I write historical romance for a living and something that surprises me when I’m out and about is how many misconceptions the world holds about my genre.
My prescription for this problem, obviously, is for people to pick up some of the great romances out there at the moment and discover the genre for themselves. Seriously, one of the best things about romance at the beginning of the 21st century is the huge variety available. There’s a book for everybody! Sweet. Steamy. Action and suspense. Historical drama or comedy. Heart-warming contemporaries. Paranormals to please.
In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to debunk a few of the myths about romance.
If you write or read romance, you’ve probably heard these a million times before. If you’ve met a romance writer, you may even have mentioned one or two yourself.
#1 – “Writing romance is easy. There’s a formula.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve struck this particular myth, based on the idea that you write away to Mills and Boon and they send you back a pro forma document or a computer program and basically all you do is fill in the names of your hero and heroine. A slightly (but only slightly) less pernicious version of this myth is that you’re told the couple needs to kiss on page 23 and have their first fight on page 87 and there needs to be a love scene in chapter seven.
A few minutes of serious thought will surely prove the absurdity of this – last year, in the United States, romance sales were $1.37 billion and the genre held an impressive 14.3% of the book market. (source: Romance Writers of America). Are people really suggesting that the fans, usually women, who read romance in such volumes are too stupid to notice that the stories are ALWAYS exactly the same? Surely not!
There’s a source for this particular myth. Harlequin Mills and Boon, the world’s largest publisher of romance, have detailed guidelines for what they’re looking for. These include information on themes and length and sensuality levels, just so that you don’t offer your 200,000-word epic fantasy about the zombie apocalypse in the Kingdom of Hedgehogs to an editor who buys medical romance. It’s a professional solution that saves everybody time and trouble.
Which brings me to my second myth
#2 – “Romances are all the same.”
All genre fiction makes a promise to its readers. With crime, at the end, we discover whodunnit. With romance, at the end, the protagonists commit to a relationship (not always marriage, not always male and female, not always a couple – see what I mean about the variety currently available?). Again, a moment’s thought would show why all romances can’t possibly be cookie cutter imitations of each another. If you ask any couple how they got together, there’s always a different set of circumstances leading to the establishment of the relationship. Romance novels detail the different circumstances leading to a particular couple reaching a point where they’re ready to move forward together.
#3 – “Romances are easy to write.”
Closely linked to “I’ve got a free weekend, I’ll write a romance and make a fortune.” The romance writers I know work as hard on their craft as any other writers. I recently ran a workshop for the Queensland Writers Centre and realized afterward that the topics I’d covered were relevant for any fiction writing – characterization, emotional impact, dialogue, conflict, narrative structure. Whenever I hear that someone has a few days spare to write the next romantic bestseller, I always smile and say I look forward to reading the finished book. So far, the results aren’t exactly encumbering my TBR pile!
To follow on from myth number 3…
#4 – “Romance writers are rolling in money.”
For some international stars, this isn’t a myth, it’s a reality, but the income level for people who write romance can vary enormously. What I will say is that romance gives a hardworking writer an opportunity to live off their writing. The audience is large, it’s voracious in its demand for new material, and it’s worldwide.
#5 – “All romances are Mills and Boons.”
Harlequin Mills and Boon have a longstanding presence in Australia and a large and devoted audience. Numerous bestselling local authors write for HM&B so there’s no doubt that the Australian voice has established an eager international audience through this publisher. But all the big traditional houses publish romances that are NOT Mills and Boons. Currently I’m writing for the romance divisions of Hachette and HarperCollins, for example. There’s also a growing audience for small publisher and self-published romance. Another interesting fact is that romance readers have adopted digital technology faster than any other sector of the book market, so e-publishing is a viable alternative to submitting to the big companies, if that’s the way you want to go.
#6 – “Romance is only soft porn for women.”
Like most readers, romance fans come to the genre for many things, and I’m sure the (frequently) steamy love scenes are a strong part of the appeal. In the words of Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” As a romance reader myself and having spoken to thousands of readers across the world, I’d say that while most fans appreciate a well-proportioned love scene, the principal reason that romance draws us in and doesn’t let go is that it provides an addictive level of emotional satisfaction. Most romances follow the mythological/fairytale structure of characters undergoing trials, proving themselves against adversity, then getting their just reward, the fulfilling love relationship, at the end. It’s a story arc as old as humanity and it still lures the punters in their millions. Don’t make me quote Seinfeld again.
#7 – “Romances are sentimental and trivial and don’t deal with real issues.”
As in most genres, there’s a variety of tones in romance from lighter-than-air comedy through to stories with more angst than your average SBS movie. Aside from pointing out that the romance genre is at base perhaps the most important narrative we have – the continuation of the tribe – any glance at the romance section in a good bookshop reveals that the genre deals with every issue that makes us human. Even the comedies usually have some deep theme underlying the fun, like emotional maturity or dealing with family or finding your place in the world. If I look at my own historical romances, I’ve touched on themes like women’s rights in the nineteenth century, post-traumatic stress disorder, family dynamics and mental illness.
#8 – “Only stupid women with nothing else going on in their lives read romance.”
Allied to the “Only frustrated, unhappy old maids read romance.” I won’t address the blatant sexism of this particular myth or I’ll be here for another ten thousand words. Escapism is an old and venerated tradition in storytelling. Romance is hardly the only genre that offers entertainment as part of its promise to the reader. Although it’s not a myth to say that most readers are women (91% according to Romance Writers of America), romance is so widely read that the average devotee becomes impossible to conjure up from statistics. She’s Ms. Everywoman. She’s between 30 and 54. She’s in a relationship. She has one child. She has a college degree. So if you think that this composite covers the thousands of women interviewed (again I quote Romance Writers of America figures), it’s pretty clear that romance reading spans the whole female population.
I hope I’ve helped to dispel some of these persistent myths about the genre I love. If you’d like to know more about writing romance, check out the following websites:
- Romance Writers of Australia
- Romance Writers of New Zealand
- Romance Writers of America
- The Romantic Novelists Association
- Australian Romance Readers Association
- e-Harlequin (great articles on writing romance)
If you’ve never read a romance or only read one or read a couple thirty years ago, why not give a current example of the genre a go? You may be surprised at what’s out there. Learning how to write an effective romantic arc is a skill that can benefit pretty much any story, not to mention that there’s a vast audience out there just slavering for the next big thing.
This article first appeared in WQ, the newsletter of the Queensland Writers Centre in April 2013.