Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to write a romance novel

I started writing romance in Nigeria when I had more time on my hands. We had a housegirl, a gardener, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a special school for our kids and for a gal that had been working her butt off to keep a husband in university, a kid in preschool so she could work her butt off, and little time to breath. Some people just sat around in this little glass bubble of expatriates. Squandering their time.

But that isn’t me. I don’t sit around doing nothing. My brain constantly buzzes and skims around for activities and thus with my trusty little blue plastic typewriter two layers of carbon paper, the pages mounted on my first romance novel. My guide was a mountain of Mills and Boon which was very popular in Nigeria for both men and women and readily available.

I also had a friend who also loved romance, and perhaps it was she that sparked the awareness of a need for writing and for the genre.

My road to romance writing halted while I took time out to study and to write and illustrate picture books for children. But, in that space of time, I think I really did learn my trade and came back to romance because by nature I am a romantic soul. And of course from the early days of little blue typewriters I was lucky enough to be part of a generation that benefited from the blessings of the computer age. Carbon paper leaves a lot to be desired.

I do love comedy and so comedy and romance sat very comfortably on my shoulders. I can watch Sleepless in Seattle and Pretty Woman ad nauseum. Love Jane Austen to distraction.

I never really thought about writing an historical novel until my brief for The Enchanted Faerie turned up. I discovered, since I have an abiding love of research, historical novels can be fun. The essential to writing historical, indeed any novel is convincing world building. The setting must be very believable. World building in any genre is terribly important because the reader must quickly forget the real world and be suspended. Next step for me is Regency. This genre lends itself so easily to my forte – comedy so watch this space.

So what are the rules of a romance? As far as I can think, they are exactly the same for any other kind of genre.

Convincing world building. . I’ve often wondered what idiot said blue and green should never be seen, only on the faerie queen. That is stupid. I’m sitting looking out the window and there’s that tree I love, and a perfectly blue sky behind it.

Lovable Characters. Second most important thing is to make characters lovable enough to want to pursue them in whatever adventure they are undertaking. Even if they really are awful, make them lovable. One doesn’t want to spend time hating the main character/s. My characters all end up as friends by the time I’ve finished a manuscript.

Consistency. Make sure your characters stay the same. I don’t mean that they can’t suddenly discover God or that they are undergoing life changing experiences, but make sure they react in a way which is believable and the way they really would behave because leopards don’t change their spots.

Be clear and precise. Plant the facts for the reader in a logical way so they don’t have to work hard to remember the plot direction. You do not want them having to double back because they’ve missed something.

Never take the reader for granted. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving romance novels. They sell more books than anything else. The reader will smell an author who is treating them like idiots from a mile. Don’t write down to the reader as if they are a moron. If you don’t like romance then don’t write romance.

All the normal needs of any novel, plot, arc and ending, goal, motivation and conflict are all important just as they are in any other kind of novel worth its salt. The basic premise of a romance is the conflict. The demands of GMC – goal motivation and conflict. This basically is translated into: He/she wants – because – but. You must have this to make a story move.

Know your target audience. If you have a specialist genre – paranormal, time travel, contemporary, comedy, suspense then of course you will have to know what publishers of that genre require. That means you should know what publisher/s you want to target. Specially important because the readers will be expecting a certain standard and they will be very tough on judging anything that doesn’t convince them in their belief systems. You are suspending belief in a believable manner and unless you fulfil this then forget writing because neither agent, nor editor, nor reader will even be slightly interested.

Probably the best piece of advice I, as a writer, has ever been given is this.

Make every work you do your best. Never just let a manuscript drift because it’s good enough. It will end up in a bottom drawer and you will cry over rejection slips. And also be your own harshest critic. Of course every time you start a new manuscript it will probably be the inheritor of your skills getting better.

Edit, edit, and edit again. Be your own harshest critic. Don’t be precious about a piece you really know shouldn’t be there. The best novel doesn’t waffle on. If you are at a party listening to a drunk waffling on about nothing you soon get bored. So what’s different about a reader?

Make sure you have a good hook system. Hooking is important because it’s grabbing the reader’s attention. First line of the novel is important, but hooking throughout the novel is also important. Between point of view changes, and chapter changes.

Which does remind me to mention the importance of establishing the main characters. I have seen some people introducing so many characters in the beginning of the novel that it’s almost like trying to remember everyone’s name at a convention in the first day.

And there’s the biggy. Show not tell. This has been discussed by aspiring writers and authors constantly. What it means is simply don’t fall into a trap of boring description. Keep the writing vital and fresh. Don’t waffle on. Let’s say the character is lighting a cigarette.

Sam wanted a cigarette so he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes and red lighter.


Sam’s craving was strong. An irresistible urge he’d been fighting since he was twenty. Fingers danced impatiently and finally gave in to the urge for a cigarette.

I don’t need to mention the pocket. That’s a given and not really important where what and how he accessed them.

So really, what I am saying is that there aren’t any special rules for a romantic novel. It is simply a genre like all novels and employing all the rules of good story writing. Weave your spell, make it magic and make the reader extremely sorry they reach the end because they love it.

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