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Five golden rules for romance writers

Five golden rules for romance writers

Five golden rules for romance writers

A question I’m commonly asked is: ‘What advice would you give an aspiring romance writer?’ I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject – really, who is? – but the following outlines some of the lessons I’ve learned on my journey from being a little girl who dreamed of writing romance to being a grown woman who really does write romance, every day.
rules romance writers

1. Write what you passionately want to write.

Jeffrey A. Carver conveys this beautifully as follows:

Write from the soul, not from some notion of what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.

To write a good love story, you have to be really passionate about that story. You have to write what you most wish you could buy from a bookstore and read for yourself. Yes, you must know about marketability and genre norms, but what is most important is that this is a story you care deeply about. Writing that bores the writer bores the reader. Writing that moves the writer moves the reader. Write the love story you wish was your own!

2. Make the lovers forgivably flawed.

First, the heroine. The reader wants to be able to identify with her – to understand how she thinks and feels and acts, and perhaps even imagine themselves in her shoes. Perfection is off-putting. Say the heroine is a very successful businesswoman who’s climbed the corporate ladder with no hiccups, and she’s beautiful, and she dresses impeccably, and she never misses an aerobics session, and her house is immaculate, and she has an array of similarly perfect friends; oh, and she’s in perfect control of her emotions. First of all: really? That character sounds far too fictional to me. Second of all: how dull to read about her. That kind of book will simply irritate the reader, who’ll feel inferior for her own flaws. All characters need to feel real to the reader, which means they’re imperfect. In my first book, Burning Embers, for example, the heroine’s rather naïve, and in The Echoes of Love the heroine is held back by her fear of getting hurt.

As for the hero, the writer has to carefully strike a balance: the man must be attractive, but not unattainable; strong but not overbearing; chivalrous but not sexist; sexy but not vain; masterful but not mastering. Women notoriously accept and even honour flaws in men – scars don’t sully physical attraction; a touch of arrogance doesn’t hurt respect and affection. In fact, it’s possible to push the imperfections of the male protagonist quite far – in Burning Embers, for example, Rafe is a womaniser. What’s essential is that any big flaws in the hero are forgivable, that his backstory allows the reader to understand the imperfections and accept them. In the case of Rafe, that means realising that he womanises as a means of simultaneously punishing himself and protecting himself due to an incident in his past.

3. Foil the protagonists with antagonists.

In literary terms, a foil is a character who contrasts with a protagonist, thereby highlighting qualities in the protagonist. Any love story requires conflict, and so most stories contain another woman or another man who threatens the developing love between the protagonists. If the other woman is a foil for the female lead and the other man is a foil for the male lead, this further cements the leads’ characters, and helps each of the characters determine what his or her path should be. For example, in Burning Embers Rafe has a mistress, Morgana, and she is Coral’s foil – where Coral is naïve, Morgana is seductive and experienced; where Coral’s beauty is English and innocent, Morgana is dusky and exotic. In The Echoes of Love, Paolo’s foil is Count Umberto, a man who would like to be with Venetia. But as events unfold it becomes clear that next to Umberto, Paolo is the more honourable man by far.

4. Take your characters to amazing places.

I situate my romances in beautiful, divinely romantic locations. But within the overarching setting I’m always careful to take the characters to places that inspire soul-searching and connection – a hot-air balloon ride over the African savannah at sunset, for example, in Burning Embers. Just as place inspires writers, it inspires lovers – and readers of romance! The writer of a love story is in the enviable position of being able to control the story and take it wherever she pleases. Why place lovers somewhere boring, like a train station café, for a heart to heart, when you can put them somewhere with a view that makes their hearts sing? If the outer landscape is amazing, the inner one is bound to be too.

5. Always think from an emotional standpoint.

What I love most about the romance genre is that it’s unashamedly emotional. The writer’s job is simple: to make the reader feel. The immense popularity of the genre comes down to readers enjoying the way a romance novel makes them feel: the escape from daily life into a world that reawakens the surge of feelings you get when you first fall in love. No wonder some romance readers call themselves ‘romance junkies’ – the love story is like a fix that gives you a wonderful rush of feelings. So when writing romance, you always have to be thinking about the emotion. Every element of the story, every action of a character, every description of a person or a place – they must all be designed to move the reader on an emotional level. Certainly in the first draft, don’t hold back in feeling as you write; later, when you edit, you can tone down overwriting. For me, writing from an emotional standpoint is the fun of writing romance – what a wonderful way to spend a day, lost in a fantasy world that makes you feel love and passion and hope.

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