Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing Romance -- How Tough Can It Be?

(This article appeared in The Word Weaver, the newsletter of the Writers' Circle of Durham Region.)

I'm sure any of you who have tried to write more than a grocery list already know that writing anything creative can be difficult, frustrating and lonely work.

Unfortunately, romance writing comes with an additional hurdle that has little to do with the actual writing process. Although romance sales account for over fifty per cent of mass market paperback sales in North America, romance doesn't get much respect.

Here are some of the notions romance authors have to deal with on a fairly regular basis:

A) Romance novels give women unrealistic expectations.

Uh huh, and men read Tom Clancy novels because they believe that one day, someone will tap them on the shoulder and whisper, "Hey, buddy, we're one man short for a covert op. How about it?"

I think most women realize romance novels are in the fiction section.

B) Romance novels are all the same.

I could take a hundred writers, give them a point by point outline for a romance novel, and I would get a hundred very different stories. Every writer brings his or her own voice, style, taste, history and beliefs to their writing. Every set of characters brings something different to a story, too.

C) But there's "the formula," isn't there?

I'm going to go out on a limb and reveal that magic formula here and now. A man and a woman meet. After conflict and complications, the story concludes with the couple in a loving, long-term relationship. That's it. I don't see that this is so much different from the mystery formula: there's a crime. By the end of the book, it gets solved.

Also, there are a vast number of sub-categories in romance. Romance novels can be set in any time from the Dark Ages to the present day. They can be light romantic comedies, or heart wrenching stories dealing with spousal abuse and other serious issues. You can make it "long" (100,000 + words) or "short" (60,000 + words). Your characters can live on a ranch in Texas or a castle in Scotland or Bugbait, Minnesota. It's true that some times and settings sell better, but even within those frames, there are as many stories are there are writers and characters.

D) Once you announce that you write romance, you can be sure that at some point, someone will give you a leering grin and ask, "So, how do you do your research?"


I am not writing about my own life any more than I am at any other point in the story. During a love scene, I'm writing about two characters, and like every other scene in the book, a love scene has work to do. It must reveal character (and I don't mean describe them without their clothes), move the story forward, create tension, describe the setting, etc.

E) Anybody can churn out a romance and make a mint.

While there are over one hundred romance novels published per month, competition is fierce. Harlequin receives approximately 20,000 submissions a year, from which they buy between 20-25 from unpublished authors, according to one of Torstar's annual reports. Romance Writers of America has over 8,000 members, the vast majority of whom are unpublished.

So if it's so tough to break in and romance is treated with such disrespect, why should anybody bother?

I can tell you why I do.

I like telling stories that require a strong female character in a major role and believe me, long gone are the days when the heroine sat around waiting to be rescued. Now, she's more likely to be cussing out the hero for getting in her way as she makes her own escape.

I like a story that ends on a positive note. Sure, life can be a vale of tears, but when I read fiction, I want to escape. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Apparently neither do millions of readers.

Once you do sell a romance, and if you can keep selling, it's possible to make considerably more than the dismal figure quoted for the average yearly income of Canadian writers.

Sometimes it's tough dealing with the smirks and the innuendos and the mockery, especially around Valentine's Day when it seems the media dusts off every hoary old cliché about romance ever written.

But then I'll get a letter from a reader who loved my last book, and I realize that I have one of the most satisfying careers in the world. I truly enjoy what I do, and I get paid for it. How many people can say that?

1 comment:

Crystal-Rain Love said...

Very good article. I hate the way people look down their nose at romance novels. I'll put a good romance novel up against an Oprah selection any day! There's a man I work with who said he'd never read any of my books because he doesn't read "That stuff." Imagine my amusement when I saw him raeding a single title romance. (I can't remember the title or author, but it was a romantic suspense) I said, "You're reading a romance novel." He said, "No I'm not. This is a crime novel." I said, "Yeah, idiot, but it's still a romance. Enjoying it?" He walked away in a grumpy huff. LOL! It just goes to show... if half the people who looked down on romances would even bother to READ one, they'd see what the fuss is all about. They need to get that bodice-ripper image out of their heads.