Kate Swanson wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites ever since.
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 It's almost impossible for an unpublished writer to find an agent, so effectively, the doors of most publishers are closed to most newbie writers.
Sure, you can self-publish, or find an ebook publisher, but neither of those options will get your book in the High Street bookstores. To put things in perspective, ebook publishers consider a book a "best seller" if it sells more than 100 copies. Hardly Harry Potter! Self-published authors do occasionally break into the big time, but you hear about them because they're so rare: if it happened all the time, it would hardly make the news bulletin, would it?
There is a solution. 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 that 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 that 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 from 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!
Point Of View – Always "Deep"
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, detailing their thoughts to 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 woman 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 with 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 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.
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!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Sakina Nasir from Kuwait on November 24, 2016:
Great hub Marisa! I learned a lot of new things. Very helpful indeeed! Keep up the good work! Thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts. God bless you! ☺
Tariq Sattar from Karachi on March 30, 2016:
Very well written, it is first time I have read such a work as normally I have not get the opportunity to look in to such a work genre. Therefore, it the it was a good read all over.
Something that might motivate me to read such a work! Thanking you for this amazing hub, Marisa!
Barb Johnson from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula on July 17, 2015:
Excellent article Marisa. I'll be pondering all weekend or longer. Writing a romance novel for some of us is almost like crawling out on an uncomfortable ledge. We have to dig dip. But if that's where the fruit is it may be worth it. If nothing else it appears that even attempting to write a romance novel would be a helpful exercise for any writer. Thanks!
Tori Leumas on July 04, 2015:
Great hub! This gives quite a bit of insight into writing romance. I am currently writing a romance. There is so much more to writing than telling. I'm finding showing readers through the characters senses is a great way to get my readers into my books.
Besarien from South Florida on October 22, 2014:
That's good to hear! I'm 48 now and haven't read a romance since elementary school. When I was eight at Catholic school, VH and BC were hot stuff! My friends and I used to pass them around like pornography. I'm pretty sure the nuns would have considered them as such had they ever caught us. I remember taping the Mistress of Mellyn to the lid of a toilet tank once during a locker search.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on October 21, 2014:
Victoria Holt and Barbara Cartland are very old-school romance. Most modern romances aren't nearly as saccharin-sweet, but I have to say I don't read them for pleasure, either. I prefer to read books that let me use my imagination.
Besarien from South Florida on October 20, 2014:
I don't think this is my cup of tea. I did read a few back in the day, Victoria Holt and Barbara Cartland. I really did enjoy the hub which all sounds like good advice to those so inclined.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on July 20, 2014:
Blond Logic, if you're seriously planning a romance, I can't recommend the Harlequin forums highly enough. Lots to learn there.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on July 20, 2014:
I have thought about this as well. I had a friend bring me three different types of romance novels from the States. Posting packages to my part of Brazil is hit and miss.
Reading your hub, explained perfectly the format I was reading in those books.
It is something I plan on writing. I am bookmarking this future reference. Thanks
Celiegirl on February 03, 2014:
Thanks, i keep starting and stopping, we'll see in 2014. Thanks for the pointers!
FullOfLoveSites from United States on November 13, 2013:
Whooo... sounds like I want to be a romance novelist, so thanks for your very useful hub. You really nailed it. I'll give it a try.
Nikk0 on February 09, 2013:
Great article! I've always been interested in writing a book, and now I'll consider the genre a lot more thoroughly. Thanks!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 04, 2012:
I can't speak - I have one mouldering in the bottom drawer myself!
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on November 04, 2012:
You've given excellent tips on the type of sensory detail Romance novels need! (I have to say I am not sure the name of your heroine in one example is real comfortable to read!).
I've worked on one Romance novel & actually wrote a draft, but lost the electronic file due to software issues (it's in a format not readable these days). But, I think it needed to be redone anyway - so I'll view that as an opportunity!
Years ago, I was in a writers' forum meeting with a very successful Romance author, and she literally said the same thing you did about touching all five senses. She said her goal is to do that in every paragraph.
Thanks for the inspiration here - I am thinking of dusting off my ideas and getting back to those goals now!
