How to Write a Romance, Q and A with Three Experts, Part II

Welcome to part 2 of the Q & A with three highly successful romantic novelists: USA-Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs author, Kate Robbins and bestselling YA author-turned romantic suspense writer, Robin St. Croix. This round is a free for all. Any or all of the authors were invited to answer any given question.

Question: cough …cough…do I need actual sex in my novel? In mainstream fiction the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene or perhaps even an ellipse, something that justifies leaving the scene and returning when it’s over. It looks to me that if people do make love in romantic fiction, then it’s erotica; the reader expects to take part directly. What are the potential hazards? What words must be avoided? How do you get the right tone?

ROBIN: I’m also going to challenge you on your point that “the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene.” That may be your personal instinct, and it’s certainly true of the English literary classics I studied in university, but in modern fiction it’s all about the story itself and not about society’s comfort levels or censorship. In my opinion, if sex serves the story then it needs to be there, if not, it’s gratuitous and should be edited out. Of course, there’s a whole industry built around erotic shorts that proves me wrong, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Speaking of erotica … I think you’re referring to what we in the biz call “heat levels.” A sweet romance (where there’s one peck on the cheek at the end of the book) would be a 1, whereas erotica is a 5. So it’s not whether characters have a romantic relationship, it’s whether they’re holding hands or swinging from the ceiling. Romance is a very wide genre; there’s dozens of subgenres and different heat levels within each one. With romance, the reader only expects one thing: a happy ending. (More on this below).

A note of caution here: if you set your readers up for a steamy sex scene and then don’t deliver, you’re dead in the water. You cannot leave the reader listening at the door. You must bring them into the bedroom with you and allow them to live vicariously through your characters.

Finally, to answer your question … nope, you don’t need to put sex in your romance if you don’t think it’s warranted. Sweet romances don’t contain sex but instead focus on the relationship between the main characters.

Here’s the thing about sex scenes … they are brutally difficult things to write. No one will believe that until they try to write one – and I’m guessing you’ve tried already which is why you’re asking the question! Here’s why they’re hard … sex is not the kind of thing that lends itself well to running commentary. We do it. We don’t describe it. Ok, sometimes there are words … but try writing them out. They look ridiculous in black and white, don’t they?

Love and sex are all about emotions and sensations, not words. Throughout history mankind has been trying to articulate the emotion of love, but it’s beyond words. With sex scenes, there’s the immediate problem of vocabulary … we all know what the parts are called, but use any term – Latin, colloquial, slang, euphemism … at best they look out of place on paper. At worst, they’re laughable. My solution? Focus on the anticipation.

KATE: Just as there are authors who have comfort levels with sex, readers do as well. In romance fiction there are what’s called steam levels. They go from one, which is very sweet, maybe a peck on the cheek or everything happens behind closed doors and is referenced after the fact—to five, which is very descriptive and may require a new headboard. 😉

I think it all comes down to the author’s comfort level. There’s an audience for all steam levels, thankfully. Romance readers know what they like and gravitate toward authors who can deliver. 🙂

The correct tone will flow from your characters. If mine want raunchy sex, I let ‘em have at it. I am pretty sure in all cases, I have let my characters guide me in terms of the nature of they sex they enjoy, i.e. when, where, positions, etc. I am bound to a certain historical era and so therefore the words I use must have been used at that time. Etymology dot com is a great tool for this purpose.

Steam level will determine the words you use as well. A level one will be very mild with no explicit language. Level five? You can let your imagination run wild. My romances are a level four. 🙂

Question: Is romance escapism? And if so, is it helpful to make a list of the kinds of things that readers are escaping from (in the hope I can avoid replicating them!)

ROBIN: Yes, romance — like every story in every genre regardless of discipline — is escapism. Why else would a person pick up a work of fiction if not to escape into that world for a little while? Why watch television, go to a movie or the theatre? We do these things to relax, to get away from the pressures of the daily grind for a while. If we didn’t want a break we’d read non-fiction, watch a documentary or the news…Nah, you don’t need to make a list. You instinctively know what the pressures are.

KATE: A romance novel has one rule: it must have a Happily Ever After (HEA). Your characters and the unique balance of romantic conflict between them will make it unpredictable. Thinks like the internal versus external conflict and black moment will define your romance novel and set apart from others.

