Published: January 18, 2005
|Romance is in the air--and contracts are in the mail for authors who can deliver a satisfying love story. "The romantic fiction market is one of the fastest growing genres in the fiction industry today," says Becci Davis, publisher of Bridges romance magazine. |
"Romance accounts for more than 50 percent of all paperback mass market books sold and over 1 billion dollars a year in sales." Romance Writers of America (RWA) reports that 41.4 million people (age 10 and older) or 18% of the reading-age population have read a romance in the past year.
So who's reading these books? And who's writing them? The demographics are not that far apart. According to RWA, the typical readers and authors are 30 to 50 years old, work outside the home and have attended college.
Single, married or divorced, they're united by the common vision that for every woman, there's one perfect mate who can be both a physical and intellectual equal. Romance writing--once the backdrop for bodice-ripping pirates and helpless governesses--has evolved to mirror modern times and male-female dynamics. Heroines, who were once relegated to low-paying jobs as a stepping-stone to marriage, are now cast as women of substance and captains of industry.
Frequently, the chemistry between the hero and heroine enhances an already fulfilling life rather than just providing an escape route from unhappy circumstances, although that remains one modus operandi of the romance novel.
Likewise, many of the male characters in these stories are not simply there to sweep women off their feet. The hero realizes that winning a woman's heart is only part of the equation. He also must get her respect.
"While there have been many influences on the market in the past 10 years, perhaps the biggest impact has been the expansion of the stories themselves," says Davis. In addition to the lovers' relationship, today's romance novel might include relationships with friends, family members and colleagues. Often the central character is also searching for self-fulfillment.
Even with changes in sexual dynamics, much of romance writing continues to be formulaic. There's a reason for that. The boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back formula is a tried-and-true blueprint that readers return to time and again, no matter the setting or era.
If you are going to write romance, then you need to learn everything you can about the genre and its categories. As a first step, read the top authors in the field to see how they do it. You'll find a list of the most popular romance writers on RWA's Web site (www.rwanational.org).
Familiarize yourself with the conventions of romance writing and build from there, developing your own style and flourish. Here are some of the basics.
Romance novels come in several categories:
Gothic. Set in Great Britain or the Eastern Seaboard at the turn of the 20th century, these generally unfold on dark, moody estates with equally dark and brooding heroes. Elements of romantic suspense and the supernatural are popular.
Regency. These stories occur in England or France between 1810 and 1820. Etiquette, strict moral codes and confining-but-elegant fashions keep passions in check.
Romantic suspense. These can be set in any time period or country, as long as the couple fall in love during the course of their relationship and someone's life--typically hers--is in jeopardy.
Westerns. Hearts and flowers on the American frontier! Plucky heroines confront arrogant cavalry officers and soldiers of fortune anywhere between the California gold rush in 1849 and the late 1870s.
Paranormal. These tales weave elements of fantasy, time travel, reincarnation, ghosts and space aliens. Note: If your aliens or werewolves have more screen time than the love affair, you will have written yourself out of the romance box and into a different genre.
Young adult. You'll want to stick to strictly holding hands and chaperoned dates, which may eventually--but not soon--lead to going steady. The concept of a sweet, first crush is juxtaposed with the angst of being accepted by peers, wearing the wrong clothes and praying that one's parents can get through the school's open house without being too geeky.
Mainstream. Usually longer, these books cross a variety of genres and color outside the lines of the typical plot. As opposed to category romance, in which the hero and heroine are involved only with each other, mainstream novels often include multiple marriages, divorces, deaths and sometimes unhappy endings.
Once you've identified which category provides the best backdrop for your novel, it's important to estimate not only how many words it will take you to tell your lovers' story, but to decide how much fictional time will elapse over the course of that romance---a weekend, six months, 20 years? It's also essential that their paths cross very early and--from that magical moment on--are never more than a chapter apart from each other's thought or touch.
The heroine. Once upon a time, heroines had to be virgins. In fact, they were still virgins by book's end, although the symbolism of a discreetly closed bedroom door on the honeymoon reassured us that condition would blissfully change. Today, a romance novel's lead character can be "experienced," though she should never in any way be conveyed as a bimbo slut. It's acceptable for her to have had a prior relationship, provided 1) he died young and tragically in a war far, far away, 2) she came to realize early in the relationship that he wasn't Mr. Right, or 3) by page 1, she is already over whomever she was involved with, so the reader can concentrate on her budding attraction to Mr. New Guy.
Heroines who have loved and lost and are ready to love again have become popular with romance readers. A prime example is Laurie, the sympathetic lead character in Design for Two Hearts by Phyllis Halldorson (Harlequin). Though she still grieves for her late husband, she's nonetheless receptive to the attention and company of a handsome stranger, affirming the premise that love can indeed strike twice in the same lifetime.
Don't rule out comedy as a cathartic venue for your heroine to sort out her feelings. In my upcoming novel Everything but the Groom, wedding coordinator Kate Jefferson finds herself in the uncomfortable position of dealing with her former boyfriend's too rich, too thin, too blond fiance, which I treat with humor. This scenario unexpectedly propels her into the arms of a photographer, Jack.
