have a confession to make. Before an agent convinced me to write a proposal for a contemporary romance, I’d never read one.
Sure, I’d picked up the odd historical romance that my sister-in-law recommended to me; and I’d grown up reading the romantic gothic tales of Victoria Holt and the romantic-suspense novels penned by Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, but touch a Harlequin—nope, it just wasn’t my kind of reading material.
“You can do it,” my agent insisted.
So, I spun out a synopsis, rattled off three chapters of a story, and soon heard, “We love your style, but the story isn’t right for us.”
Now, what the heck did that mean?
“It means,” my agent said. “You can get in their door and stay snuggly inside it.”
But I needed help—some guidelines when it came to spinning a story that was right for the market.
And that’s when I realized I should turn to the bible. No, I wasn’t getting religious. This was all about research and the creation of my own bible—a set of rules to follow and requirements to incorporate. This was all about identifying the sort of things that had to appear in a book.
I’m not merely talking about love scenes. I’m talking about lifestyles, backgrounds of characters, how to get to that happily ever after at the end of the book, and a myriad of other elements.
While publishers cut back, lay off, and close their doors in the current economy, romance is still a hungry market.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy genre in which to land a contract.
So where do you start this journey? At the bookstore, of course, because we want—need!—the most recently published titles available for this project.
First, what do you want to write? There are a lot of subgenres in romance: historical, time-travel, fantasy, urban fantasy, suspense, comedic, heart-warming, sweet, inspirational, and erotica. Even if you don’t normally read romance, there is enough variety in the current marketplace to find a comfortable niche to target.
The majority of romances are stand alone single titles. Harlequin/Silhouette is probably the most “line” related publisher when it comes to contemporary stories. A “line” is a category type. These vary where “Luna” features fantasy romances, “Intrigue” is romantic suspense, “Blaze” is borderline erotica, and “Special Edition” leans toward more emotional scenarios. Other houses use “imprints” to denote the various niches or specific type of storylines they publish.
If you find you are pulling and putting aside more books from one publisher than another, the decision on which subgenre to concentrate on will have been made. If you have a variety of publishing houses, see if you can identify from the cover blurbs what they have in common that draws you to these particular titles.
Once you’ve toted the pile home, the real work begins. Here are some of the things you need to be aware of as you read and take notes for your own genre-specific bible.
1. Professions and income of the two main characters: Is the hero the one who is more financially secure across the board? Is his income equal to that of the heroine? Or is she the super breadwinner? What do each of them do? How does it affect the storyline? Once upon a time having a hero who was a rock star, an athlete, an artist, an actor, a writer, a scientist, or a professor was enough to win a generic rejection slip. If you must have a guideline for your hero and heroine, you’ll notice publishers want normal folk—the type of people you might meet on the street, the type who aren’t so over-educated that they are unapproachable. (Oddly enough, doctors and lawyers put in as much time at school as Ph.D.s, but they slip through the cracks here.)
2. Romantic background: what sort of romantic background are the hero and heroine bringing into the new relationship? In other words, what’s the baggage?
3. Romance factor: what has brought them together?
4. Conflict: what is likely to keep them apart? Or on opposite sides of the fence? Sandra Brown, author of romantic thrillers, is often quoted as saying, “If your hero fights fires, your heroine needs to be an arsonist.” That’s the extreme, of course, but it gets the idea across. There has to be friction of some sort to make the story interesting and to make it the required length!
5. Children and family: some readers (and writers) say a romance can’t get off the ground if children are involved. Personally, I think there is nothing more romantic than having someone so in love with you that they willingly accept or adopt your child as theirs, so I frequently have heroines who are single mothers. There are two schools of thought on this issue, and it really does depend on the story you intend to spin and what is in the stories you are using to build your bible.
6. Danger: is there an element of danger? Yes, the tried-and-true damsel-in-distress stories show up in the various romance lines. The thing to pay attention to is how much of the storyline evolves around the jeopardy and how much of it is centered on the romance. If you enjoy romantic-suspense, be aware that in the romance market, the suspense takes a backseat to the romance, although it does draw the main characters together. It gets even trickier for novels published with Harlequin Intrigue. These plots will not be the same as those published by Silhouette Romantic Suspense; and a manuscript targeted for either of these lines may not find takers at other publishing houses based on what they look for in a storyline.
7. Scenes with main characters: how often are the main characters together? It’s a good idea to chart how many scenes they have together and how many apart—this could be figured by printed pages or word count, your choice.
8. “Sounding board” characters: when the hero and heroine are apart, are they talking to someone about the other person (and how he or she is driving them crazy or frustrating them or whatever)? These “sounding board” characters are often vital simply because they keep the prose from including too much introspection. Make a note of how these characters are integrated into the story. They can’t seem like drop-ins—they need to have a purpose beyond the sounding board, so what is it?
