Romance Writing 101

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Romance novel writing ain’t what it used to be. Spilling trade secrets, local romance writer Karen Sandler explains how it’s done—and how you, too, can be a romance novelist.

Lori Jarret, the 35-year-old heroine of Karen Sandler’s latest romance novel, is a striking blonde who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic.

When Lori and her male protagonist finally consummate their smoldering passion near the book’s end, she whips out a condom.

They practice safe sex?!

This isn’t my mother’s romance novel.

I came of age in the late ’70s, and it isn’t even mine!

“Just don’t call them bodice-rippers,” insists the 51-year-old author of The Boss’s Baby Bargain, Her Baby’s Hero, Counting on a Cowboy, Chocolate Magic and His Baby To Love, among others. Sandler, who lives with her husband, Gary, in Cameron Park, has written 14 books for romance novel dynasties Harlequin and Silhouette—as well as some smaller publishing houses—and argues that the genre is changing with the times: Story lines are becoming more contemporary, characters more complex, themes more controversial.

“I was surprised that they let me write this last character as a recovering alcoholic,” she admits. “I’m not sure I could have written such a character when I first started writing these books. They didn’t want me to sugarcoat it, but it couldn’t be too gritty. I had to strike a delicate balance.”

Welcome to 21st-century romance novel writing. Editors seem increasingly interested in change and experimentation, says Sandler. Men who want to adopt babies. Women struggling with addictions. Both addressing current concerns about sexually transmitted diseases.

There are romances for randy readers of all ages: women in their 20s, 30s and beyond. Women who want to read about first love, second chance at love, spiritual love. No, seriously: spiritual love. As in paranormal romance. Love between otherworldly beings, spirits consummating their love with the help of mere mortals, Sandler explains. (Her own paranormal romance, Unforgettable, was published in 1999 by Berkley Jove Books.)

Another subgenre on the rise? Suspense romance: a mystery that needs solving married with mutual attraction between partners in crime-fighting.

And publishing companies such as Naiad Press release gay romance.

Possibly because there’s, well, something for everyone, romance novels of all stripes are big business. According to a market research study by Romance Writers of America—a professional networking and advocacy group 9,500 members strong—romance fiction generates about $1.2 billion in sales per year. In 2004, romance fiction accounted for 55 percent of paperback sales and 40 percent of all fiction sold.

If your romance novels were anything like mine, they featured a teenage girl—either high- or lowborn—of tiny waist, oval face and, of course, creamy bosom who tempted and eventually convinced the dashing pirate to give up his bad-boy ways and fight for her virtue, or the prince to give up his kingdom and move to her father’s farm to herd sheep. Turns out 21st-century romance fiction is decidedly less yesteryear: Historical romance still makes up a large chunk of all romance fiction (477 of the 2,285 romance titles released in 2004), but the contemporary subgenre accounts for three times that amount: 1,468 titles. Paranormal romance clocked in at 173 titles, and inspirationals (Christian romance) at 167 titles.

It’s not inconceivable that every American woman has at least skimmed at least one romance title at some point her lifetime. Haven’t we all hidden that dog-eared paperback under the bed or slipped that Grapes of Wrath book jacket over a copy of Summerblood and snuck it to the beach—only to have someone comment, “I had to read that in college, too,” and pick it up, expecting some of Steinbeck’s muscled, arching, relevant prose about poverty but reading instead a paragraph about a steamy bathtub scene between the heroine and her husband’s brother?

(Yeah. That was embarrassing.)

More women are reading them: In 2002, about 51 million American readers reported having read at least one romance in the past year; in 2004, 13 million more—64.6 million—had picked one up.

And lest you get all snooty about who’s reading romance these days, the majority of romance novel readers are college educated. (Forty-two percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.)

With numbers like that, you’d think a romance writer would command considerable professional respect among her book trade peers. You’d be wrong, insists Sandler. Romance writing is the Rodney Dangerfield of the book business—a reality that may be mathematically perplexing but has its socially rooted reasons. Sandler fingers sexism, first and foremost.

“These are books written about women, for women, primarily by women,” she explains, pointing out that roughly 3 percent of romance writers are men who write under female pseudonyms, including the suspense writer Dean Koontz (who in the ’70s wrote several romances under the name Deanna Dwyer).

