Genre Specific – Romance

I want to focus on some specific genre material to help authors figure out what they are writing. Knowing your genre is a very important step in the publishing process, and if you query, you will need to know your genre. If you independently publish, you also need to know your genre. Over time I hope to cover all the major genres in hopes that this will help authors focus their writing.

It is very difficult for publishers to market books that are a combination of thriller/romance/mystery/science fiction etc…or mixed genres. I call these meatloaf books. Where do you put these on a shelf? Publishers think about these things, because they have to make a sale. Authors should think about these things too, because they need to make a sale. Meatloaf books are hard to sell. It’s sad to say, but it’s true. You have to be able to fit your novel into a specific genre. Not always, mind you. But usually.

The first genre up is Romance. Romance is the top selling genre in mass market fiction generating $1.438 billion in sales in 2012 and is the top-performing category on the best-seller lists in 2012 (across the NYTUSA Today, and PW best-seller lists). Romance is big business. If you want a piece of it, then you have to tailor your novel to fit some specific structural elements. Romance as a genre is more forgiving than other genres (you can more easily mix sci-fi/steampunk/time travel for example) but you still must have the romantic elements. Romances are about the relationship between the two main characters.

To help me explain what exactly romance is, I have asked Peter Senftleben, associate editor at Kensington to help me out with some discussion. I have known Peter for a few years, and he is both gifted and kind.

Hi Peter! First of all, Romance as a genre covers a huge amount of ground. Let’s talk about romance as a genre overall. What is a romance novel and what is its primary focus?

The primary focus of a romance novel is the relationship between two characters (or three if it’s a ménage romance); the central conflict is based around the obstacles keeping these people apart. There can be other plot points, secondary characters and storylines, and other non-romantic relationships. To be a romance, there generally needs to be a happily ever after (HEA) or at least a happy for now (HFN).

What is the difference between a category (series) romance and a single title romance?

Typically, category romances are shorter and focused solely on the main couple. Series/category novels usually have guidelines set by the publisher to fit into their existing imprints. A single title romance broadens the world and incorporates secondary characters and plotlines, and they’re usually more flexible about what’s allowed.

What is the general structure of a romance novel regardless of sub-genre?

Generally, a romance has to have a couple who are attracted to each other despite whatever is keeping them apart (be it internal or external) and a happy ending. Often, it’s told from both main characters’ points of view, but a single, first person POV (point of view) is also common. That leaves a lot to play with!

What does a romance novel NOT have?

I don’t know if there’s any hard and fast element a romance can’t have other than a sad ending (that would make it more of a love story, in my personal opinion). There are certain things some readers might not like (see below), but it all depends on how it’s handled by the author.

Tell me about the kinds of conflict you see in romance novels. What works? What doesn’t work? What are you tired of seeing?

I see a lot of miscommunication and inability for characters to just tell each other how they feel. While it’s realistic, it can get frustrating for me as a reader and editor. I just want to shake them and tell them to be honest! That tends to be a large source of romantic conflict because it happens in real life too. In historicals, societal restrictions and money or class differences are common, and though they’re used a lot, they’re also important for the time period. So with that, I’d urge writers to find a way to keep it fresh and not rely solely on social and financial hierarchies. In contemporaries, I’m tired of the billionaire “alpha” hero and the naïve (usually virginal) heroine, the money and power disparity. A) It’s been done to death now, and B) It’s not that realistic. I can suspend my disbelief a little in contemporaries, but I like them to be as believable as possible to heighten the emotions. What works for me in all subgenres is a good reason to keep the couple apart, be it external forces or internal doubt/distrust/damage.

Are there tried and true conflict elements?

There are tropes that pop up over and over again (marriage of convenience and secret baby come to mind first), and a good writer can recognize them and twist them to make them feel original. I also find a shared, failed history makes for an effective backstory that keeps the couple from getting together too quickly. Also something painful in either of their pasts that makes it difficult to trust or love.