It's also beneficial in contemporary plots to demonstrate fairly early that your heroine is capable of living alone, taking care of herself and making good decisions. Whether she inherited everything she has or painstakingly worked her way up through the trenches of corporate America, she needs to be strong, resourceful and ready to handle the responsibilities of a sensuous adult relationship.
The hero. While editors still favor heroes who are tall, handsome and slightly older than their ladyloves, the rules have somewhat relaxed on their having to be CEOs or mega-moguls. Silhouette helped break that trend in the early '80s with the launch of its U.S. category romance line and the bold suggestion that not only could men and women be equal partners in life and love, but that she even could bring home the bigger paycheck!
It's also helpful if your hero possesses an "acceptable minor flaw"--a physical or emotional scar that heretofore has prohibited him from fully relinquishing the hold on his heartstrings. For example: a bullet wound acquired during a shootout with the drug kingpin responsible for his little sister's death. Another example: Betrayal in an earlier relationship results in a reluctance to ever trust again. Naturally, your heroine should possess the patience to heal, the confidence to believe and the tact not to just blurt out, "Good grief, Larry--that was 10 years ago! Build a bridge and get over it!"
In crafting my Scottish time-travel novel The Spellbox (Hard Shell Word Factory), I kept in mind that it was important to remain true to the mindset of 13th-century men with respect to the sanctity of marriage and the power of the church. As attracted as Sir Evan Lyells is to his mysterious guest who purports to be from the future, the largest obstacle to his loving anyone again is his own sense of defeat at having failed to protect his first wife from brutal harm by the English.
Remember that the course of true love must never run smoothly. Although it should be apparent to your reader from their very first glance that these two souls belong together, you need to throw in complications to keep the chemistry cooking.
Here are the three most popular speed bumps to the altar:
Reward. Both hero and heroine are after the same goal. They will either achieve it through compromise and communication or abandon it in deference to the realization that love, hearth and home are more valuable. Sometimes the hero and heroine can even achieve both, as is the case with the Harlequin intrigue Midsummer Madness by Phyllis Taylor Pianka, in which the lovers are embroiled in the investigation of some medical mayhem that could seriously cut short their blueprints for bliss.
Revenge. The heroine believes that her family has been ruined by the hero's actions. Although the romance ignites on an antagonistic level, she eventually learns that his father or brother or next-door neighbor was actually the wrongdoer and that her true love was mistakenly accused.
Leah Crane's Dark Ecstasy (Harlequin) is a compelling example of the fine line between love and hate when it comes to carrying out schemes of retribution.
Escape. Either the hero or heroine is seeking escape from a bad relationship, job or life circumstance and finds in the other a comfortable exit that promises long-term happiness. Jude Devereaux's A Knight in Shining Armor (Pocket Books), for example, is a humorous time-travel romance in which a heroine, whose present-day beau isn't living up to her expectations, finds herself literally tumbling into the reach of a brooding medieval hero with some relationship issues of his own.
In any of these scenarios, the primary obstacle the lovers face is either a third party, a set of biases or an object that represents status or power.
Romances are generally restricted to two points of view: his and hers. Older books of this ilk were written from only one perspective--hers--the reasoning being that whatever the man was thinking at any given time probably wasn't very important. On occasion, a third point of view--the antagonist's--can be introduced. If you jump into too many heads, however, you're breaking a cardinal rule of the genre. Specifically, your target readers only care about other characters in relation to their immediate interaction with your hero and heroine. Such interaction can be conveyed by dialogue and action rather than introspective wool-gathering.
If there's one thing that romance writers can count on--besides a steady income--it's being asked how much research goes into those sizzling bedroom scenes. While it's fun to keep them guessing with a wink and a Mona Lisa smile, the truth is that the degree of sensuality you can put into your chapters is strictly governed by the publisher's imprint.
The best way to discover how far you can turn up the heat is to read already-published works from the particular house you want to write for. Silhouette Desire, Harper Monogram and Harlequin Temptation are just a few of the lines that go for extra sizzle, though it goes without saying that the romance itself must be the driving force that brings the lead characters together. Although you can also request submission guidelines directly, you need to remember that these tend to be written in vague terms, such as: "Heroine can only be intimate with hero," "Graphic sex is permissible if tasteful." You'll probably learn more by reading a few of that imprint's books.
If you're crafting a story that is outside your expertise (bygone eras, foreign locales), it's essential that you invest as much energy in researching that environment as you do in orchestrating clever ways to make your characters inseparable. It's painfully obvious when an author (and her editor) don't fact-check. A single error--having your characters use items that have yet to be invented--taints your novel.
Always query first for submission guidelines. Some editors want only a cover letter and synopsis; others want the first three chapters or 50 pages to glean a sense of your storytelling style. (They also want to see how adept you are at bringing the hero and heroine together for the first time.) Whatever they request, it's important to deliver exactly what they want.
Once your partial or full novel has been asked for and mailed, you'll face your biggest challenge: waiting for a reply! Manuscript reviews can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Follow-up letters and phone calls to editors serve little purpose except to identify you as a pest.
The best thing you can do, short of simultaneous submissions, is to start writing your next book.
The article first appeared in the September 2002 issue of The Writer.