How to Write a Romance Novel

So, I’ve been writing and publishing fiction in various forms since the previous century.  One of the things that happens when you start to acquire a track record in the business is people ask you to come talk to other people who want to write and publish and tell them how it’s done.  Tuesday, I’ll be giving my first talk about how it’s done in the world of romance.

I’m new to this end of the fiction world, sort of.  Actually, the first novel I ever finished waaaaay back in the early 1990s was a romance.  It was terrible.  I mean it.  It was really, astoundingly bad.  It did, however, get an offer, which in turn got me an agent, who ended up rejecting that offer and instead selling what became my first science fiction novel.

Now, here I am twenty years later (at least) and I’m writing romance again.

Like that first foray into the genre, this was a conscious decision based on the desire to get paid for my work.  Romance is a huge market.  According to the Romance Writers of America, last year sales of romance books topped 1.36 billion USD, making it the best-selling fiction genre by a wide margin.  Like the first time, I got an offer from a New York house for my work, but this time the offer and the publisher were both better, in part, because the book was better.

So, not to channel Lady Gaga or anything, I knew I could write a bad romance.  How come I was now able to write a good one?  I mean, I’ve got an audience who is going to want to know the difference.

I think it came down to two things.  First, since that first, very bad, novel, I’ve had a lot of practice.  18 books worth.  I can sort ideas credibly, lay them down in a decent order.  I know how to do my research.  I’ve got a feel for the basic elements of plot and pacing common to most popular fiction (Heck, I practically dream in the three act structure).

But at least as important was that this time, is I decided to write a story I’d enjoy, not one I just imagined some mythical reader would enjoy.  That first attempt was purely mercenary.  I had walked into the bookstore on a bad day (I’d gotten 2 rejections), looking for solace on the shelves, and I was confronted by what I can only describe as The Pink and Gold Wall that was the romance section of the mid-nineties.  I gazed at it, and in my wounded writer’s heart thought, “Somebody’s getting PAID for all that!”

But at the time, I didn’t like romance.  I had all the prejudices and pre-conceptions about the genre and the people who read it.  So, I wrote down, I was practically making fun of it (I mean, really, I had the Dread Valet Roberts in there).  I was embarassed by what I was doing.

When I was getting ready to try again, I had a new strategy, one that had worked well on other projects.  I sat down and said “I am in fact a romantic, I LIKE stories with happy endings where the hero and heroine get together at the end.  What are love stories I like?”  My answers came not from books, but from movies.  Old movies, like “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” which is the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and I highly, highly recommend.  So, I thought about such films and what I enjoyed about them.  What were the moments that gripped me?

The other thing I did was the obvious.  I read.  A lot.  I took recommendations from friends, fellow-authors and editors.  I went to the library and pulled anything that looked interesting off the shelves.  Romance is a big, big place.  Much bigger than SF or even mystery.  It takes awhile to start getting even a bit of a handle on it.  I read, queue Lady Gaga again, a whole lot of bad romance.  But I also read a whole lot of very, very good romance.  I identified what I enjoyed, and sought out more of it.  I took it apart in my mind to look at what I enjoyed, and how the stories had been put together.

And all the time, I wrote.  I had the basics of the writing craft, I needed to get the specifics of romance down.  Like a chef working on a new recipe, I tried different ingredients and combinations.  I went out trolling for ideas, and rejected most of them.  I sent stuff out, and got rejected, and sent it out again.  This part I knew well, and I wasn’t glad to see it again, but it’s all part of the writing game.  In romance, in fact, it’s got a name, it’s called the Black Moment, that point when the final conflict between the Heroine and Hero appears.

It comes right before the Happily Ever After.


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How to Write a Romance Novel — 6 Comments

  1. I stopped writing romances when I realized that I didn’t believe in the genre anymore, or rather, that I just didn’t feel romance any more. If you don’t feel it, you shouldn’t be writing it. The feeling comes and goes, and I know that my years writing romances still influence my work…that stubborn tendency toward a happy ending, and the belief that relationships are pivotal.

  2. And that’s the thing which is true with all genres, to turn out a good story, you have to find the part you love, that you are interested in or intrigued by. I’m not going to criticize anyone for writing for money. I make my living doing just that. But to turn in a good story, you have to find a way to like the project, or at least to turn it to something you can like and be interested in. If you can’t do that, you should be trying something else.

  3. I had a student once who insisted that anyone could write a romance. It was a point of pride with him that he could do it, since his wife had told him he didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. Sadly, his wife was right.

  4. I got started writing professionally when a friend from baby-play-group decided that the solution to her family’s financial woes was for her to write a Romance. She then organized a women’s writing group to facilitate this process. I got so excited, I wrote out the fantasy story I’d been telling in my head. It was utterly unpublishable, but it got me on a writing roll that — with lots of practice! — eventually led to my first short story sale. As far as I know, my friend never finished her Romance novel, alas.

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