[Today PBW is hosting the latest essay penned by Ms. Romance, genre expert and author of the nationally sydicated romance-writing advice column, "Ask Ms. Romance"]
Hi there, lovebirds,
Have you noticed lately how so many big gun guy writers seem to be getting in touch with their inner romance writer? Stephen King's written a "love" story (according to Nicholas Sparks, anyway), Carl Hiassen's written what's being touted in the press as a romance (not sure if this is the truth or an insult aimed at Carl), and James Patterson has evidently joined RWA (Jim, good luck with wrestling that best contemp RITA away from Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She may be short and cute, but she's a lot tougher than she looks.)
Personally I think this is wonderful. We should have more men writing romance. After all, they often make up one half of romantic relationships. The problem is, I don't think the big guns have any sort of genre guidelines being made available to them. Here are the ones I post every year for my special Valentine's Day column:
Ten Things You Absolutely Must Have To Write A Romance
1. A hero who is still breathing: You may be heavy into the necrophilia, my friend, but the romance hero has to have, you know, a pulse. He should also stay alive for the duration of the novel, otherwise the HEA is just not going to seem as plausible. [Exception: heroes who are ghosts, vampires, shape shifters or interdimensional beings may or may not breathe, have a pulse, be considered alive, etc. Of course these are not "real" romances, but hopefully the paranormal trend will be over soon.]
2. A heroine who does not commit federal offenses: I agree that kidnapping is a very exciting plot element, but your heroine should be the victim of, not the perpetrator of, any kidnapping. This is so she doesn't get caught, convicted and sent to jail for the rest of her life. This kind of thing also spoils the HEA and insults the reader, who by now thinks your heroine is nothing but a worthless skank.
3. Antagonists Who Can Be Turned Away From the Dark Side: Yes, I know you want someone really horrific, someone who can be sent to alternate dimension where he'll be sucked like a Slurpee into the maw of an unimaginable monster (and deserve that fate tenfold.) Well, romance readers don't want this. They want antagonists who can be reformed to become heroes in later sequels or series novels. In fact, it's a well-known fact in romance that former antagonists who are brought to their knees by the love of a good woman are some of the most beloved heroes in the genre. We call this the "Bad Boy Effect."
4. Appropriate Titles: Romance titles should sound romantic, which means you can't call your book things like Multicolor Memories of My Manic-Depressive Hookers. In fact, don't use the word hooker or anything demeaning to women, ever. Always shoot for the two-word classic title: Misty Memories (sweet romance), Hook Me (sensual romance), or Man, Impressive (erotic romance.)
5. Easy to Comprehend Dialogue: I know you're into soliloquies, monologues and stirring speeches. Romance readers aren't. Think of the last conversation you had with your teenage daughter. Make that level of conversation your dialogue intensity cap. Or, if you'd rather not sacrifice your artistic integrity, write the entire dialogue in authentic medieval English. No one will understand it but, you know, it sounds so pretty.
6. Nice Settings: This works a bit like when you're dating women. You know how the nicer the place you take your date to, the more you'll impress her? Same thing with romance readers. Save the dripping, scummy, malodorous underground abandoned sewer system in which man-eating rats roam the pipes as a setting for your next horror novel.
7. No Abusing the Heroine: I don't care if your hero is a WWF champion on steroids going through a hallucinatory psychotic episode, and his favorite form of self-expression is smashing beer cans against his unibrow: if they're not having sex, keep his paws and mouth off the heroine. He should also not lose his temper with her, yell at her, insult her, call her names or in any way shape or form threaten her. Think talking Ken doll. As for what he's allowed to do during sex, see #8.
8. Realistic Amounts of Sex: I'm sure your dream girl would happily spend months in bed with you in a foreign country doing nothing but catering to your genitals, giving you marathon sex and worrying about you when you subsequently left the house in (amazingly) a bad mood while not making any friends or having any sort of life. Romance readers, on the other hand, would be in the emergency room after a week getting treatment for friction abrasions on various orifices. They'd also fly back to the states and divorce your sex-obsessed ass. Break it up by having your hero take her out for a meal or a nice walk in the park once in a while.
9. The Black Moment: Because every woman in a romance has a black moment when her love is tested by some idiocy on the part of the hero. This moment takes place on page 175 and lasts exactly long enough for the hero to have to grovel before the heroine afterward. The groveling is important, too, so don't forget that.
10. The Happy Ending: With the divorce rate in this country being as high as it is, we all know love does not often have a happy ending. Time to develop temporary amnesia, boys. Readers would like it if you would allow the hero and heroine to have some solid prospect of happiness ahead of them -- preferably with each other -- by the end of the book.
Follow these guidelines, guys, and you can't go wrong. Or if you're still confused, just imagine everything you like that your wife or girlfriend doesn't. Make a list of those things, and keep them out of the novel, and you'll be walking up the stage to accept that RITA in no time.