Romance is one of the most popular and beloved genres in all of fiction. If you’re hoping to join the ranks of celebrated romance novelists like Jane Austen, Nora Roberts, and Nicholas Sparks, there are a few important tips you need to know.
To help you with your journey into romance writing, we’ve asked four of our top editors here at NYBE to give us their must-know tips. Below, you’ll read advice from Marla Daniels, Megan McKeever, Meaghan Wagner, and Katrina Diaz. Let’s get started!
1. What feedback do you regularly give to writers?
Marla Daniels: One of my biggest notes is always conflict, conflict, conflict! Oftentimes, because authors and readers alike love when the hero and heroine are happy and in love, there isn’t enough conflict throughout the relationship. Tension and conflict make the happy-ever-after a bigger payoff, so don’t be afraid to let your couples get into it throughout the novel so that when they come back together at the end, the reconciliation packs an even bigger emotional punch.
Megan McKeever: Conflict! Nearly every editorial letter I write for romance novels involves mentioning issues with conflict. Sometimes it’s that the conflict needs to be brought more to the forefront, other times it’s that the conflict feels forced and not natural. I tend to find that authors know they need to add conflict so they insert it where they can, but then it can feel like we’re being TOLD there’s conflict, but not SHOWN it. And that’s usually when the conflict just doesn’t feel natural or seem to make sense.
I’m often reminded of Real Housewives shows (yes, I do watch a few of them!). Time and again there are scenes where the housewives engage in an insane argument completely out of the blue that no rational person would ever get worked up over, and it’s so clear that they have a producer just off camera feeding them the storyline, making sure to manufacture drama for drama’s sake. It can feel that way in romance novels as well if the conflict doesn’t feel natural. To avoid this, set up the seeds of the conflict – both external and internal – early on and it won’t feel like it comes out of left field just when things start to work out for the couple.
Meaghan Wagner: This honestly applies across genres, but my most frequent advice to writers is to cut down on filtering, particularly when it comes to characters’ feelings and physical experiences. In romance, it’s especially relevant advice. Readers are coming to your book to immerse themselves in your character, in those experiences. Filtering those experiences with sensory actions like felt or saw, often adds a layer between the reader and the character. He doesn’t feel his heart pound in his chest, his heart pounds, and we as readers feel that pounding. She doesn’t look at him across a room. He is there, and as long as the narrator is with her and describing his movements, we know she sees him, because we see him, too.
Katrina Diaz: When I edit romance I often find myself emphasizing character development. Genre convention plays a lot into the overall structure, so one of the best opportunities for originality is often through a novel’s characters. The more human they are and the more they grow in the romance narrative, the better. I often advise my authors to focus on building clear motivation and emotional dimension of the characters they are writing, as it’s usually one of the best ways to refine the story.
2. What do writers really need to understand to write romance well?
Marla Daniels: While it is fiction, the couples and your characters still need to be relatable. Sure, they can have sculpted bodies and perfect meet-cutes, but some of the baggage they bring to the relationship needs to be something your readers can identify with. Think an overbearing, meddling mother, trust issues from a past relationship, monetary issues, stuck in a job they hate, etc. Remember that what makes great love stories are the complicated, complex, strong characters you introduce us to.
And your characters need to get to know one another! I often find that when editing I comment on how much inner monologue there is about the hero’s good looks, or the heroine’s sassy nature, but the characters don’t talk to each other enough to dig beneath the surface. Letting your characters get to know each other lets your reader get to know your characters, and that makes your reader invested both in your story and in you as an author.
Megan McKeever: See above: conflict! But seriously, this can’t be overstated. What’s a romance novel without the push and pull of the hero and heroine?
Meaghan Wagner: For me, tension in romance has to really be authentic, and for that to work the obstacle as to be pitch perfect. It has to be real and the consequences of tackling that obstacle – whether it be family or circumstance or anything else – has to be real, and a dire enough deterrent to keep our leads apart; yet they do have to be able to overcome it, their relationship and their lives intact enough to warrant the “happy” in “happy ending.”
Katrina Diaz: First, I think it’s key to know that writing romance well, like writing any work of fiction well, is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of skill, patience, and dedication.
Beyond that, I think it’s key to understand that readers want to be able to relate to your characters. They want them to be human—albeit perhaps a little more heroic or extraordinary than average, depending on the subgenre. So don’t write flat stereotypes. Give all your characters, regardless of their gender or orientation, real substance. And speaking of that, consider reflecting the diversity of the real world whenever possible. Don’t write any two-dimensional characters just because they aren’t the leading role. Focus on the characters, breathe life into them, and throw them into as many fun, dramatic, hilarious, or thrilling situations as your creative muse allows.