Dr.Lawrence Johnston on October 14, 2011:
I am from England and attended Oxford and learned all these things in my creative writing class
MarkMAllen15 on July 31, 2011:
Amazing hub, Marisa! A lot of information is available in this hub! THanks.
Gyspy Writer from Midwest on December 30, 2010:
You have really outlined some great points. Well done!
Eileen on September 16, 2010:
ACSutliff, I'd recommend Sarah Dessen for teen romance.
CaptainCorelli on August 16, 2010:
Very informative hub, thanks so much for sharing it. It does seem that romance novels are in high demand, and you explained why very well, along with how to construct them. Great information!
Richard Francis Fleck from Denver, Colorado on August 07, 2010:
I very much enjoyed reading this hub with its many specific details and examples of how to. Though I am far from being a Romance writer, I almost feel like giving it a try with Hero and heroine meeting on the slopes of a high mountain.
ACSutliff on July 22, 2010:
It's all very interesting, but I'm not sure if I could do it well. If I did, it would have to be Teen Romance. And it would require reading a whole bunch of Teen Romances to get the style down. Does anyone have a suggestion for a good one to read?
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on July 21, 2010:
@AC - yes, demand for Teen Romance is just as high. It is regarded as a separate genre.
Harlequin has started a Teen line, but unfortunately they're only accepting submissions through agents:
ACSutliff on July 21, 2010:
This explains the Twilight phenomenon. Finally I understand why it was written that way, and I understand why it was so popular! Thank you!
Do you know if the need for teen romance novels is just as high? Are Romance and Teen Romance one in the same genre, or are they separate?
SilverGenes on June 14, 2010:
I'll be back to read this one again. Thank you for the guidelines!
blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on June 14, 2010:
We are three parrots, and I am the one that reads you on flamenco, but now the other one got hooked on your "romance" recommendations and straight went out and bought one for one euro and is reading it!
And he is the one that would otherwise read all that old stuff like Cicero and Michelangelo's Letters and Benvenuto Cellini.
And for once I did not forget to mark the hub, and I marked it truthfully as "funny".
ezzy1512 on June 13, 2010:
Marisa Wright, Thanks you have stress out out great and useful points.
Pamela Dapples from Arizona now on June 12, 2010:
Very good information. I've never read a Romance novel, but I can see from your article it is quite a learning curve to develop the skills to write one.
green tea-cher on June 10, 2010:
Thanks Marisa! Many very good points. I have this hub bookmarked.
Granny's House from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time on June 10, 2010:
Great hub. I don't write too good as it is. I don't know if I could ever do a Romance novel. lol
celticmelody from Chicago IL on June 10, 2010:
Terrific Hub, Marisa! There is alot of variety in romance. There is an old saying, "Write the kind of books you read."
If anyone has trouble plotting or needs help to "git 'er done", a great book I've found is The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by literary agent Evan Marshall.
And, Dobson, if your wife gives you a hard time about writing a romance, tell her that it is Judith Michael ( I believe) that is a man and woman writing team.
PWalker281 on June 10, 2010:
Everything you wanted to know about writing Romance novels in one succinct, well-written hub! This one is definitely getting bookmarked. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Earth Angel on June 10, 2010:
Thank you for a GREAT Hub Marisa!! Wow!! You summed it up beautifully!! Blessings always, Earth Angel!!
Dobson from Virginia on June 10, 2010:
Marisa - I think if my wife knew I was even considering writing a Romance or romance novel she would die of laughter. I know the truth about how voracious the readers are however as my mother, mother-in=law, sister-in-law and others can easily testify. Thanks for laying this out so succinctly.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on June 09, 2010:
Gramarye,I'm not at all sure I agree with you about sending several a year. Unless you're very confident you're good enough, they may just start regarding you as a flaming nuisance!
Katie McMurray from Ohio on June 09, 2010:
Thanks so much, I'm working on one and have found it to be a lot of fun. I now have some great editing tips. I was never into Romance Novels either and thought I had to give it a try. I will check this out. Peace :)
gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on June 09, 2010:
Great hub Marisa. You have really summarized their needs well. I looked at their requirements several years ago, and you reminded me of a lot of what I learned.
I also understand that Harlequin only want prolific writers who can write on demand. Therefore, it also pays to send several a year so they start to recognize the writer's name and know that they prolific.