Literary Musing: My Life in The Romance Novel Lion’s Den

Back in the day, it was embarrassing for some people to be seen reading certain books in public. With the rise in popularity of e-book readers, that shame is hella easy to avoid. Now you can read whatever fantasy books or Nazi vitriol you want without fear of judgment. This has been a profitable change for several genres, but none more so than romance. Novelized romantic comedies and erotic romance have been around for years and now that no one can see the covers, readers can’t buy them fast enough. About three years ago a certain fan of these books decided to take her own stab at the industry. In the midst of the Twilight craze, this snappy new author wrote a paranormal romance series about werewolves. While it wasn’t a smash hit, the books led her down a path which, over the course of three years, allowed her to quit her job and write full time. She is now earning a salary greater than she’s ever done, and enjoys a life where she can work from home and make her own hours. For all of its stresses and frustrations, life as a professional author suits our heroine fine, indeed.

That woman is my step-mother, Christine Bell. Chris spends most of her days writing, editing, tweeting, and other writer/self-promotion crap that sounds exhausting. She mainly writes for a small, but successful publisher called Entangled. The dedicated people at this  company work hard to put out the best novels possible. I know this for a fact because my fiancée, Allison Gatta, is an editor with them. Being so close to their dealings, I’ve become an expert at second hand gleanings of their jobs. I’m here to give you an insider’s outside perspective on what it’s like to write romance novels.

Colon Image

Not that kind of insider

First and foremost,  at least in the kind of romance they write which is called “category romance”, there are tropes.  Many romance readers are creatures of habits and like to see similar elements in the books they read. Recurring themes, plots, and archetypal characters are good points of reference for audiences. That’s where the tropes come in. Hail the tropes. If you want to write a successful romance novel,  tropes are a great place to start. First it’s the plot. Much-loved, common storylines include “enemies to lovers,” “marriage of convenience,” “fake fiance,” and so forth.

Then, we move on to characters. Common favorites are “older brother’s best friend,” “office romancers,” “millionaire playboy,” or “girl next door.” Common themes and characters are like the tools of the trade. Where on artist works with watercolor on paper, many successful romance authors work with “secret romance” on “paradise island.” It seems to me from the outside looking in that the mark of a good category romance is its ability to have the requisite number of tropes and archetypal characters without seeming boring or played out. Romance writing is like the art of reinvention. Stale or outdated writing is often punished with poor reception by an audience or bad reviews. Audiences have their favorite themes and characters, and a misuse of these can piss off a reader (which will make them unlikely to purchase your book in the future). Tropes might be the back bone of many successful romances, but they’re only the beginning.

Fabio Cover

Let’s not judge every book by its cover

When the uninitiated think of romance novels, most of us think of either Fabio, or 50 Shades of Grey. Those two books have one hot, sweaty, sticky, moist thing in common. The sex in the newer 50 Shades books, as well as the old bodice rippers, has made them famous. Those books would not have made money without their sex scenes. Many publishers have strict rules on the sex, depending on the line the book is released under. Language,  intensity of each scene, use of toys, use of holes, location of sex, and relationship between characters are all taken into consideration when determining which line a book might be right for. If a book is meant to be “red hot” or “erotic” and isn’t, or should focus more on the emotional build between characters rather than the physical and doesn’t,  it may cause a submission to be dismissed by a publisher or moved to another line. Much like everything in genre fiction, the rules are pretty strict.

When someone is on the Kindle store looking for romance books to buy, they know what they’re looking for. If the line you release under is known for “closed door sex”,  but then you write a love scene where the guy whips a  woman  and then they move on to anal, reviewers will surely squawk. Not even a self-published author who doesn’t have to answer to a publisher would do something so counter productive as trick or mislead readers. Your readers are your customers and they know what they want. If you treat them badly by not giving them what they asked for,  you will never make a long term career of writing. When my fiancée was an intern reading through the slush pile of unpublished writers, she knew what could and could not sell quickly, and the sex scenes can make or break a novel, and even an author.

Now that we’ve gotten the sex (and awkward morning after) out of the way, onward to some advice. The best advice piece of advice I’ve heard  on becoming a successful author is that sleep is for suckers. You don’t write a best-seller by getting a full night’s rest. Not sleeping is probably not so unusual for people who work from home, but deadlines and the number of steps involved in putting out and supporting a book make it that much more common.

When my step-mom quit her job to write professionally we celebrated her last day because she wouldn’t have to go to work anymore. That turned out to be the wrong way to look at it. Now that she writes, it’s like she never leaves work. She’ll wake up and check her Twitter page, make coffee, answer work e-mails, write a scene, fill out an online interview, answer more e-mails, plot an upcoming book, and discuss upcoming collaborations before lunch. My fiancée does the same. Instead of working 8 hours and going home, they work 16-20 hours and take breaks in between. The living room is their office and it’s as if watching American Idol or working out their only reprieve from being glued to a computer screen every waking hour. It’s not as if either of them are unusual (as far as I know). Writing is a full-time job as well as a lifestyle and it seeps into the core of what you are as a person. It’s a thing that you turn on, with no intention of ever turning off. This usually means that regular sleeping hours are a thing of the past. Between late night edits, last minute promoting, and jitters the night before a release day, the chances are good that a writer will see the sun go down and come up in the same sitting at least once a month. Attachment to a regular sleep is something many successful authors of category romance can’t afford.