Moreover, remember to put your self-editing cap on and be honest about tightening up your early drafts and losing extraneous plot points. Don’t let your story run away with you. Pay careful attention to avoiding overused tropes in an oversaturated market and instead put your own unique twist on the hallmarks of romance. But do make sure you adhere to the tenants of the genre. Yes, there’s some flexibility and room for creativity, but the definition of a romance novel is that a love story is central to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying. If you want to write romance well, you need to respect those two core concepts.
Overall, writing romance well means writing characters and their relationships to one another well. Get into a character’s head—and heart—and then take the reader there with you.
3. How can a writer set themselves (and their story) apart while staying true to the Romance genre?
Marla Daniels: Staying true to this genre means there definitely has to be a happy ending for your couple, but interesting hooks always help set an author apart. If there’s something fresh and exciting about your novel, your characters, or your series as a whole, readers are more likely to be intrigued and keep reading.
Megan McKeever: You can never underestimate the importance of voice in romance. A unique, strong voice can really elevate a story and make it stand apart. And readers who connect with your voice will want to seek out more stories from you.
I also love to see romance novels in unique settings. While a medieval Highland story or Victorian tale will always find an audience, don’t be afraid to find a unique location or time period to set your story.
Meaghan Wagner: There’s a universality to romance that draws us all together – beats we all recognize as part of falling into, or even out of love. But no two people fall in love the exact same way, not in life. If you’re telling a story of love and are genuinely pulling from your perspective of what it means to love and be loved, your story will be wholly unique to you.
Katrina Diaz: It’s a task that can feel insurmountable at times, but it’s not—I promise! To set your story apart, know the genre conventions and don’t be afraid to push against them without
disregarding all of them entirely. Romance readers have a fairly strong idea of what they want and what they are looking for, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love a few surprises.
This is, of course, varied according to the subgenre—there’s certainly a different expectation from a Regency romance than there is of a paranormal romance—so know your subgenre well.
The clearest opportunity for standing out, regardless of your subgenre, is through your characters and how they deal with the obstacles presented to them. There’s a wealth of opportunity in creating a unique past, personality, or humor for your characters. In some subgenres, you also have the additional opportunity to stand out via your world building. You can always get creative with the specific impediments to the romance, too, and whether they are internal or external, which is a factor that hugely affects the storyline.
Whether you bring to life a hilarious voice like Bridget Jones, create an entire Otherworld like Katie MacAlister, or make us invested in our heroes and heroines the way Julia Quinn always does, there’s a multitude of ways to stand out and remain true to the genre.
4. What are some of the best examples of quality Romance novels out there?
Marla Daniels: There are so many sub-genres of romance out there that it’s hard to narrow it all down! I love both historical and contemporary, but what really draws me in are sassy, strong, complicated female leads in any time period. I love a heroine who knows what she wants and goes after it, and any author who can make me laugh out loud while reading is one I’ll continue to pick up.
Meaghan Wagner: Best quality romance is tricky to answer because it depends a lot on what subgenre of romance you are specializing in.
My first love of romance novels will always be Nora Roberts, and her style of extended universe romances will always be comforting to me like a cup of cocoa. But she also writes multiple books a year with no ghostwriter and still continues to have emotionally engaging – and often suspenseful – stories every time.
Katrina Diaz: I tend to focus primarily on historical romance and paranormal romance in my editorial work, so I’ll speak to those categories. For historical romance, there are so many wonderful authors out there, but I always recommend the titans Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Tessa Dare, Suzanne Enoch, Sabrina Jeffries, and Sarah Maclean to start. For paranormal romance, there’s once again a plethora of incredible authors to read, but some of my personal favorites are Karen Marie Moning, Diana Gabaldon, Katie MacAlister, Deborah Harkness, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Gena Showalter, and Christine Feehan.
5. Are there any trends in the Romance genre that writers should be aware of?
Marla Daniels: There are always trends for writers to be aware of—we frequently see different sub-genres rise and fall in popularity throughout the years. A good way to stay in the know is to watch the romance bestseller categories at retailers—what works in this genre ebbs and flows so authors should be prepared to be flexible.
Megan McKeever: There has long been a problem with diversity in romance novels, and I think the time has come for more books to feature diversity—in race, culture, sexuality. Young Adult seems to be leading the way with more LGBTQ-centered books, and they are finding an audience. Romance is catching up and there’s definitely a market out there for books that reflect our very diverse world.
Meaghan Wagner: I’m sure it’s not especially surprising to anyone but social justice topics are (and have been) on the rise in romance. It’s one of the strengths of the genre that gets overlooked, romance is always at the forefront of changing social trends (at least in some corners). As we move through turbulent social times and more and more social issues become mainstream, race, gender norms, and even politics are being tackled more and more frequently in romantic fiction. As these perspectives get more and more mainstream attention, they will also get more publishers’ money as well.