“These are emotion-based books. The plot revolves around emotion and relationships; these are things that interest women perhaps more than they interest men,” Sandler suggests.

Sandler argues it’s unfair that romances are dismissed as formulaic, while other genres, such as mystery, suspense or horror, are not. “But have you ever read a mystery where the mystery is not solved? Or a horror wherein the evil creature isn’t vanquished? These are predictable genre features,” says Sandler. “What you have in a romance novel are a man and a woman who, despite adversity, eventually come together. The particulars—the conflicts, the plot—these make up the story. Just like in any novel of any genre.”

Another reason romance fiction gets dissed? The sex, she says. “Romance features fully fleshed-out love scenes,” she explains unapologetically. “People call them trashy, but in fact they follow some pretty strict guidelines.” Sex in romance fiction is rather puritanical, she argues: The characters don’t immediately fall into bed, and when they do finally have sex—usually somewhere in the last third of the book—they come to a meeting of the minds. There isn’t much casual sex in romance fiction, says Sandler, nor are there sex scenes between married or otherwise committed individuals.

And they use condoms!

“As a rule, we avoid using purple—i.e., overwrought—prose,” Sandler explains. “Some writers can get away with using the f-word to describe the consummation scene, or even in the book in general, but these books for the most part are pretty clean; the editors try to keep it that way.”

Sandler is puzzled why these books are considered trashy. “Every relationship I have written about and developed in my books has been a responsible, loving one between two committed people who wind up together,” she points out. “No one is getting hurt, no one is cheating on a spouse, no one is spreading disease.” Artistically ambitious novels, she notes, often feature all of these things and are celebrated as a result.

“Our characters have flaws, but overcome these flaws,” she says. “They have good values and operate responsibly.”

This, Sandler wonders, is what people consider “trashy”?

Jane Eyre is a romance novel,” she points out.

• Reading these romances, at the beach or on a plane, one might get the idea, “This is easy! I could write this!” Coupled with the notion that successful romance novelists can pull in a pretty penny, it can appear to be a tantalizing career opportunity.

 

It is, after all, how Sandler herself got started. In college, she started out as an English major but, bored and unchallenged, switched to math. After earning a master’s degree in computer science from UCLA, Sandler worked for a bit at Hughes Aircraft Company. While working and raising two boys, she tried her hand at science fiction, then finally attempted a romance novel after picking one up to pass the time at a business conference in Denver. She sold her first successful book, The Boss’s Baby Bargain—about a marriage of convenience between a boss, who wishes to adopt a child to inherit his executive empire but can’t because of his single status, and his young assistant, who needs money to care for her aging father—in 2002. It flew off the shelves, says Sandler.

Her 2003 book Counting on a Cowboy garnered interest from country singer Reba McEntire, who expressed interest in producing the story for the Lifetime cable network. From that book came the inspiration for Lori, the heroine of her 2005 title, His Baby To Love. The cowboy’s bitter alcoholic ex-wife, whom her creator describes as “a nasty bit of business,” nonetheless elicited sympathy from Sandler. “I brought her back for my recent book because I wanted to tell her story,” she explains.

Sometimes, writing such emotional stories can be draining. So in 2004, Sandler published a comparatively lighthearted romance novel: Chocolate Magic, a story of competing candy makers set in Seattle—a plot that practically begs for a Hollywood screen treatment and Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks casting.

“I like writing the emotional stuff, but sometimes I need to get away,” Sandler admits. The best thing about writing romance, she adds, is the promise of a happy ending. “Literary books, and I am thinking of Cold Mountain, rarely have an uplifting ending. I like an uplifting ending.”

Often, events from her own life will inspire characters or situations in her books: She gives one character, a hero’s son, brain trauma as a result of an accident that injured a friend of her son’s. “I had to learn a lot about brain injury for that book, and in-vitro fertilization for another,” she explains.

At a writers’ conference, says Sandler, popular author Janet Dailey made the point that, if she had to write from experience alone, it would be a very short story. “In other words, you should write what you know, but know to learn more. Part of this job is researching book material and re-educating yourself, keeping current.”

