How to write romance fiction – or, “Come and Have a Go if You Think it’s Hard Enough…”

SHE TO HIM

by Robert Graves

To have it, sweetheart, is to know you have it

Rather than think you have it;

To think you have it is a wish to take it –

Though afterwards you will not have it –

And thus a fear to take it.

Yet if you know you have it, you may take it

And know that you still have it.

Robert Graves, who wrote the most terrifying Emo-Gothic love poems, somehow nailed it with this short one above. It summarises the bonding and commitment, trust and faith that true love between soul-mates brings, which so many of the human race are still pursuing.

Another couplet of Graves’ at the end of the poem The Finding of Love, “With end to grief, With joy in steadfastness” illustrates how humanity as a whole – not just readers and writers – endlessly seek the comfort and escapism of a ‘happy ever after’.

If it evades us in reality, magical words on the page, perfect words read aloud, and words of everlasting love, whether spoken or sung, are summoned to feed our empty unrequited souls. Grief is what we experience when love is unattainable or impossible, even if we’ve never experienced it first-hand. It’s one of the universal experiences that as a human we can feel or sense is an entitlement, and although some of us have similarly strong feelings about obtaining success, money, fame and other artificial achievements created by humankind, love remains the most mysterious and elusive to pin down.

All the best Hollywood blockbusters rely on it. Blockbuster novels rely on it. Whether it’s romantic love, family love, love of pets, childhood love of toys, love of friends, love of country, love of one’s own faith, love of knowledge, love of art – love is the glue that sticks eyes to the screen or page. Even when we think it’s not there, or think we’re enjoying an amazing story without all that slushy stuff, truly epic writing has a way of sneaking it past us. These writers know that the magic and mysteriousness of uncompromised ‘love’ is the true universal language of the narrative spirit.

Stories that pretend to depict emotionless lead characters often have a supporting act, somewhere (if not an outright sidekick), who is secretly, sympathetically, and irrationally in love with them, causing the audience to believe that this sociopath is not just coldly charismatic but also lovable, beneath their tough outer shell.

We all want what that secondary character wants. Through their eyes, we think we can see through the icy armour too – even as the emotionally-dysfunctional protagonist denies it in as many words. The only emotions they can express are anger and frustration, usually at the sidekick’s insistence that they really are warm and fuzzy inside like a cashmere hot water-bottle cover, instead of being a calculating mess of grudges, hourly work rates, and logic.

If you take the love-struck idiot out of the story, er, I mean, the romance angle, viz, the infatuated sidekick/concerned neighbour/timid single parent (stereotypically new to job/town), you’re left with the Grumpy Old Psycho Codger – who was usually unmasked at the end of Scooby Doo.

So at least one of your characters has to be the manifestation of the most relatable human condition we are aware of.

By that, I don’t mean we introduce them asleep, or on the lavatory.

Imagine if going to the toilet was considered to be the universal narrative – no wonder artists and poets had to invent the concept of falling in love, so much more scope for plot in the complexities of relationships than in solitary bodily functions! Even DH Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover dissected this question. What if as much discourse in life and literature was dedicated to the analysis of lavatorial visits as it is to love and sex? Would over-attentiveness to any other simple necessity of life transform it into the vast, mysterious, lucrative, umm, intellectual and artistic industry that love and relationships are today?

(Looking at any comedy written in the 20th century, many people would say that scatological humour certainly had its heyday).

So we know that love and romance appears in various forms in most of what we consume. There may be different degrees of passion and wholesomeness, but it’s there, to tease, tantalise and inspire.

Even the most introverted, inexperienced desk-pilot like me will have the occasional rose-tinted steampunk-goggles moment, unexpectedly, in real life.

Those moments have to be treasured. One day I might have the need of a rose-tinted romantic analogy for my writing, in between toilet jokes, zombie anatomy, pop-culture psychology, and basic engineering mathematics and principles…

Barbara Cartland was the British doyenne of romantic literature in the mid-1900s. She was prolific, pink, frilly, the heroine of many real-life humanitarian campaigns in her lifetime (including fair wages for midwives and nurses, strangely enough an issue highlighted again today) – and perhaps economical in her writing practice. In her 1978 art history hardcover ‘Book of Love and Lovers’ focusing on art and its romantic subjects through the centuries, you can detect the skill she had in sparse, glossy (of the time), attention-grabbing, scandal-suggestive (but not explicit) prose – brief and to the point, rather like the gossip columnists of today’s celebrity magazines:

Napoleon: “On the night of the Coronation in the Tuileries, ablaze with thousands of lights, Napoleon dined alone with Josephine. He thought her crown ‘suited her so well’ that he made her wear it during dinner. Afterwards they went to bed.”

Napoleon, continued: “Eighteen, with slanting cat-eyes, Marie-Louise was more sensual than Josephine. On her wedding night, delighted with Napoleon’s love-making, she asked him to ‘do it again’. Impatient to have a son, he carried her off to bed before she reached Paris.”

I wonder if she knew she was pre-empting her own parodies?

Matt Lucas as Barbara Cartland in Little Britain

“Chapter One… The End.” Matt Lucas dictates as Barbara in ‘Little Britain’

Today’s romance novels are aimed at a wide range of interests and age groups, but the main thing they have in common is their function as brain-candy. Feelgood hormone promoters such as serotonin and oxytocin, stress-reducers and blues-busters. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, a historical epic, a paranormal or SF romance, a coming-of-age drama or a romance/crime thriller, your target is reaching the emotional context that other plots and prose do not reach.

