Today, gentle reader, you are in for a treat! The incomparable Janet Walden-West agreed to stop by and talk about romance. Thank you, Janet!
Know what happens when you show up to a spec fic critique session with a romantic suspense excerpt in hand? You’re branded for life, and eventually, The Lovely Lillian asks you to write about what goes into a modern romance or romantic sub-plot.
Since one does not argue with The Lovely Lillian, here goes.
A simple seven-letter word. But on closer inspection, one that belongs up there with sex, politics, and religion as far as topics that can lead to heated, unpleasant disagreements ‘round the dinner table.
Why it’s a polarizing topic, at least in literature and media, is problematic. Maybe because many people equate romance with sex and Americans still see sex as “naughty.” Maybe because it’s largely a genre written by female-identifying people, for female-identifying people. Whatever the reason, romance gets an unfair treatment—“unrealistic,” “mommy porn,” “bodice rippers,” “anti-feminist propaganda,” “garbage for bored housewives” are a few of the accusations leveled at the genre, usually accompanied by a disdainful eye roll or worse from co-workers, that random guy on the subway who keeps reading over your shoulder, and other writers.
Yet romance is a billion dollar a year industry, and accounts for a major percentage of the adult fiction market—far more than the two closest genre contenders, Mystery and Suspense/Thriller, and close to the entire combined sales of General Fiction.
And that doesn’t factor in the books that have a romance of some form as a major subplot. The Fault in Our Stars and You Before Me? Neener-neener, buddy—tragic romances. The Princess Bride? Romance. The Maltese Falcon? Romantic subplot. Star Wars? Major romantic subplot.
Which is the long way around of saying a lot of people read romance, and a lot of people write it, so if you’re considering dipping your authorial toes in? You go for it, Sunshine.
But check any outdated assumptions at the door because the romance readers and writers of 2016 expect quality writing, a balanced approach, and thoughtful plots. I’ll preface this list by saying this is my take on what constitutes a successful romance, keeping in mind there are always outliers at either extreme that throw off the curve, so if you want to search out books with awful gender stereotypes and dino-porn to wave as proof I’m wrong, you’ll eventually find them.
However, tossing aside those outliers and oddities, what points are the baseline for modern romance?
#1) Sex isn’t romance. Let’s get that assumption out of the way up front. Romance may contain elements of sexual attraction (but not always) and implied or explicit sex scenes, but sex and romance are two different creatures. If you don’t believe me, check out the Erotic Romance sub-genre. Slapping a gratuitous “Insert Tab A in Slot B” scene, or series of scenes in a manuscript, does not a romance make.
At its core romance is about emotions—the emotional connection between two (or more) people. Sex may or may not enter into the story.
#2) Respect is key. Basically, the modern romance is the opposite of the clichéd bodice ripper, with its thinly veiled sexual assault (often served with a side of misogyny, racism, and interpersonal deceit) dressed up as the prelude to a romantic partnership.
Nowadays, both people bring something to the relationship and it’s a true partnership between equal, capable adults.
Because we are talking about a relationship between equals, consent is also key. And consent isn’t limited to intercourse. Consent can include something as overlooked but problematic as replacing the swoop-in-for-a-kiss trope with asking first. Young Adult and New Adult romance writers nail making consent normal and sexy. One partner doesn’t get to physically intimidate the other, either, by preventing access or denying them the ability to walk away from a conversation. Neither character gets away with the outdated “I’ll make decision your decisions, for your own good” trope, either.
#3) Autonomy is important. Character agency is important. Some writers and readers maintain more traditional gender roles, but they do it with that equality in mind. Other writers turn roles on their ears, with fascinating twists. Now, the White Knight may be the virgin, and after the Damsel saves him, she recruits the dragon and executes plans to win over the kingdom with her PR team.
#4) Plot is important. “Romance is formulaic” gets trotted out as the reason the genre doesn’t deserve respect. Now, romance readers do enjoy their tropes, and the Romance Writers of America defines a romance as “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” But lets be real. All genres have certain expectations as far as plot and resolution. Cozy mysteries, pulp, thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction all have familiar, readily defined patterns. Readers look for those patterns.
However, romance isn’t all about over-the-top heroes swooping in to claim the heroine’s virginity and make her life whole.
Now, the hero or heroine is busy taking care of business (sure, that kind of business, too), as opposed to pining away, waiting for a mate to give their life, and the story, meaning. Thus, sub-genres abound. Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Inspirational, Historical, YA/NA, and Paranormal all have plot requirements, aside from a Happily Ever After or Happily For Now.
#5) Diversity, baby. What surprised, and thrilled, me was the level of inclusiveness and diversity present in romance now. There’s a lot of talk now about the trend towards diversity in publishing. I don’t believe it’s a passing trend, but more a long overdue reflection of the world around us. Many, many writers feature main characters of multiple races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, and neurodiversity. More agents and publishers are seeking out marginalized writers, to write #ownvoice characters. LGBTIA+ characters are gaining ground, and not as simply so-called issue or message stories. One of my favorite, most poignant reads this year featured an asexual protagonist, and the romance level and sheer feels were off the charts.
I hope my ramblings at least cause a few people to reconsider the intelligence of devoted romance readers and talent of romance writers. Maybe someone will even get the urge to try penning a romance or fitting a romantic relationship of whatever flavor into their other genre WIP. At the very least, exploring and learning to write realistic emotions serves any writer well, whether it’s in the quest for a happily ever after, the throat-tightening terror of a hacker proven right in their doomsday scenario, or the righteous vengeance of a futuristic space knight ending a tyrant’s rule.
For a more complete overview of the romance world and opportunities for diverse manuscripts and writers, check out the links below.
The Romance Writers of America https://www.rwa.org
Rainbow Chapter of RWA http://www.rainbowromancewriters.com
Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Chapter of RWA http://www.cimrwa.org/about-us.html
Write in the Margins-Helping Underrepresented Stories Find Their Place http://writeinthemargins.org