I have never written a romance novel, or even an amorous short story, and so with some trepidation, I visited the Romance Writing Academy’s pleasing pink website and logged onto a course titled “The Five Essential Building Blocks of the Romance Novel.”
In an engaging video lecture about characterization, founder and instructor Jeanne De Vita explained that successful main characters in romance novels need powerful goals that have nothing to do with falling in love. In her quiz about world-building, I learned that authors of romance/paranormal hybrid novels often keep a “bible” of complicated details about, say, the rules of shape-shifting in their story or the specific conditions under which ghosts emerge in a protagonist’s newly purchased centuries-old house.
De Vita’s mother, Sharon, was a career romance author who published over two dozen books with Harlequin. De Vita grew up watching her mom read and dissect bestsellers in the genre. She used the same deconstruction techniques when she began to teach novel writing classes at The Ripped Bodice, a Los-Angeles based bookstore specializing in romances.
“But then the pandemic hit, and I was no longer able to teach face-to-face with folks,” De Vita explains. A family friend – an expert at marketing and web tech – suggested she move her courses into the virtual space and helped her to create Romance Writing Academy. “While I love getting in front of the classroom and seeing people and putting my hands on a manuscript, this is a beautiful opportunity that I didn’t even realize was there,” De Vita says. “The pandemic allowed me to put all of my classes and workshops online with the goal of making them practical, accessible, and affordable.”
Among the courses, which range in price from $29 to $79, you’ll find “Romance Novel Structure,” “Writing the Contemporary Romance Novel,” and “Storybuilding Essentials.” Each course is fully accessible with closed captions. Through video lectures accompanied by whimsical animation, and with low-key quizzes and practice sessions, De Vita conveys an abundance of practical information about three-part story structure, conflict, and how to raise the stakes, so readers become emotionally engaged in characters. Classes are either taught live or asynchronously via pre-recorded sessions. “You can take the recorded classes at three in the morning from the privacy of your home,” De Vita explains. “We also routinely offer very small in-person workshops.”
Students who sign up for Romance Academy classes are writers and bloggers, editors and librarians, readers and romance superfans from all over the world, at every stage of their career. Some are professional authors, while others haven’t written since high school. “We have neurodiverse writers, authors of color, and queer writers,” De Vita says. “We strive to be inclusive – we use terms like ‘main characters’ instead of ‘hero’ and ‘heroine.’ And while romance writing is female-driven, we’ve even got a few male students who want to write intimacy in a way that’s contemporary and sensitive and thoughtful.”
De Vita earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Notre Dame University and worked for a decade as managing editor of the digital press Musa Publishing. “We were this amazing little family early in the days of digital news publishing,” she explains. “I was exposed to everything from acquisitions to marketing and to the administrative side, learning things like how to find secure software to track submissions.” She currently teaches writing classes at UCLA Extension and edits manuscripts for both New York Times bestselling authors and well-known independent authors.
“It’s great because I’ve seen how an indie author approaches their career versus a traditionally published author, and I can work with aspiring authors and ask, ‘What is your publishing goal? What’s your writing career goal?’ with the insight to help them,” she says. Along with courses, the Academy offers one-on-one project planning and accountability, developmental editing, and submissions prep.
De Vita tells writers interested in signing up for any Academy class or service that there’s no one right way to craft a romance novel. “Read the genre in which you want to write, so that you understand the landscape of publishing in this industry,” she says. “If you want to be traditionally published by Harlequin, and you’re writing a first-person, present-tense story, ask yourself, ‘When was the last time I saw that done in a Harlequin romance?’ You’re not going to be the pioneer who changes how Harlequin does business, but you can be innovative and creative and do things your own way. That’s the kind of information our courses provide.”
The courses also offer opportunities to build community and network with professional authors. “We’re set up for private chats, and we help people find critique partners,” De Vita explains. “We’ve livestreamed with professional authors and brought aspiring writers to the table to let them ask questions and really pick the brains of the writers they love.”
The romance genre has historically suffered from a well-documented lack of diversity in the genre, both among authors and main characters. De Vita teaches a small diverse writing cohort online, in real time. Recently, one student said to another, “I feel like you just need somebody to tell you that you are a writer, and this story is worth reading and telling.”
“I was literally crying,” De Vita says, “because that’s all you need – someone who shows you that your story matters. Our entire mission is to support writers. We’ve been able to help people develop faith in themselves to tell their stories. To me, that’s success.”
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.