Romance is all about positive pattern-matching for the characters and the reader as the relationships in the storyline develop, so you may have to write in an ‘alert’ state if you are new to the genre. This means being aware of your similes and your descriptions of the protagonists’ reactions and internal responses to one another. Your own writing has to be congruent with the mood you want to set – your whole book is presenting the ‘mood’ to the reader.

Unless your mood is ‘wooden’ or ‘flat-packed furniture’ you wouldn’t set your scenes by basic stage direction:

He walked in and closed the door behind him. He went to the chair in the living room and sat in it. He turned on the TV. She came in from the kitchen and asked what he wanted for dinner. He said pizza. She went back to the kitchen and switched on the oven.

…And stuck her own head in it, most likely, at that point.

What would you do with this paragraph? Does it sound like a paragraph from a romance novel? If it was a romantic comedy, what could you make happen? Can he smell another failed baking attempt as he walks in? Has she been caught washing the dog in the kitchen sink? What the hell has happened to his favourite chair? Where’s the dialogue itself?

You don’t have to go over the top, either…

“Honey, I’m home!” he announced as he burst into the hallway, a torrent of autumnal leaves following him in off the street. He was just in time for Storage Hunters! He dashed to the living-room, scattering leaves, coat, briefcase, pants and shoes in his headlong run, and dove flat onto the sofa, grabbing the remote. He nearly careered straight over the far end – damn wax furniture-polish on the leatherette again! “Where are you? And what’s that smell?”

“Nothing sweetheart! Must be the new doggy kibble mix,” she greeted him, appearing in the doorway, drenched from head to foot, holding a sink plunger in one hand and a dog-lead in the other. To him she looked as amazing as ever, and her scent today was Eau de Petit Chien. “We’ve only just got in from our walk. Shall I start dinner?”

“Great! Can we have pizza?” Only the thought of a piping hot spicy pizza was stopping him from jumping on her right now, and subsequently missing Storage Hunters.

“Sure!” she beamed, and went to make a lot of noise in the kitchen, turning on the fan oven and rummaging in the cupboards, while she discreetly rang Domino’s and ordered a large stuffed crust Pepperoni and two rounds of garlic bread…

Well, I’m already hooked, knew I shouldn’t have started that one… anyway, you see the difference? Same scene – two different ways of writing and setting the mood. It’s the same approach when writing any genre fiction. In horror you want to instill fear, in crime thriller you want to excite, in comedy you want to raise a chuckle (or at least a wry smirk). You don’t have to go as far as my bit of parody above, though…

What you want, is to imagine or remember a romantic mood – sometimes those can be the briefest flashes of inspiration, a piece of music, a dream you once had (as I did with One Stolen Kiss), a face you once saw… and keep that mood alive as you write. Don’t let other moods spoil it. The author’s mood will dictate the style of writing, so if you need certain music, or a scented candle beside you, or a hot chocolate, indulge yourself while writing romance. (You can go to the gym later).

Treat your romance writing as you would your actual romance.

Make it ‘special writing time’ – if you aren’t convincing yourself, who are you going to convince? It doesn’t mean you have to have the Ann Summers website open in the browser, or a wealthy dating guru’s webinar on dating NLP techniques channelled into your headphones. Treat yourself well while writing, think happy thoughts, plan how you’ll spend that first 99p you earn from your book on a treat from eBay (seriously, I won designer shoes for 99p that no-one else bid on!)

Imagine how happy you’d want to feel after reading a good romance – and work with that.

Romance is one of the genres that is easy to promote and has reader peer-recommendation networks already in place – you don’t have to stress about that. Put aside any thoughts about promoting and selling at this stage. Just enjoy writing the story.

Some authors, who are married or in relationships, find that writing romance fiction for the first time can be awkward, worry about being judged when it reaches the public, or, in contrast, are keen to use it as a form of sneaky self-disclosure.

Basically, write what you’re comfortable with – but if you’re feeling the strain, or the words coming out appear to be pointing back at you in an accusatory fashion, try being someone else while you write. Invent an author name for romance fiction.

That’s what I did. I find while I’m being Lauren the romance author, I’m a completely different writer. I don’t have my usual insecurities and hang-ups, I don’t worry what my writing says about me, and I’m not thinking about cars and dieting and exercise and zombies instead. That last one, definitely the important one, in my case.

And if you’re concerned about the nitty-gritty, or the pressure to join the more explicit ranks of books out there, you can find advice on writing bedroom shenanigans here, in a post I wrote a while back before I attempted it myself. I mean writing it, of course 🙂

L xxx

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4 thoughts on “How to write romance fiction – or, “Come and Have a Go if You Think it’s Hard Enough…”

  1. When my first novel was in edits, I kept telling my husband to be prepared for that moment when it went public. So far, so good, though my novels aren’t erotic, they are spicy. I find it isn’t quite as daunting for people to know what goes on in my head after all. They seem to like it. Great post.

    • Exactly – and both writers and readers have different comfort zones. So long as you’re happy with where your novel goes, and you market it to the appropriate readership (meaning the audience knows what to expect when they pick it up from among the others they read, in their usual style and themes), the response is usually positive – problems there often arise if the reader feels that he or she has been misled in the book’s advertising, by the category, blurb, or even the cover design!

      The opening pitch for your genre of book is critical in getting it to the right agent, publisher, editor, and especially the right audience – I’ll cover that in another post.

      Great to meet you, and thanks for checking in! 🙂 x

  2. Really love the blog so consider me subscribed! It’s interesting and has a nice rhythm so points where they’re due! I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call myself a writer, but I have written my first bloggedy blog, and would love it if you might give it a read. Critique is always welcome!

    • Thanks! Good luck writing – as with all things, it always turns out best when it’s not forced. Inspiration strikes at strange times. Remember to enjoy and appreciate your non-writing as well 🙂

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