't have to have beds, and you can vary the conflicts. I've been married for 30 years; you have the same kind of challenge. It really does bring out true creativity."
Lately, Thompson has begun turning to books for ideas. She started reading her way through her local bookstore's sexuality section, beginning with Nancy Friday's classic on women's sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden (Pocket Books).
But no amount of lusty language can make up for unlikeable characters, she says. "If either is a cad who would turn you off in real life," she says, "then the scene will be yucky."
What makes great sex on the page isn't "so much about zippers flying open, it's about feelings and the little things that happen," says Eileen Goudge (The Second Silence, Viking), who is working on a trilogy set in California. In her work, she tries to convey some of life's ironies. An upcoming book features "a 48-year-old woman who falls in love with her youngest daughter's 30-year-old stepson. She's a widow, and he's a painter hunk. So they have this first sex scene, and you think she's going to teach him a thing or two. But he's the one who teaches her."
"I don't write sex scenes to spice things up," says Goudge, who started her career writing teen romances like the Sweet Valley High series. "I think it's much more about the emotional landscape than body parts bumping up against each other. I had a lot of scenes that were more about what the girl is thinking while he runs his hand up the inseam of her jeans. I really think that's what is more arousing."
Alers appeals to the readers' senses. "Usually," she says, "I can see what is happening in a particular scene. As a writer, I must set the mood so the reader becomes a visual participant. When I set up the props for a love scene, or anything else, it's like watching frames of film. I'm aware of the lighting, the weather. Sometimes I decide to add a storm and use the wind as a character. I can also make use of the time of day-the color of the sky, how shadows play across the objects in a room. It may sound insignificant, but it's important to me and makes a scene more alive, more visual."
In the end, it all boils down to character, says Alers. By knowing her characters intimately before she starts, she doesn't need to rewrite, which is especially important for a writer working two jobs. "I begin every novel with a detailed character dossier," she says, describing her books as character-driven. "These people are very real to me. I create a complete biography, including their positive and negative traits, family composition, what books they read, their financial status, favorite time of day. If you know your characters, they will fill up the blank screen for you."
In Summer Magic (Arabesque), she created two emotionally wounded people who share a house for the summer. The woman is a victim of domestic violence, and the man sees his fiance in bed with his best friend. "The plot is very predictable, reminiscent of a teenage summer romance," concedes Alers. "But I managed to create two extraordinary characters." Readers felt the same way, and liked it as much as her Hideaway series.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips agrees that complex characters give romance zest. "You have to be invested in the characters to write sexy. How would these people make love? Is it going to be a funny little romp? Will it drive them apart or bring them together?"
A two-time recipient of the Romance Writers of America's Favorite Book of the Year Award, Phillips made her hardcover debut in January with This Heart of Mine (Morrow). She polishes her story and characters with what she calls "texturing, or layering" as she goes along. Each layer adds depth and complexity to the novel.
"I don't work with any kind of synopsis," she says. "I plot as I write. By the time I get to the end of the book, I'm finished."
For Wiesner, building sexual tension between characters begins on the first page. "One of the biggest reasons I think authors have trouble with love scenes is that they don't begin the 'exaggerated awareness' aspect immediately. You have to reveal a character and what she wants, even if it's only a tiny part of the whole picture. When you introduce characters as soul mates, even if they don't know it yet, there has to be an immediate connection."
Remember that in the romance game, say these experts, it takes two to tango. The author's and reader's imaginations work together to create an irresistible read.
With a little discipline and a lot of care taken to get descriptions and feelings right, it's possible to create a romance that's a keeper. There really are happy endings, not just for the hero and heroine, but for the aspiring romance writer as well. And, as the statistics show, it can be profitable to play by the rules of romance.
This article first appeared in the February 2001 issue of The Writer.