Up in bed stock photo

Pictured: hard working American woman

I’ve been asked more than once if my fiancée has been affected by the books she reads. These people want to know if she has unreasonable expectations for real world relationships. This is an odd question because it’s like asking if another genre fiction author expects the fake things they make up to be true. Do people ask Stephen King if he believes in magic corn demon children?

No, romance novelists do not think the situations they come up with are realistic. They’re not delusional. Like all genre fiction, romance is about escapism. A person who thinks books and movies have anything to do with the way everyday people live have a host of problems outside their own expectations. The romance authors I know have a very good handle on what they’re doing. They are clear on how it works and what its purpose is. This is not to mention the fantastic sense of humor that comes from many of these authors. Jokes about the more absurd elements of writing genre fiction and romance are common. When first Christine started writing, she was sent a hilarious list of phrases prohibited from sex scenes. Phrases like “man root” and “slippery cavern” come to mind, and we  still try to top those on occasion when the topic arises.  Self-awareness is a trait the most successful writers have because they’re able to see what has made them money and are able to replicate the process.


sex gesture

An awareness of what you’re doing is paramount in romance

I don’t know about other genre or platforms, but  category romance seems to be extremely reader-centric. The art is not manufactured in a vacuum. Many times, the writer, editor, and publisher are willing to bend over backward to make certain they fulfill the promise their line makes to a reader to assure good sales. Romance readers are voracious and want a very specific product, if a book fails to deliver it will almost certainly fail to sell. People in the industry pride themselves on their ability to spot trends in sales. Oftentimes, if one sub-genre is selling soft, an author will try her hand at another. Flexibility is key for many authors to make a full time job at writing. The key is making sure that the writing is solid. This is part of the reason that many authors are affronted at the success of the 50 Shades series. There were hundreds of BDSM novel series published that same year, so why was E.L James so successful? What did she give readers that sold so much better? It’s not an easy question to answer. In my opinion, those books read like they were written by a fourth grader and there was nothing special about BDSM scenes that you couldn’t find in any other books of that genre (The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz, for example, whose quality was miles ahead of James’ terrible books). If a publisher could figure out why those books sold so well they’d be a billionaires by the end of the year. This doesn’t mean that the majority of romance authors are trying to emulate 50 Shades, those books were rife with plot holes and character inconsistencies that editors are paid to eliminate. But many a full-time writer might hope to try her hand at the popular genre in hopes a given book will sell about 50,000 copies (depending on the author) and that the sales will only increase with subsequent sequels in the genre.

A quick note about Romance sequels. If you don’t read in the genre, you may not know that sequel or sequels in a romance series will usually not have the same main characters. The idea of writing a series is that the ending of each book will involve a marriage or promise to marry (or a HEA/Happily Ever After)  and the sequels will only be similar in theme and focus on the secondary characters of the original. While this might seem boring in theory, it gives readers and writers an opportunity to explore how different personalities and settings will affect characters with varying personalities. The excitement is in seeing what a strait-laced MarySue you met in book one would do under the similar circumstances as her bombastic party girl sister, or to catch up with characters that might feel like old friends.

Once the writing is done, blog tours, conversations on social media like Twitter and Goodreads, and other interactions with readers serve as promotional work for a book. Romance readers like to have a connection with their favorite authors, and if that connection is strong enough and the writing is compelling, a reader is liable to buy up every book written by their favorites. A relationship with audience is how to buildyour brand. Where some creative people say things like “I write for myself and not the audience,” this is impractical for most romance authors who want to make a living at it. The ability to maintain that relationship and the integrity of the work is often what determines whether or not writing can be a full time profession.

Hangover II

Not all sequels are great

In the end, building anything with your hands will give you a sense of pride. While plots and characters aren’t physical things, there is still a special dignity in creating lives, even if they are fictional. Don’t let anyone tell you that this isn’t a real job or that it doesn’t generate genuine results. Money aside, you can receive a reward from good story telling. A positive review, or enthusiasm from a reader is enough to keep many authors going. They love the interaction and the praise more than the money. Creating is a cherished thing. Those things we make are intimate, and to make them public takes a bravery that not everyone has. The money is incidental in a way, because its most important quality is that it allows authors to continue to auth. Writing romance isn’t just rewarding when people like the work, but also when you can tell that people have gotten something out of your product. If what you’ve made can make some lady in South Dakota giddy with excitement for the sequel, then you’ve done every aspect of your job well. It’s easy to take satisfaction from a job when you know you’re making the world a better place. That’s what the best authors know.




Special thanks to Christine and Allison for righting a few of my more egregious errors.


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