Katrina Diaz: That’s a fairly broad question! There are always trends arising in the genre, at times, ones that can sprout subgenres, Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight being prime examples. These change every few years if not much more frequently than that. There are trends that can rise quickly (and some debate burn out quickly, too) like the love triangle in young adult paranormal romances, while others come and go in waves, like the trend of Scottish historical romances, which is at a height in recent years. Within the historical romance subgenre, the Regency is a major, long-lasting subcategory that is deeply and lastingly popular, but other historical periods have their own rise and fall in popularity according to trends. There are even trends on what subgenres are the hottest at any given moment.
Depending on the subgenre of romance that a writer wants to work in—you should always write what is most natural to you and what you’re most interested in—I’d recommend a writer then research the current trends within that given subgenre and the romance genre as a whole (i.e. Are bad boys still in or is there a turn towards nice guys?) to be best informed on the market.
6. What does the typical Romance reader look for in a book?
Marla Daniels: The happy-ever-after, of course! But I think readers also look for complex characters, good story-telling, zippy and evocative dialogue, and just a good foundation on which a relationship can build over the course of the narrative.
Megan McKeever: I think readers are looking for an escape from the real world in the pages of romance novels. They want to be transported to a different setting, a different time period, or just away from all the stresses in their own lives. Great romance novels allow the real world to fade away as you get caught up in the hero and heroines quest for love. But while escapism is important, readers still want to connect and see themselves in the heroine.
Meaghan Wagner: Much like quality writers, this question is so dependent on which genre you are working in. Someone reading erotica is going to be looking for something very different than someone reading inspirational romance. Readers of contemporary and historical romance rarely pick up a book looking for the same things.
But I think one thing all romance readers are looking for (I hope) are characters they can connect with, and especially characters whose emotional baggage is compelling.
Katrina Diaz: Well, the obvious answer would be . . . romance! It is crucial for a romance novel to feature a love story that is central to the narrative and for the ending of the novel to be emotionally satisfying to the reader. What the latter can mean and what the former can look like can vary.
Traditionally, romances feature a focus on one or two protagonists who must overcome hurdles, whether internal, external, or both, prior to reaching their “happily ever after” (or at least an optimistic and hopeful) ending. Depending on whether the novel is a standalone or a one in a series, the ending can differ in regards to what “emotionally satisfying” means to a reader. In a series, readers might be happy with an ending that hints that more is to come—they know the characters are coming back and that a little turmoil and heartbreak often only makes the romance more riveting. In a standalone, there’s less flexibility in regards to the ending. But that, too, depends on the subgenre.
For example, typical historical romance readers want the happy endings for their character yesterday, not tomorrow, while paranormal or fantasy romance readers are perhaps a bit more willing to let a messy, complicated entanglement play out because they get to experience more of the world building that way.
So while some readers love to have their heart broken along the way, others love to laugh. Some readers love external obstacles (murder, mystery, conflict, the potential end of the world), while others love internal conflict (a past to resolve, a personality flaw to make peace with). Some readers love romances high in drama, while others love uncomplicated plotlines focused on the everyday protagonist. I think this varies depending on the given conventions of the subgenre, but generally speaking, a typical romance reader wants the unfolding of a relationship from beginning to end and they want an ending that makes them feel deeply gratified (even if they are in tears) when they turn that last page.
7. How do you begin a substantive edit on a Romance novel?
Marla Daniels: I just dive in! I tend to line edit while I do a structure edit, so you’ll see comments in the margins that are more full-scope regarding characterization, pacing, plot, narrative, and you’ll see edits and cuts within the manuscript.
Megan McKeever: The first thing I do is sit down and read the manuscript without line editing and writing significant notes – just try to take it all in as a reader would. It helps me to get a sense of how the book flows, and if there’s anything that immediately jumps out as not working. It’s also nice to just enjoy the story and get lost in the world the author created. Then I go back and start doing the heavy lifting.
Meaghan Wagner: For me, it’s all about having an emotional journey that rings true, so I start by writing out what I know of my main characters. Who are they, what do they want, and how do they think they can get it? This can seem really obvious, but simply answering these questions between a first and second read can really help me get a handle on actions that seem out of character or overly convenient plot devices, or, in some truly substantial edits, it can trigger a structural problem in the character that needs to be re-written to make the plot workable.
Katrina Diaz: For a substantive edit, better known as a line edit, on a romance novel, I begin by getting a feel for the author’s style, the protagonists’ personalities, and whether the obstacles will primarily be internal, external, or a mix of both. From there, I’m better equipped to dive into the line level while keeping the big picture in mind as I help the author to clarify his or her intentions, best portray the characters’ motivations, unwind and tighten up the plot while steadying the pacing and overall structure.
Thanks to our editors for sharing their tips!
If you have any questions about the points in this post or romance writing in general, let us know in the comments section below!
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