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Learning to Write Romance

Unlike many of my colleagues at Total-E-Bound, I did not grow up reading romance novels. I got my teenage thrills from Ian Fleming's James Bond books, passed around during study hall with the "good parts" underlined. My models for romantic literature were Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Later I graduated to Pauline Réage, Anne Rice, and Anaïs Nin.

I began my publishing career writing literary erotica, fiction that explored the complexities of desire and the psychological and emotional effects of sexual experience. When I first started publishing in the erotic romance genre, I found that I had a lot to learn.

Claire, TEB's fearless leader, send me email about six months before the launch of Total-E-Bound, inviting me to submit some of my work to the new company. She then proceeded to reject everything that I sent her! Finally she accepted Raw Silk and Incognito, two out-of-print novels previously published as erotica. Despite their original labels, both novels did focus on a primary relationship between two characters and had endings that suggested long term commitment. Although the books included quite a lot of sexual activity that didn't involve the main couple, I guess they managed to squeak under the wire in terms of being classified as romance!

Since then, I've published seven titles with TEB, specifically targeted to the romance market. I've also read lots of work by my romance author colleagues. Gradually, I'm becoming more adept at adjusting the style and content of my writing to meet the expectations and preferences of romance readers. This has not necessarily been an easy transition for me, especially since I've also continued to write in my original genre.

I thought that I might summarize some of the lessons I've gleaned during my two year trial by fire in the world of romance. I hope that those of you who are reading this blog post will correct me if some of my conclusions are incorrect!

1. Romance readers want to know what the characters look like. When writing erotica, I frequently have no more than a general notion of my characters' gender, age, race and body type. My focus is on their emotional reactions to one another. This might be triggered by specific physical features, but rarely do I spend much time painting word pictures of my characters' appearance.

In writing romance, I need to visualize my characters in much greater detail, in order to describe them to my readers. From comments that I've encountered, it seems that romance readers want this level of detail, in order to build their own images of the hero and heroine. Romance covers play a role in shaping readers' visions. As a romance author I need to be able to tell the cover artist about the protagonists' hair color, age, build, complexion, clothing, and more, to make sure that he or she will get it right.

For my current project, Necessary Madness, I've taken the step of locating pictures on the Internet that match my ideas on the how the characters look. When I'm trying to describe Kyle or Rob, I just pull out their photos. This seems to be working, but it feels very strange, a huge departure from my natural writing habits.

2. Romance readers crave an unambiguously happy ending. I don't tend to write much "dark erotica", but quite a few of my erotic stories have ironic, inconclusive or bittersweet conclusions. A common pattern is for the character to find that although her lover has gone or is unattainable, she has been positively changed by the experience of sexual connection. This sort of ending is verbotten in the world of romance. I struggle to write HEA stories, because the a priori assumption of Happily Ever After makes it incredibly difficult to build real suspense. Predictability kills the appeal of fiction, at least for me.

3. Romance readers like a linear plot arc, without too many flashbacks or temporal complexities. Actually, I don't know if this is strictly true. Most of the romance I've read tends to follow this rule, but it's possible that readers would be comfortable dealing with more complex narrative structures. Many of my erotica stories start in the present, then shift to the past before moving onward. Would this work in romance? I don't know.

4. Romance readers tend to view sex scenes that do not involve the main characters as gratuitous. Raw Silk and Incognito both include many sex scenes outside the primary relationship. In the case of Incognito, the novel's premise is that Miranda, the heroine, is only comfortable having sex with strangers because of past betrayals. (This changes over the course of the book, as she meets and gets to know the hero, Mark.) I've gotten the impression that some readers, at least, are uncomfortable with this sort of thing. Reviewers of my M/M Christmas story, Tomorrow's Gifts, said that they didn't like the BDSM scenes between Michael and Thorne, ghost of the future, because the two men were not in love. This was the whole point of the story, but it apparently bothered these readers.

5. Romance readers prefer fantasy to realism. Most of what I've written, both erotica and erotic romance, is contemporary. Even when I've included paranormal elements, my characters have been firmly anchored in the everyday. I have to work hard to make my work realistic enough to be believable, but not so realistic that it turns my readers off. Comments and feedback from my readers makes it clear that most people read romance to escape from the problems, the uncertainties, the banality of the real world. My natural inclination is to include some of those discordant elements in my writing, in the interests of realism. I have to choose details judiciously to support verisimilitude without dissolving the fantasy.

I think that I'm improving. I haven't gotten the thumbs down from Claire in quite a while (LOL). As a writer, I welcome the opportunity to expand my horizons and sharpen my skills. Writing romance has also made me more aware of the subtle differences that distinguish the genre from erotica. Every now and again I give in to the overwhelming urge to write something that's dark and nasty and doesn't end happily. That's actually a lot easier for me than creating a sizzling, heart-stopping romance that will satisfy the discriminating readers at TEB.


victoriablisse said...

I did read alot of romance through my teenage years. I started out borrowing my mums books and I still enjoy a good romance now and then though I mainly read fantasy for pleasure which quite often has romance at it's heart anyway.

It's certainly not as easy to write romance as people think it is. There are so many elements to getting a good romance put together it's sometimes hard to work out where to begin!

Adriana said...

Great article! My early reading was similar to yours - the Bronte sisters, Anais Nin, Jane Austen, and the book I fell in love with and tried to re-write the ending for, Gone with the Wind.

That's an interesting comment on flashbacks - I agree that too many can be burdensome or confusing, but paced carefully they can deepen the reader's experience of the characters and their struggles, I think.


Kim Dare said...

I did the Mills and Boon (Harliquin) thing for a little while. I also liked Georgette Heyer for some time. But most of my reading is more along the lines of Terry Pratchett than traditional romances.

(Not quite sure how I ended up writing romanced - by my characters were quite persistant that those were the stories they were going to be in.)

Lots of interesting points. I think I half agree with most of them.

Happy endings definitely high on my list of things I love. And I do find it hard to invest as much in a sex scene that isn't about the romantic couple I'm reading about.

When it comes to character discription - I tend to use the minimum, but that just might be me.

Flash backs - never really thought about it, even though I've written one that was pretty much all flash backs, lol.

Realism... not sure, maybe there's a balance somewhere. I'm happy to read and write paranormal, but I like the paranormal elements to be done well, so they could be realistic according to some version of reality.

Great post Lisabet :)