Before landing at Soul Mate, I sent a past manuscript off to another publisher. It came back with the following comments: “Well-written, but not really a romance.”
After reading my latest novel, my fiancé put it down, turned to me, and said, “It’s weird and awesome, but it’s not a romance.”
Um, what? Of course my books are romances. I’ve been gulping down frothy, romantic yumminess since I was a pre-teen. Heck, I’ve probably read more romances than there are variations on the feisty-heroine-trapped-by-tragic-circumstances-into-a-marriage-she-doesn’t-(but-really-kinda-does)-want, romantic theme. Every stumble into a hero’s arms; every misunderstood interaction with an ex; every improbable, simultaneous orgasm: I’ve read it all, people.
Oh yes, I’m a romance professional (a ro-pro?). While I devour a lot of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, I’m truly at home with the romance, from its tried-and-true formulas to its gooey, homey core. Seven years ago, come time to put fingers to keyboards and write my great American novel, I knew exactly what genre I wanted to embrace. HEA all the way, baby!
Below I’ve compiled a checklist of what I think are crucial components of the romance. The first three are required and the last few mere suggestions, maybe some a bit more serious than others.
- Romance should be the driving force behind the story. Yeah, kind of obvious, but it bears mentioning. Your main characters? The romantic leads. The central tension? Whether your romantic couple will end up together (hint: they will; see below). All other plot devices, from minor characters to various subplots, should mirror or echo the novel’s chief driving force, which is, simply, The Romance.
- HEA. Come on – you know it’s true. A romance isn’t a romance that ends without some kind of promise of eternal, quite possibly Disney-esque, togetherness. A guarantee of happily ever after may be as realistic as the aforementioned simultaneous orgasm, but we don’t park ourselves in front of romance novels in order to work through existential angst. If we wanted ambiguity, we’d reread The Handmaid’s Tale while spooning chocolate ice cream into our mouths and glaring at our spouses.
- Feelings are central. Romances novels come in a huge array of subgenres, from historical to paranormal. These variations introduce some new and interesting elements, but regardless of what accessories the romance wears, emotions are the ultimate little black dress. Plot lines may be elaborate or simple, trite or creative; the one thing that unites them is the emphasis on the primacy of feelings. Action, adventure, elaborate world building, historical accuracy, and intricate mysteries are all well and good, but if the feelings ain’t taking center stage, we ain’t got a romance, folks.
- Romances need to steer clear of politics and other controversial topics. Your hero protests LGBT Pride Parades with signs like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”? Your shero worked for a time as a nurse at Planned Parenthood? Best keep it under wraps. Romance is the single best-selling fiction genre; it didn’t get that way through polarizing.
- Let’s be real: Romances are pretty darn formulaic: 1. meeting, 2. attraction, 3. icky conflict, 4. yummy resolution, 5. HEA. Given the escapist nature of romances, we don’t like to dip our toes into too much of the unknown. Chaos and ambiguity are real. Romances are fantasies. We’ll stick with the tried-and-true, thank you very much.
- People love alphas. They do. Sheroes have become stronger over the years, but the hero usually remains that much stronger. He’s the protector. The personification of the raw power of love. The wild stallion who can only be tamed by the feisty, loving shero who will never give up on him. She nurtures him, and he channels his mountainous passion into adoring her and keeping her safe, even if from him. Think Twilight, minus the sparkles.
- Everyone needs to be hot, even if hot in their “own way.” Romances are fantasies, right? Few readers want to project ourselves onto peeps who, well, look like reality. Like, you know, us. Yes, but. While we may secretly want our sheroes to cause a teensy bit of rubbernecking, they also can’t be gorgeous like those annoying, preppie cheerleaders in high school who got nominated for homecoming queen and dated the quarterback while we spent our evenings highlighting information on the War of 1812. Enter the shero-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-beautiful; it’s a thin but productive line between fantasy and relatability. As for the hero, he just needs to be sexy. He may be too rugged to be pretty, but he’s still a nice hunk of denim-clad manflesh.
I actually have a few more comments, some tongue-in-cheek and some more serious, but I think I’ll stop here. Looking back, I can see I actually don’t do all of these things. I definitely don’t divorce politics from my books, and my sheroes are never pretty. Plus, as people keep reminding me, my heroes are usually pretty darn beta.
But the romance. It’s all about the romance. Do I put in the center of my novels the amazing dance between romantic desire and self-realization? Are emotions the propellers that drive my books toward their dramatic conclusions? Am I happily-ever-aftering all over the place? Mostly. Maybe I do romance slightly differently, but I do do it. At the end of the day, I’m a purveyor of escapist fantasies that, while a bit more political, still emphasize the importance of love above all things.