On Writing Romance

Here is an interesting essay about writing romance that I found at the BBC – Get Writing website.

Writing Romantic Fiction
by Katie Fforde

A Broad Genre
The Brontës, Sophie Kinsella, Phillippa Gregory, Helen Fielding and Jane Austen – they all write or wrote romantic fiction. It’s a large and generous genre but while many books have a romantic element, they can’t all be classed as romantic fiction. For example, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk has a wonderful thread of romance running through it, but the romantic aspect isn’t what the book is about.

Romantic novels are mostly aimed at and written by women, but not exclusively so – some books are also written by men. Some men found it expedient to write under women’s names, but nowadays I don’t think it’s necessary. Alan Titchmarsh, Tony Parsons and Mike Gale, for example, all fit comfortably under the umbrella. Books with a male protagonist have all the same elements but from a different angle, because men and women share many of the same doubts and uncertainties.

But think very hard about writing from a woman’s point of view if you’re a man – your readers will notice instantly if you get it wrong. Women writing from a male perspective are more likely to get away with it simply because most of their readers are women themselves and so are less likely to notice mistakes.

The romance in a romantic novel doesn’t need to be traditional, but there has to be some element of sexual desire. The relationship between a mother and son, however touching, would not qualify. The protagonists certainly don’t have to be a man and a woman, the man being older, cleverer and richer than the woman. Same sex relationships, older women with younger men, people of different races and religions can all work very well if you really know your background.

Elements of Romance
Beyond the central relationship, most romantic novels these days offer the reader more than just a straight ‘girl meets boy’ story. There is often a large element of personal development involved, as well as interesting background developments and themes. Mary Stewart used to add a strong thriller element to her essentially romantic novels and Mary Higgins Clarke invented the ‘woman in jeopardy’ sub-genre.

If you plan to mix your genres, the romantic element needn’t be stronger but it does need to be at least as strong as any other theme. It must also run concurrently with whatever else is going on – don’t leave readers wondering about the love interest for too long. Similarly, the hero and heroine don’t have to be on stage together in every single scene, but they mustn’t be apart for too long. If your heroine has to go to Alaska for the winter, you can fall back on the ‘nine freezing, boring months later….’ solution. Your characters can suffer boredom, but your reader never should.

It almost goes without saying, however, that the nature of the romance is vital. Make sure your readers can believe in it. Any two people can fall in love, but if your characters are an unlikely partnership, show us why the beautiful model falls in love with the older, uglier man. Making him extremely rich is not enough – in the cynical, real world this may work, but in fiction things have to be better.

Remember that the most erogenous zone is the mind, so show how two people connect with their minds and the rest will follow. I like to feel my characters will still be together in ten years time, which is important if you want your readers to believe in their relationship. If they have a very stormy relationship and are only happy in bed, going round Sainsbury’s might be the rock on which their relationship founders. Brains and humour is what usually attracts women to men, so make sure your hero has plenty of these. But if you really want the traditional hero – the tall, dark, handsome and rich kind – give him an endearing weakness. What is most important is that we see why these people have fallen in love with each other and that we can believe they will stay together.

Plots and Characters
All novels, including those of the romantic variety, are made up of character, plot, setting and theme. For me, the greatest of these is character, but books without plots (although sometimes superficially enjoyable) tend not to satisfy. There has to be something left if all the romance was taken out. A book without plot is like a house without foundations – it may look all right from the outside for a short time, but it will fall down. You can put the plot in after you’ve written the book, as I discovered with my first novel, but this is definitely not advisable so make sure you develop your plot and your romance in tandem.

If you’re not sure what a plot is, don’t worry – I was once asked what the plot of my novel, Living Dangerously, was and I had no idea. I’ve since discovered that it shows how my heroine Polly helps her friends and neighbours to save some old buildings. The romantic element weaves in and out of this and the plot is resolved before the romance. Personally, I feel it’s important to resolve the plot first because your reader may lose interest once the protagonists are happily together. Unless the plot is likely to separate them, by death or some such, only a really strong plot will keep people hooked after the romance has been wrapped up.

It is very important to have characters that readers recognise and like. They don’t have to be saints but they must have some redeeming feature. Think of Scarlett O’Hara – we will her to win even though she starts out spoilt and manipulative. My characters tend to be the sort of women I know, with enough bad points to make them good company but enough good ones to make them good fiction!

You also need to make sure that your characters develop over the course of the novel. Your heroine may overcome some personal fears or prejudices and become a stronger person because of it. And your hero may discover a more loving, tender side to his character. Most importantly, both main characters need to show a willingness to change. Novels where only the woman does this are again very unsatisfactory, not to mention unrealistic.

Times and Places
Your setting is important and unless you are an experienced writer, I would encourage you to choose one you’re very familiar with. Part of the setting of my first novel was a wholefood café. I was by no means the only person ever to have worked in one, but at the time, I was the only person around writing about one. Think of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit which was based on her own experiences. It’s not a romantic novel, but it does illustrate how one can write more convincingly about driving an ice-cream van or working in a funeral parlour if you’ve actually done it.

I’d recommend choosing a setting you like or which interests you. Although it’s not vital, you are going to be spending a long time in this place, even if it’s only in your head. So unless you get a perverse pleasure from in living in a mental Siberia, choose carefully.

If you’re writing a historical novel, learn your period until you know it backwards. Your readers might know your period very well – if you make a mistake they will lose faith with you and may never read one of your books again. Check and re-check your facts. Do not depend on the internet – there are plenty sterling facts on it, but there’s also a lot of rubbish so beware. Books, libraries and historical societies will all be thrilled to help you if you’re serious and willing to learn. You could even go to re-enactment society events so you can learn what the clothes felt like.

