How to write (and sell) romance

Romance is one of the most lucrative genres on the planet – and the authors who write it are some of the smartest, savviest, and most creative minds in the industry. Here’s everything you need to know about writing (and publishing) your own happily ever after.

Romance
Here is what you need to know to write romance. Image by KENG MERRY Paper Art/Shutterstock

Romance continues to be one of the hottest-selling markets in publishing, bringing in over a billion dollars in sales each year. Yet despite being such a popular genre, there’s still this stigma that romance storylines are basic and formulaic, making them easy to write. But good romance novels go beyond following a simple “boy meets girl” formula. By understanding the genre, the language of romance books, and the publishing options available, you will have the tools and knowledge to write a love story of your own.

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Jennifer Probst, the New York Times best-selling author of The Marriage to a Billionaire series and the nonfiction book Write Naked: A Bestseller’s Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success, disagrees with critics of the genre and believes romance authors are powerful, smart, educated, and working in a market driven by women, the most innovative, savvy readers on the planet.

“Do you know what drives the world?” she says. “Love, not sex. Love, not money. Love for our children, our mates, our friends, and our family. Romance novels examine, detail, and explore all aspects of this world – including sex. What’s wrong with sex? It is the most vulnerable, intimate act in a relationship and important to women. But the sex in romance novels is just one element in a romance novel.”

In her books, Probst tackles many important issues that people face, such as bullying, sexual and emotional abuse, stuttering, eating disorders, animal rescue, fertility, and other topics. She believes that organizations such as Romance Writers of America (RWA) and amazing bookstores such as the Ripped Bodice help elevate the genre. In addition, she feels that with enough fearless women defending and writing about romance, plus the work of the thousands of creative authors working within the genre, the stigma will eventually disappear.

If you are considering writing romance, the great news is you don’t have to do it alone. Romance writers are a tight-knit bunch. When I speak to successful romance authors, they all say the same thing: The romance-writing community is incredibly supportive.

“I’ve felt so much support from other romance writers, and I wish I knew so many were out there when I first started, just so I wouldn’t have felt so alone or nervous,” says best-selling contemporary romance author Cindi Madsen says.

Michelle Dayton, who also writes contemporary romance, agrees with Madsen and says all authors in the genre should belong to Romance Writers of America and take advantage of its resources, which include workshops, conferences, and contests.

Probst adds that romance writers are one of the most organized groups in the industry, who have incredible skills in marketing, editing, social media promotion, branding, networking, and more.

“In today’s time, writers cannot just write the books,” she says. “They need to be the CEOs of their own company in order to make a career. But, oh, how it’s worth it.”

The basics

Like all fiction, romance needs a compelling storyline and intriguing characters. But there are other nuances that make this genre unique – and that need to be understood before you begin.

Probst confirms romance novels aren’t easy to write. “In order to write them well, you must be able to write naked – to dig deep with your characters, explore all of their most intimate secrets, force them to struggle with conflict, and give them a growth arc,” she says. “These stories revolve around emotion. They must be well researched, because our readers are so smart, they’ll be the first to tell you what you did wrong with a career, setting, quote, etc. You need to love and respect this genre with your heart and soul before you consider writing romance.”

Another important element of good romance is the HEA, or “happily ever after.” Madsen believes this is what defines a romance. “Some books have romantic elements, but if they don’t end up happily ever after or happily for now (HFN), I’d argue they’re not a straight romance book. Romance readers expect that happy ending. It’s why they buy romance novels. If your reader doesn’t get that happy ending they’ve been flipping the pages for, you risk them not picking up another book of yours ever again.”

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Publishing options

Romance readers can be described in one word – voracious. While the average adult reads five books per year, 46 percent of romance readers will go through one book per week. This is great news if you are interested in writing in this genre because these readers need novels to consume.

I have recently entered the world of romance writing with a co-author, publishing under the name C.K. Wiles. This year I attended my first Romance Writers of America conference. Like the other authors mentioned, I immediately noticed how welcoming and supporting the romance-writing community is. I also noticed they were way ahead of the game when it comes to self-publishing. In fact, the community as a whole seems to value self-publishing as much as traditional – a rarity in the industry.

Dayton is a hybrid author who has self-published and traditionally published books. She says there are some great traditional publishing options for romance novels: “If you do get a contract, you can be assured that your book will benefit from top-notch editing and some marketing support. But there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a contract or find a home for your book, and the querying process can take a long time. With self-publishing, everything is under your control – which is both good and bad.”

Here’s a look at both options romance authors can pursue.

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The self-publishing route

Indie publishing is a great option if you want complete control over your content and the finances. You decide the storyline, length of the book, formatting, pricing, and cover design. It is also up to you to cover all the costs, market the work, and make the book available on all the platforms. How and when the books come out is your decision, and because you invested your money into the book, you get all royalties.

As the publisher, you have all the power, but with that also comes big responsibility. You owe it to your reader to take your time and put out the best book possible.

“I cannot stress enough how important having critique partners and/or a developmental editor is,” Dayton says. “You WILL have blinders on when it comes to your own book. Don’t rush to publication just because you can put your book on Amazon in 20 seconds. The last thing you want is for someone to leave a scathing review that demeans the quality of your work. Take the time to make your book the best it can be.”

Traditional publishing

If you aren’t interested in carrying the full weight of publishing your book, finding a traditional publisher is going to be the perfect choice for you. The great thing about the romance genre is that even within the traditional publishing world, you have plenty of options. If your goal is to get a book deal with one of the big five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster), you will need to find a literary agent once your manuscript is complete. Research different agents to find the ones who represent the type of romance you write before querying them.

In addition to the big five, there are also many publishers who accept unagented manuscripts, meaning you can pitch your work directly to the publisher. Read their guidelines carefully to find out what they are seeking and only pursue the ones who publish novels like yours.

 

For both traditionally and self-published authors, the romance genre continues to be a driving force in the industry. Readers have an insatiable need for more books, and they need writers like you to provide stories. If this genre interests you, connect with your local romance writing community, join the RWA, and get writing. You’ll soon be on your way to your own happily ever after.

 

Kerrie Flanagan is a freelance writer from Colorado who moonlights in the world of romance as C.K. Wiles, author of the Curtain Call series (ckwiles.com). In addition, she is a writing consultant, speaker, and author of eight books under her label, Hot Chocolate Press, and the author of Guide to Magazine Article Writing. Web: kerrieflanagan.com & hotchocolatepress.com.