Get Published: How to Write Romance
You have more chance of getting a book published in the Romance genre than anywhere else in mainstream publishing!
Most book publishers are so inundated with manuscripts these days, they won't even look at anything sent by a writer - they only accept submissions from agents. It's almost impossible for an unpublished writer to find an agent - so effectively, the doors of most publishers are closed to most newbie writers.
Except for Romance! In fact, Harlequin Romance is so keen to attract new talent, it even runs a forum to develop new writers - which is amazing in an industry which spends most of its time turning new writers away!
This is because Romance publishers need far more material than other mainstream publishers. The typical Romance reader has a voracious appetite, and a typical Romance novel has a shelf life of only a few months before it goes out of print. So Romance publishers need a large number of titles each year.
But before you get too excited, you'll notice I'm writing that word Romance with a capital 'R' - because this is a very special kind of novel. It's possible to write a wonderfully romantic novel which doesn't qualify as Romance - it's a specific genre with specific rules that have to be followed.
The Romance Plot
The guidelines below aren't set in stone - but you'd have to write a truly exceptional novel for a Romance publisher to let you flout them!
- Hero (H) and heroine (h) must meet in the first chapter.
- There can be no confusion who the h and H are - you can't have the heroine trying to choose between two men, for instance.
- When the story opens, both protagonists must be unattached. A relationship in the recent past is acceptable.
- There's an immediate spark when the h and H meet, but there is always something that stops them getting together. Coincidence and circumstance aren't enough - both characters must have some kind of inner conflict to work through before they can form a relationship. It may be something in their past, or it could be related to their personality or aspirations.
- There must be a Black Moment when it looks as though the H and h will never get together.
- There is always a HEA (Happy Ever After)
Believe it or not, these guidelines are relaxed compared to the old Mills & Boon days! Then, heroines weren't allowed any previous partners and the HEA was always a wedding, or at least an engagement ring.
How to Write, Romance Style
You either love or hate the Romance style of writing. To those who hate it, it's "purple prose", and hopelessly melodramatic - but in fact, it takes a lot of skill to do it well. Many Romance writers have a deep understanding of the craft and technique of writing.
Romance needs a very different approach, compared to writing a typical popular novel. In most novels, your aim is to keep the action moving to retain your reader's interest. So your scene-setting would be tight; you might not give much idea what your strong and silent hero is thinking; and you would try to describe your characters in just a few telling words. Not in Romance!
The average novel reader likes it when the author leaves something to their imagination - it enables them to inject their own personality and preferences into the story. Not so the Romance reader! She wants every detail spelled out for her. In Romance, you have to immerse your reader deeply in every scene.
That means thorough descriptions of place, people, and the inner thoughts of your hero and heroine.
This exhaustive style explains why Romance novels need much less plot and fewer characters than a thriller of the same length - so much space is taken up with description, there's not much room left for story!
Romance novels may be written in third person or first person, but they are always written in "deep POV (point of view)". That means that whoever is "telling" the story at any point in time, you must immerse yourself totally in that character's mind and write as the character, reflecting the way he or she talks. As a writer, it's almost as if you become an actor!
You will generally write some sections from your heroine's POV, and some in your hero's. That's because whatever is happening, your story must track how these two characters' feelings change as the plot unfolds, until they are finally able to get together. The only way to do this is to repeatedly get inside their heads, and show how those changes occur over time.
If you're not used to writing Romance, you may be concerned about overdoing all this emotional self-examination. But actually, if you don't feel you're going overboard, you probably haven't done enough!
How to Describe Character
Do be careful when describing your principal character (usually your heroine). The whole point of Romance is that the reader has to become the heroine - she has to feel as if she's inside the heroine's head. If you're in deep POV, you can't report things you can't see - so throughout the book, you must be careful not to do so, otherwise you'll upset your reader's illusion.
That includes the heroine's own appearance. You want the reader to form a vivid and accurate picture of herself as heroine within the first few pages. If your reader suddenly discovers she's blonde in Chapter 2, when her mental picture says she's a redhead, that can be enough for her to stop reading.
But remember, your heroine can't describe what she can't see - and she can't see herself!