Between the Sheets
For a novel to be truly satisfactory, there must be some sort of sex scene, even if it’s only by implication. There are a few rules and many of them can be broken. One I will stand by is, do not let your teenage children read them under any circumstances. It will be extremely inhibiting. Ditto your elderly Aunt Ethel. It’s between you and the page. You must get into your protagonists heads and forget about the rest of the world. But you don’t have to write explicit sex if it doesn’t suit you. As long as it’s clear that the characters are enjoying themselves or are about to, that may be enough for you.

Read a lot of sex scenes, choosing books that aren’t likely to offend you and test your squirm-threshold. If euphemisms for the male member make you giggle, don’t use them! I never do – I don’t even refer to it that much – and I get away with it. I do tend to use humour quite a lot in my sex scenes but I make sure the characters are laughing with, not at, each other. There’s nothing very romantic about a man saying, ‘Boy, you don’t get many of them to the pound.’

It’s a sad fact that some clichés are almost inevitable. After eleven books, I am constantly struggling to find a different setting for my final love scene, but I’m sure if anyone cared to check, they’d find I have repeated myself. The trick is to make the scene quirky in some way. If your couple are declaring their undying love in a grand restaurant accompanied by gypsy violins, make the violins play out of tune, the food be terrible or have the restaurant evacuated for some reason. Anything to make your couple’s magic moment different in some way.

There are verbal clichés to watch for as well. The words ‘and then he kissed her’ are simple and direct, but try and avoid them because they have been written so many times before. I am an experienced writer but I still find clichés in my work. I just hope my readers aren’t as fussy about them as I am. Read your writing carefully and if the words seem familiar, juggle them around until they don’t.

Happy Endings
Dialogue is an important way of showing how characters relate to each other, but it’s often during the action in between that we see their feelings. The blandest ‘do you take sugar’ sort of conversation can reveal huge tension in the actions in between. ‘She dropped the sugar basin,’ for example.

Try to avoid adverbs as they nearly always weaken the dialogue unless the adverb contradicts the actual words. ‘Would you like some arsenic with that?’ she said sweetly,’ is okay, but on the whole we should get the meaning without additions. Seeing our characters spar conversationally reveals why they’re attracted to each other. People do use clichés in conversation but in a romantic scene they tend to be comic, so don’t use them unless you deliberately want humour or irony.

A romantic novel does not have to end happily, but in my opinion it has to be optimistic. Many successful romantic novelists like to leave the ending slightly open, leaving the characters filled with hope, if not actual happiness, by the final page. Of course, many great romantic novels have ended tragically. If you want your tale to end in tears, be very careful. A lot of people read romantic fiction at difficult times in their lives, when they want something undemanding and uplifting.

Unless you are as good as the likes of Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy, I’d advise the beginner to stick with happy endings unless you really feel you can’t. Be prepared for your editor (if you get that far!) to ask you to change it.

Getting Published
A point on editors – many writers, usually unpublished ones, tend to see editors as the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are your friends! Their aim is to make your book as good as it can be. You may not always agree with them, and you don’t have to do everything they suggest, but make absolutely sure that you are right and they are wrong before you refuse. When you are at the beginning of your writing career, you have a great deal to learn.

Your editor may well be young (almost certainly, in fact) but yours won’t be the first book he or she has edited. They have learned their craft, and listening to their advice is a good way for you to learn yours. Your first editorial experience is the toughest, but most valuable course on writing you could possibly endure – make sure you don’t waste it!

Writers’ groups can be extremely helpful but you need to choose them carefully. Make sure enough of the other members are writing the same sort of thing that you are. If they are all poets and none of them read romantic fiction, they won’t be able to help much. They can also be too supportive. ‘I don’t know why they didn’t buy that darling, it’s much better than that Katie Fforde!’ is not terribly constructive. It may well be better but unless it has something about it the editor feels will sell it, being better isn’t always enough.

If you hate the thought (as I do) of taking your half-formed passages and have them criticised by others in your presence, there are other ways of getting a critical eye passed over your work before you approach publishers and agents. There are advisory services that, for a fee, will read your manuscript and tell you what’s right and what’s wrong with it. Read specialist magazines such as Writers’ Forum and The Writer Magazine, where you’ll find plenty of useful information including advertisements for authors’ advisory services in them.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association has a scheme for unpublished writers where you can submit your manuscript to be critiqued by a published writer. You do have to be a member, but they have helped many people, including me, to publication. Read books on how to get published as well. I still do, although every one makes me feel as if I haven’t got what it takes to be a writer. Some of them are a bit daunting but if you go for the thinner and less intense volumes, you can move on to the more hard-hitting ones as you gain confidence.

If you want to write short stories, read the magazines you are aiming for – lots of them. Many magazines have guide lines, so request a copy of these and follow them. With luck you will develop a relationship with the editor and he or she will give you specific advice. But make sure your short story is not just a chunk of a novel. In a novel, a life is changed but in a short story, it’s an idea.

Two final pieces of advice. Firstly, don’t cheat the reader. A certain crime novelist told me that men don’t really care who goes off with whom, but the readers of romantic fiction care very much! And don’t be afraid to write badly. You’re bound to when you start. But very few concert pianists (or even competent pianists) played the Moonlight Sonata when they first sat at a piano. You have to practise a lot, allow yourself to make mistakes. No one need know you’re writing a novel until you choose to tell them.

Article found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module26p

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