Getting Romance Right by Victoria Howard

Author Victoria Howard

[This is an encore presentation of a post which originally ran 10-27-11. ]

The term ‘romance’ encompasses nearly every existing novel genre and writing romance has long been known as the best place for aspiring writers to enter the writing field. Today’s readers don’t just want boy meets girl romances. They want to read a novel where the author skillfully weaves the love story between the protagonists with conflicts, misunderstandings, and obstacles. A story which will keep them glued to the page, desperate to know how the heroine will solve her problem and finally have a meaningful relationship with the hero.

In 2010, the romance novel in all its guises accounted for $1.358 billion worth of sales* and is the single best-selling genre. Impressed? You should be, especially when sales of mystery books only amounted to $683 million.

Before you can begin to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you need to understand the sub-genres of romance and choose that which best fits your writing style.

These are just a few from which you can choose:

• Contemporary novels are set after World War II.

• Chick Lit has elements of romance and are about the main character, her friends and her life.

• Historical novels are usually defined as being set before World War I.

• Paranormal, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, contain such things as vampires, ghosts, space travel, etc.

• Regency novels are set in England in the period 1811-1820.

• Romantic suspense, contain mystery and intrigue.

• Erotic Romance novels contain explicit love scenes, but the hero and heroine must have an emotional connection, which distinguishes it from pure erotica.

• Romantic Crime Drama and Mystery

• Native American Romance

• Inspirational/Christian Romance

Publishers today are interested in more than just the love story and are looking for manuscripts not limited by plot devices, time frame, setting, or length alone. For example, these are the submission guidelines for the Harlequin Intrigue Imprint.

“Taut, edge-of-the-seat, contemporary romantic suspense tales of intrigue and desire. Kidnapping, stalking, women in jeopardy coupled with bestselling romantic themes are examples of story lines we love most. Whether a murder mystery, psychological suspense or thriller, the love story must be inextricably bound to the mystery where all loose ends are tied up neatly…and shared dangers lead right to shared passions. As long as they’re in jeopardy and falling in love, our heroes and heroines may traverse a landscape as wide as the world itself. Their lives are on the line…and so are their hearts!”

Having decided which sub-genre your story fits into, there’s one further choice to make before finally sitting down to write.

Romance novels fall into two categories; single title or mainstream novels and category romance.

Single title novels are all about the one man-one woman journey, just like category romance novels, but they have a longer word count—anything from 80,000 to 150,000 words. They also include more subplots, so the story is not just about the man and woman falling in love, there are more secondary characters and the story often includes scenes of a sexual nature.

Despite the name, single title novels, are not always standalone novels. Some authors prefer to write interconnected books, such as Elizabeth Lowell’s Donovan, or Rarities Unlimited series.

Single title romances remain on the bookseller’s shelf for as long as they are in demand. On average, authors write and publish one single title book a year.

Category or, as it’s sometimes called, ‘series romance,’ are books that are released in order and by month. Each category has a distinct identity, which is based on the level of sexuality, the degree to which the story is realistic, and the type of characters and settings. They may be part of the Harlequin Historical, Presents, Tender, Blaze, or Contemporary series or Mills and Boon Nocturne, Medical or Intrigue series. They are written to strict guidelines with limited word counts of anything between 50,000 to 60,000 depending on the series. They have a limited shelf life, usually three months, and a number of titles are released in each series every month.

The primary focus of the category romance is the relationship between the man and the woman, and the novels must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Category romances are widely regarded as clichéd, often unrealistic, poorly written, disposable stories that set out only to fulfill women’s fantasies.

Having read this far, you have probably now realized that writing a romance isn’t quite as easy as you first thought. But stick with me, and I’ll guide you through some of the essential elements required to make your novel a success.

1. Heroes and Heroines

They are the most important characters in your book. What’s more important is they all have something in common – they have to be someone the reader can identify with, someone they will care about. You need to know what makes them tick – how they react in certain circumstances. Did they have a happy childhood and if not, how has this affected them. To this end, I find it useful to write a short biography for each of my main characters.

Every work of fiction needs a hero –and the romantic hero differs from other heroes in fiction in that he must evolve from being self-centered with a closed heart to loving fully, in other words, he must learn to commit.

Bonnie Tyler’s song, ‘I need a hero’ sums up the modern romantic hero perfectly. ‘He’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be larger than life.’ He’s the guy we want on our side. The one who’s a little bit dangerous, the one our mother warned us about when we first started dating.