9. Secondary storylines: is there a secondary storyline, perhaps with those sounding board characters? New York Times bestselling romance writer Elizabeth Bevarly frequently has two romantic tales combined—the secondary one usually involves the minor characters. This shorter plot has to mesh well with the longer one though; so if this is an element you want to incorporate, make those notes in your bible detailed.
10. Series and spin-offs: I know I said romances were usually stand alone titles. But do the ones you are building your bible from have a forthcoming spin-off (or were they a spin-off) or are they part of a series? Now, “series” can have two connotations. The first is that the same main characters appear in every book—think Stephanie Plum, Harry Dresden, and Alex Cross, although none of these continuing characters are in a straight romance. The second connotation of “series” is when various characters in successive books live within the same town, are members of the same large family, or perhaps were friends at the same school once upon a time and still are inseparable pals. The hero and heroine in one title will appear as secondary characters in other titles within the series.
These type of novels differ from “spin-off” books because the only tie from one book to another for a spin-off is frequently that the secondary character is given a book of their own. While mentioned, the characters and events from the original title aren’t necessarily seen or have an effect on what happens in the spin-off book.
11. Settings: where do the characters live? Do they need to be interacting with their community or not? Is any community involvement part of the backstory or part of the current storyline? Are they living in cities or in small towns, and in what part of the world or country are they living? You might notice that while stories where a character is in physical danger frequently happen in large cities, a lot of straight romance, whether contemporary or historical, is set in small towns or in the country. Obviously, that is for a reason. Do you need to know the reason? For our purposes here, no, although I was told by my editor that stories set in cities just don’t sell as well. Again, it depends on the publisher and the romance niche you target.
12. Names: odd to have this as an element? Not really. Certain names carry certain connotations. Main characters need strong names, but frequently heroines need a combination of feminine, i.e., weak, delicate, and strong (think Laura Holt of the old Remington Steele TV series—soft first name and hard surname). Heroes need names that don’t cause any of the female readers to shudder in distaste. Yeah, I’m prejudiced; but I can’t see myself ever falling for a guy named Gus, so why should my heroine? Let her wait for Jack or Max or Jake. And if you’ve decided to write historical romance, don’t go all crazy by giving the main characters too authentic-sounding names. The rest of the cast can go with Obadiah, Ebner, Hezekiah or Agnes, Hazel, and Ophelia, but not the main characters.
13. Period – time line: this isn’t just for historical romance or time travel; it applies to your contemporary romance as well. That means being sure to stick in word usage apropos to a historical period, but being vague enough to keep the technology in your contemporary novel unspecific, so the piece isn’t dated.
14. Trademarked or copyrighted product names: some publishers shy away from using these; others don’t. Therefore, if you’re reading and you find no product placement (no one slugs down Jack Daniel’s or pours a dollop of it in Coke; nor drives a specific model of Ford, Chevy, or Mercedes), don’t drop it in. If products are named with great abandon (as they were in the era of the Glitz books), then have at it.
15. Word count: be aware of chapter lengths, the number of chapters, and the word count. Some publishers give word count requirements in their submission guidelines; others don’t. It won’t help if you turn in a 60,000-word story idea to someone who publishes only 90,000-word books or vice versa. And when it comes to chapter lengths—while these can be arbitrary, if a particular publisher tends to have a specific number at a certain length, isn’t it a good idea to give them what they already have shown a preference for?
16. Love scenes: we aren’t talking just how detailed or how “hot.” We’re talking where they fall in the book, how many there are, how well they slot into the storyline (heaven forbid they appear dropped in rather than integrated in), and what the emotional level is. I suppose noting whether the “action” is more clinical than poetic would help, too.
These are the large categories into which the elements in romance novels can fall. Beyond these details, the normal rises and falls in action, the interior and exterior conflicts, and other basic storytelling rules apply. As you read, be aware of any and all details that catch your attention as worthy of consideration. I’m not saying you need to have a verbatim outline, but all genre books have some format that must be followed. The trick is, you have to figure out what it is.
You’re the one who has to figure out the “necessary” bits.
Beth Daniels spins stories as Beth Henderson, J.B. Dane, Lisa Dane, and Beth Cruise, and has seen 26 different book titles in print so far. “The Dragon’s Tale” will appear in Mother Goose Is Dead, an anthology from Dragon Moon Press in 2010. And she reports she’s found another way around her dislike of writing detailed love scenes. She teamed up with a writer who likes to write them.
To find out more about Beth, visit her website www.RomanceAndMystery.com or contact her via e-mail at beth[at]RomanceAndMystery[dot]com.