The Mirror Trick
It can take some inventiveness to convey appearance with that restriction, but it's possible! An obvious (perhaps too obvious!) solution is to have your character look in a mirror, but beware - apart from the fact that it's becoming a cliché, it's all too easy to get it wrong.
Here's an example from Judith Gould's The Greek Villa. She follows the rule - the mirror appears on the first page, fourth paragraph. However this is her description:
Stretching her long, lean limbs luxuriously, Tracey breathed in the salty air. A look in the dresser mirror confirmed that her beautiful ash blond hair was ruffled in an unintentional punk do. Her peridot green eyes looked perky, she decided.
So, Tracey thinks her limbs are long and lean, her hair is beautiful and her eyes are peridot. What a vain cow!
It's not a description designed to get readers to warm to the heroine. 90% of readers will be women who feel insecure about their looks, and they won't identify with a women who knows she's absolutely gorgeous. There's nothing wrong with a stunning heroine, but let others tell her how good she looks, rather than making her blow her own trumpet.
Here's an example of how that might be achieved:
“If one more man tries to fluff up my dress, I’m going to deck him,” Beth hissed furiously. “I wish I’d never agreed to be Marilyn Monroe.”
“How do you think I feel?” Marcy said, helping her friend collect the empty glasses. “At least you’re wearing a dress.”
Beth looked down her plunging halter neck and once again, wished the dress was more up to the task of covering her assets. But poor Marcy, in her Marlene Dietrich costume with its garter belt and stockings, must be having an even harder time. Her own fault for having legs up to her armpits.
“Why did I have to be Marilyn?” Beth said as they shouldered their way through the crowd, anxiously protecting their teetering trays of empty glasses.
“You’re blonde and you’re stacked – who else?”
“I am not “stacked”!”
“Oh, yes you are,” said a male voice close to her ear...
My heroine is moonlighting as a waitress. In the opening scene, she meets the hero when she serves his table at an upmarket corporate event.
The obvious thing would have been to set the scene at a restaurant, but by making it a theme party, I gave myself the opportunity to describe her appearance. I could have started the scene with her serving the hero's table - but by beginning while the guests are still standing having drinks, I have an excuse (in the next paragraph) to mention her height - she can't see over the crowd.
How to Describe Place
A good exercise for any writer is is to try to describe each scene using all five senses. But in Romance, you really do need to use all five - and they must be your heroine's (or hero's) five senses, not yours.
For instance, our heroine is walking along a beach:
"The pristine white sand was so fine, it squeaked under her toes as she wandered along the water's edge. It was like walking on sugar. The wind whipped her hair over her face and into her mouth. She could taste the salt."
I hope you can see the use of senses here, and I've only described the sand!! I still have a lot more to fill in: what's the water like? Where is the beach? What's around it? Remember, you have to see the scene through the eyes of your character - don't stand back and describe it in an impersonal tone. What else can she see?
A description of a place can take you several paragraphs, but do try to interweave them between slices of action or dialogue so they don't become indigestible.
How to Describe "Intimate Scenes"
This is where things get complicated - I could write several articles on this topic alone!
The problem is, there are many different types of Romance. They range all the way from the traditional Mills & Boon, where the couple are chaste until the HEA, to the hot and steamy where the hero and heroine jump into bed before they even like each other. For some lines, it's OK for the couple to get together but only behind a closed bedroom door. In others, you can describe a sex scene but only if you avoid mentioning anything by name!
Most romance publishers will have several different "lines", each aimed at a different audience, from the Christian market to erotica. Each line will have differing guidelines on what is and isn't allowed. The best way to work them out is to read books from the various lines until you find one you think would suit your style.
What better source of information on how to write romance but an editor who works for the biggest publisher in the genre? Leslie Wainger is generous with her advice and, as you'd expect, she writes clearly and well. "From the horse's mouth" and recommended.
I hope you can see that Romance writing requires some special skills. You need to imagine your scenes in detail, have a wide vocabulary of descriptive language, and be able to get deep inside your characters' heads. Your best preparation is to read some Romance novels, to get the cadence and structure of the books in your head. And start writing!
Don't think that the field is just for female writers, either. In fact, there are a number of successful male writers in the Harlequin stable. Most of them have used their initials rather than their first name, to disguise their gender!