There is one thing the heroine always is: attractive, fascinating, sexy, and most of all, likeable. We want to be able to identify with her. Readers want endearing, well-intentioned, strong, but not too strong women. Someone who will stand up to the hero when necessary, and who is not afraid of expressing her point of view.

At this point you need to decide who will drive your story, your heroine, or your hero. This will enable you to decide which point of view the story should be written from and give your character a voice.

2. Conflict

Conflict is the mainstay of fiction and it’s impossible to write an interesting book without it. Think drama. Think how to put your characters through hell, test their resolve to succeed at every turn of the page.

A great way to drive your book and give your plot shape is to give your characters two goals – an external and an internal goal.

So what do I mean by external goal? The external goal is usually something simple and obvious – catch the killer or thief. The villain’s goal, on the other hand, might be to exact revenge on the police officer who put him in jail, or plant the bomb that will destroy the small town that shunned him, etc. It’s the external goal that drives the plot forward, and obviously, the protagonist’s goal is going to directly conflict with the antagonist’s external goal.

Whatever the internal goal, the hero or heroine have to change and evolve during the course of the novel and become better persons through their relationship with each other.

The key is to create a character that is strong in his or her ideals, and values, but who is prepared to listen and, if necessary, change. The hero also needs to be a good ‘people reader’ so if the heroine is a little naïve he’s the one who sees through everyone else’s lies. He also has to be human, and make mistakes and learn from them. His strengths are the qualities that make you fall in love with him.

But external goals and inner conflict isn’t the only trait characters need.

To create excitement, something must impede both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s efforts to overcome their goals. Without it there is no tension or curiosity, to make you, the reader keep turning the page. Every major character must have something at stake, something to lose, as the book reaches the final climax, the extreme stakes for both contribute to the growing drama. Most suspense novels sooner or later become about life and death.

3. Emotion and Love Scenes

Your characters’ emotions will engage those of your readers. It’s no good just telling the reader how the character feels in any scene. You have to show your characters feeling all the vital emotions and passion. After all, love and desire are potent bedfellows and the reason the reader chose your book from the other hundred or so on the shelf. Showing emotion will also give your novel pace, tension and character development. At this point in your writing it’s always worth asking yourself ‘what is my audience reading this for?’ When you know what they expect only then will you be able to fully engage them in the story.

Love scenes are essential in any romantic novel, from gentle kisses to full blown sex. Again you need to engage the reader’s senses. How does the heroine feel when the hero touches or kisses her for the first time? Does her skin tingle? Does her pulse quicken?

Sex scenes aren’t appropriate for every sub-genre of romance and therefore it’s essential to understand what ‘heat-level’ is appropriate for your book. One way to do this is to check the publisher’s submission guidelines. Some authors find it difficult to write sex scenes and leave their characters at the bedroom door simply implying that love-making has taken place. Others will describe the act in detail. The solution? Know your own boundaries and write only what you feel comfortable with.

4. Research

There are some people who would argue that research isn’t essential in a romance novel. I would disagree, especially if you are going use a real place as the setting of your novel. Place a church or a restaurant on the wrong street corner and there will always be someone to point out that you’re wrong. Make sure you give your hero the correct type of handgun when writing romantic suspense or thrillers, as again, there will always be someone willing to tell you that cops, or the FBI don’t use that type of weapon.

Finally, if you can put all these elements together and write a creditable story, then you stand a very good chance of having your manuscript published. But remember: first drafts are rarely ready for publication. Your manuscript needs to be correctly formatted as per the publisher’s/agent’s guidelines, polished to within an inch of its life, and be error free.

* Source Simba Information, AAP

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Victoria Howard is the author of three romantic suspense novels: The House on the Shore, a 2009 finalist in the Joan Hessayon Award, presented by the Romantic Novelists’ Association; Three Weeks Last Spring, a Pushcart Prize nominee; and her latest release, Ring of Lies. Learn more about Victoria from her website and her Author Page.

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4 thoughts on “Getting Romance Right by Victoria Howard”

  1. It’s interesting that you say nearly ALL genres have an element of romance. When I set out to write my first book I had no idea that a romance would be included, and even become an important sub-plot. Yet, there is is, making the book stronger and drawing the reader in. So I tend to agree with you. But it’s not something I would have labelled or really thought about until you pointed it out..

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