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Romancing the Page: A New Perspective on the Romance Novel

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With a fair amount of trepidation, I recently attended the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, held the weekend of February 13. After all, I’m not a “real” writer, just a wanna-be, intimidated before I arrived with thoughts that my recently completed novel wasn’t worthy of rubbing elbows with some of the top agents and editors of the publishing world. I was pleasantly surprised to find everyone genuine and helpful.

There were many workshops to choose from, and it was difficult to decide which ones to attend. Since my novel is about a woman who faces many changes in her life, I thought I would attend the workshop on romance writing. This, even though my book is not what you’d call a romance novel – it’s dark and goes places most people wouldn’t want to visit – but I was a writer looking for a niche.

I have to admit here that I do occasionally read romance novels. Call it a guilty pleasure, like my occasional binges on Godiva chocolate. The books are especially handy to have on long airplane trips, because they are usually in paperback, are small and easy to read. I can dust one and a half romances off in the time it takes for me to fly from Detroit to California.

The term “romance novel” has long suffered a negative connotation. The term conjures up legions of bored housewives looking to spend an afternoon reading about a heroine who is saved from distress by someone who looks amazingly like Fabio. (That’s how he started the modeling game, posing for book covers. Personally speaking, Fabio has way too many muscles for me. I like my men scrawny but smart.) Romance novels are known for their "trashy" covers showing men and women in the midst of lustful frenzy.

Romance novels have been pooh-poohed as being literature not worthy of reading. They were deemed hastily written and shallow. While it may be true that some prolific writers pump out three novels a year, it’s a false assumption to think that the modern romance novel lacks depth and character. In fact, it may be more difficult to write a good romance novel, since the story has to move along at a rapid pace.

What qualifies as a romance novel? Well, there’s a woman, a man, and plenty of conflict. Something keeps the two apart, even though what they really want to do is tear each other’s clothes off. This could be a real conflict, or one in the woman’s head, and some force that keeps the two apart. All romance novels end the same way, there’s a happy ending and a hook up. There doesn’t have to be marriage, and if the hook up is absent, then there must be a promise of a future in the distance. Optimism is what romance novels are all about. Romance novels are seldom over 120K words, and most hover between 75K and 90K words.

What amazed me about the romance novel workshops I attended was that there are many sub-genres within the genre. “Romance” also includes “serious” women’s literature, which my particular work would fall under. In my case, the woman has a happy ending, but there’s no hook up.

Chick-lit refers to a light, saucy treatment of the story. The best description is the Shopaholic series. There’s definitely hook up in this type of novel. Contemporary romances concentrate on small town settings and values. There are romance novels that revolve around ethnic cultures like Loving Gabriel, and interracial relationships, like Unfinished Business.

But hold on to your bonnets, it doesn’t end there. There are teen romances and paranormal romances. The wildly successful Twilight is considered a paranormal teen romance. In the area of historical romances, there are sub-subgenres which include Scottish, English and Irish historical romances. Super-sexy romances include erotica. There are inspirational or Christian romances where there’s much soul searching and the sexual content is played down. There are mystery and suspense romances, military adventure romances, Navy Seal romances, western romances and gay/lesbian romances (Romentics). There are even Amish teen romances, which I gather is a real hot seller.

Any work can be turned into a romance with minor tweaking. As I read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, I thought “Boy, this is close to a romance novel. He writes like a girl.” Plus there is that lingering hint that he and Agent Neveu might get together after the mystery is solved. Some of the greatest classics ever written, such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice can also be considered in the romantic vein.

To prove the point, that night I told my son and his girlfriend about the romance novel workshop. We came up with some crazy romance subgenres, including Intergalactic and Interspeciel Romance. The next day, I happened to run into the editor who held the previous day’s workshop, and when I mentioned our dinner time conversation from the night before, the editor’s eyes lit up. “He should write that!” she said.

For all those avid readers who need a change of pace, I would recommend grabbing a romance novel. They’re interesting, entertaining and not just for bored housewives anymore.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • Marcia

    Linnea Sinclair already writes intergalactic, and I’m pretty sure Christine Feehan and J.R. Ward have had some interspecial (depending on what you’d categorize as a species).