• Romance book editors know this, too: That’s one reason they keep things current and contemporary—and are interested in new writers with new book ideas. “Probably more so than with other book editors, romance novel editors are very encouraging when it comes to submitting work,” Sandler says. But if you’re a first-time writer, she warns, expect to finish and submit the entire book—not just a proposal and outline. “My first submission, I had to complete the entire book,” she recalls. She even experienced a two-year dry period, during which she couldn’t sell a book after selling several. “It took five years to finally sell a book to Harlequin,” she points out. And while the money can be good—usually from foreign-edition, large-print and other reprint rights—advances tend to be low (from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a book) and are offered only after you are successfully published.

It’s not as easy as it looks, Sandler points out. “Part of the reason these books seem easy to write is because they flow so well. It takes a lot of writing work to get a story to flow well, and it’s deceptive in that it’s not so easy to do.” Sandler has taught classes on romance novel writing and says certain mistakes are common among students new to the genre.

Her advice? The characters have to be developed. They may have flaws, but they must be good people, says Sandler. “The women can’t be whiny, and the men can’t be wimpy. They can’t be brutes, either,” she warns. Many new writers have trouble with dialogue. Sure, romance dialogue can be a little corny, but it has to be real. “And the characters can’t be apart for long sections of the book.” Perhaps because authors are vicariously living through their characters, they will send their heroine to Mexico for a vacation. “She’ll be water skiing in Mexico for a month, and the romance is forgotten,” Sandler laughs. “That will not work in a romance.” The hero and the heroine can’t spend time apart; if they are apart, they need to be thinking about each other constantly, she explains.

When she decided to embark on a career in romance writing, Sandler herself completed a writers’ correspondence course and studied Writer’s Market, a guide to getting published. She recommends the same approach to anyone interested in writing romance. She also suggests checking out Harlequin’s website (eharlequin.com), which offers guidelines, author fact sheets and critique services for new writers.

“You can do this while the kids are at school, are napping. The biggest companies don’t require submissions from agents. But chances are, if you’re new, you’ll have to finish a book to sell it,” says Sandler.
There are perks you wouldn’t expect: Her sons, 23-year-old Eric and 21-year-old Ryan, are both interested in writing. Eric is currently marketing a science fiction book, and Ryan writes a column for Sacramento State’s student newspaper, The State Hornet.

And those sex scenes? “Sometimes, to get the descriptions just right, to make sure fingers and toes can do this, I’ll call my husband in and we’ll map it out,” she says, laughing.

Got a story of smoldering passion to tell the world? Check out the following websites and books, which provide help for aspiring romance novelists, including contact information, writers’ guidelines and critique services.

• Harlequin/Silhouette: eharlequin.com
• Romance Writers of America: rwanational.org
Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger (For Dummies Press, 2004)
The Romance Writer’s Handbook: How To Write Romantic Fiction & Get It Published by Rebecca Vinyard (Writer, Inc., 2004)
The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide For Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict (Owl Books, 2002)
Writer’s Market 2007 by Robert Lee Brewer (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006)

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• At the chalet, he carried in her suitcase and two bags of groceries, leaving her only the books to bring inside. He’d barely dropped the other two bags in the kitchen before he headed out again, back into town to complete his aborted trip to the local hardware store.

She watched him drive away through the living room window, waiting for the familiar sense of aloneness to wash over her. She didn’t know how to be alone; that had always been part of her problem, what she’d tried to numb with drinking. But it was testimony to the strength she’d built up in the past several months that she felt only the slightest twinge of fear when Gabe disappeared around the first curve of the drive.

As she put away the groceries, her gaze fell on the cell phone she’d left by her purse. She’d already checked in with her sponsor this morning. She’d had to keep her call brief because Amy had to get to work to prepare for a court case she was adjudicating that day.

Amy had suggested they hook up later that day when she recessed court for lunch. Lori wished they could talk now, that she could tell Amy about her struggle on the liquor aisle, her loneliness, her exhaustion.

And about Gabe. But what would she say? He was exactly the kind of man she’d fought giving in to, yet at the same time was nothing like any of the men she’d let herself fall prey to. She realized it wasn’t so much who Gabe was that was problematic, but who she was when she was with him. 

Better not to mention him at all to Amy. She and Gabe would be together only for the week or so it would take to get her car back. They had agreed to keep their distance from one another, allow each other their space. She wouldn’t fall into the same trap with him as she had with other men.

—From His Baby To Love by Karen Sandler (Silhouette, 2005)