If you haven’t read much recent romance and you’re thinking about trying to break in, you’ve got some homework to do.
An aspiring writer in any genre should pore over the sort of books she’d like to write. It’s important to have both a knowledge of and a respect for your genre of choice. If you don’t honestly love romance, you’ll be doing an injustice to yourself and your work if you try to write it anyway (and you won’t have much chance of selling it, either).
As you immerse yourself in the romance genre, take note of these driving characteristics:
In the romance industry, this is shorthand for “happily ever after.” The one hard and fast convention of the genre is that every novel must conclude with a hopeful outcome. This doesn’t necessarily mean the protagonist has to marry her true love by story’s end, but it does mean there should be some indication they’ll continue happily as a couple. Because of these optimistic endings, romances have, on occasion, been criticized as unrealistic. Those who disagree would say they promote happiness and hope and act as a testament to the age-old theme that love conquers all.
2. MORALITY REFLECTIVE OF THE MAJORITY
Almost all romance novels portray a monogamous relationship and feature protagonists who are good citizens and very supportive of home and family values. Whether the romance is between a human and a vampire, two aliens or a couple of regular humans, these books depict strong, healthy relationships.
According to The New York Times bestselling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who received the Romance Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, the public’s biggest misconception about romance novels is that they’re all the same. “A sure sign the person doesn’t read romance,” Phillips says. While the genre may once have been thought of in terms of two categories, contemporary and historical, today’s romance has a number of popular subgenres, including paranormal; romantic suspense, comedy and thriller; erotica; inspirational; and — the most recent addition — urban fantasy. The most successful modern romance writers aren’t afraid to mix elements, keeping the genre fresh and ever-changing.
4. SEXUAL TENSION
If there’s a magic ingredient, this is it. It’s the writer’s job to create a desire in the reader to see the hero and heroine’s relationship culminate in a successful romance.
But sexual tension doesn’t necessarily mean explicit sex. While a high level of sensuality may be a draw for some readers, particularly in erotic romance, it also appears to varying degrees in books outside the genre (and is notably absent in inspirational romance—a subgenre that has become very popular in recent years).
There are a lot of misconceptions, by the way, about sex in romance. One is that sex is added gratuitously for marketing purposes. The truth is unless a sex scene reveals character or furthers the plot, it has no reason for being in the story, and both a good writer and her editor know this. Another long-standing myth is that romance novels primarily appeal to sexually repressed, voyeuristic women who lack healthy sex lives. In reality, an InfoTrends study commissioned by RWA revealed the heart of the genre’s readership is women aged 31–49 who are currently in a romantic relationship.
5. CHARACTER GROWTH
Romance is all about people falling in love, true, but the characters also have to reach a place in their emotional maturation where they can love unselfishly and sustain that love, which usually involves overcoming other obstacles that are standing in their way.
These defining traits aren’t meant to imply that romance writing is formulaic. I’ve written 35 novels, the latest 12 of which have been romantic suspense, and I’ve never heard of a publisher stipulating how many love scenes must be included, how explicit they must be, where they should be placed in the manuscript or any other “formula” of the sort. Rather, writing successfully for any genre is about understanding the reader’s expectations—and being sure to deliver.