VICTORIA: Romance is total escapism. It’s one of the reasons why I read it. I didn’t know this about myself until my grandmother died. She left me all of her romance novels, and I read every single one of them. That’s what opened my eyes about the genre. I’d been full of the misconceptions non-romance readers have about this genre. You know, that’s it formulaic, easy to write, sexist, and porn. That’s not true at all. Romance novels may be easy to read, but that’s a testament to the writing of the authors. We write books that are enjoyable and accessible for all readers. As for making a list to avoid the things that readers want to escape from, I don’t think that’s necessary. Because of the HEA necessity of the genre, you can deal with loss, heartbreak, violence, etc. because the reader will finish that book feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I personally don’t read romances where characters lose a child or have miscarriages, but that’s because it’s a personal decision of mine. Plenty of other readers love those story lines, and it’s important for those books to be written. Think about how you can craft a story with those elements that will ultimately leave the reader feeling hopeful at the end.

Question: Do I need a happy ending? And if so, how can I avoid making it predictable?

ROBIN: YES! Happily Ever After (HEA) is what makes a romance a romance. If the characters don’t get together in the end, even if your magnum opus is worthy of the Nobel Prize, it isn’t a romance. It’s something else.

It’s not predictability you want to avoid, it’s cliche. That’s another very difficult thing about writing in the romance genre because frankly, it’s all been done before! The best advice I can give is to read as much as you can in your particular sub-genre of romance so that you know what’s on the market already. Then spend time innovating your ending. Innovation requires creativity. This is where you earn your paycheque. Your readers know that the characters will get together. What they don’t know is how. Give them a spellbinding how.

Question: Do romance characters move towards self-knowledge? Are there things about themselves they conceal from themselves?

ROBIN: Of course they do! The characters in a romance novel are no different than any other character in any other genre. Usually we (as readers) want our heroes to grow and develop from the beginning of a story to the end, but not always. Exhibit A: James Bond.

Thinking that romance is a genre of wooden, two-dimensional characters is where writers get themselves into trouble. They crank out a tired story, slap it up on Amazon and then wonder why it isn’t selling. There are a lot of poorly written romances on the market. I won’t argue that point. There are a lot of poorly written books in every genre on the market.

This is not amateur hour. The mark of a professional author is that he or she can write in a saturated genre while still innovating the characters, plot and ending payoff of the story. That’s not to say every book has to be “War and Peace” (or “Lolita” or “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”). A well-written beach read can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

VICTORIA: I think all characters must change somewhat in a book. That’s the nature of a relationship, isn’t it? To learn things about yourself and figure out how to be with someone while being true to yourself. There’s always an element of personal revelation there, where you learn something about yourself you might not have known. There are always parts of our personalities that we don’t realize about ourselves. It’s the same for our characters. A character in a romance novel is not some mythical-being unlike other characters. Characters are characters, regardless of the genre, with all the complexities that come with them. Some romance novels are plot driven, while others are character driven. So the stronger the character you create, the stronger your book will be in the end.

Question: Where did this genre come from? I think about The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, sometimes credited as the first Gothic novel. It’s way too dark to be classified “romance,” yet the pacing and the lurid power seems to have opened the door which later became romance. I also think of Emily Bronte and Charlotte as possible forerunners, particularly in the depictions of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.

ROBIN: Love stories have been around since time began. They predate the written word. If you want to know the first English novel to be considered a romance, I couldn’t tell you. But the genre itself comes from the fact that we’re human, and there is nothing more human that the desire to love and be loved.

KATE: One can look back through literary history and see romantic stories in many places including Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology. Romance is something we have always held in fascination. The likes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have certainly added new elements to old stories as well. I read somewhere that Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca has been considered the first ‘modern’ romance, birthing the currently perceived genre. I don’t believe it is possible to narrow it down to one book, however. What a shame to leave out the wonderful additions given to us by Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Eloisa James, and Jude Deveraux. Elements like author intrusion accepted from these amazing authors 30 years ago are now unheard of and so the genre continues to evolve. The rise of ebooks and self-publishing have made it much easier for authors to get their books in front of readers and so the market has never been more flush with variations and new sub-genres. I think there’s never been a better time to be a romance writer. 🙂

Thanks to these terrific writers, Victoria Barbour, Robin St. Croix and Kate Robbins for their generous and thoughtful answers. If you want to know more about romance writing, take a good look through their websites and pick yourself a few of their books!

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