What about sex? Some stories have sex, some don’t. Some have a little bit. Some are quite explicit. How do you gauge how much sex should be in a story? Does the kind of subgenre dictate the amount of sex on the page?

I think the sex should serve the story. If the characters are sexually active and horny, then they can jump into bed the first time they meet. But sometimes, they want to get to know each other first, or their circumstances don’t let them have sex right away. I usually advise writers to use sex scenes to further either the plot or the character development (as with any scene). In some cases the subgenre dictates the amount of sex, but I don’t think writers should necessarily let that hold them back. If they set out to write an erotic romance, there should of course be a lot of sex. And if they set out to write an inspirational romance, they should be aware of the limits of that genre. But if we’re talking contemporary vs. historical vs. paranormal vs. romantic suspense, it doesn’t really matter. There’s usually a place for every sexiness level in those subgenres.

What elements are taboo?

I don’t know if anything is really taboo anymore (have you seen the dino porn???). But there are certain things that will definitely limit your audience (like bestiality, or I remember a submission years ago that had enema play, which immediately turned me off) and there are things that romance readers tend to not like. Infidelity is the first that comes to mind; most romance readers seem to be dissatisfied if one of the main characters is cheating on the other (ménage is a different story). There can be ways to handle it properly, though. I think they’ve also turned the tide from some of the classic romances on rape as well. Personally, I’m not going to root for a hero who does anything nonconsensual with a heroine, and rape is usually reserved for the villain because he’s eeeeeevil. I would say child abuse is also a no-no except in the case of the villain, and even then it might be over the top depending on the story.

(I’m sure there are examples that refute my position, so I don’t speak for everyone everywhere on everything.)

What’s the difference between romance and erotica? How does erotic romance fit in?

I tend to classify erotica as being more about the sex than the emotional relationship—such as partners who are already married and keeping it spicy, or characters who just sleep around like James Bond—while romance is centrally focused on the emotions with varying degrees of sex. Erotic romance still has the romantic development as the core, but the characters engage in a lot of sex along the way, with very few things off limits.

Romance tends to be the highest selling genre of mass market fiction and many authors seem to be jumping on that wagon. With all the bazillion romance novels being published (traditionally published and independently published) each year, how does an author stand out in the crowd?

Characters, writing, a plot that turns a romance stereotype on its head. Let’s be honest, we all know how a romance is going to end. They can be formulaic sometimes because of that, but it’s all about the journey. The really good ones can make you stop caring that you know how it’ll end because either the characters are so likeable or the narrative voice is so engaging that you become invested in what happens. For me, a successful romance will have me seriously questioning whether the couple can actually reach an HEA.

There are multiple subgenres of romance including contemporary, erotic, historical, romantic suspense…the list goes on and on. Is it okay for authors to cross over generally? Can a contemporary romance have time travel? Can a historical romance have witches? Expound on whatever comes to mind.

I think with romance it’s a little easier to play around with the mixing of elements since they’ll be shelved in the romance section no matter what. But the risk is turning off readers of the main subgenre by including things they might not like. I do think it could narrow the readership, but if that’s what the story calls for, then so be it. For example, I’m not a fan of time travel because I have a science background and get too caught up in thinking about the technicalities of it to just get lost in the story. So if I pick up a contemporary, I wouldn’t enjoy it if all of a sudden there was time travel, no matter the era. Steampunk romance is another example, and I’ve seen personally how niche it can be. The historical readers might not want the sci-fi elements, and sci-fi romance readers might not enjoy the historical details. It really all depends on what’s being crossed. I think a sliver of suspense could work in any subgenre as it’s a great way to propel the plot.

I just want writers to realize that everything is cyclical in publishing, and in all trends for that matter. What’s hot now (contemporary) might be oversaturated very soon, and what went out of vogue recently (paranormal) will eventually come back. Writers should never write to follow a trend because by the time they finish their book, it’ll probably be too late to hop on the bandwagon. I encourage them to write the story they want to write, and if the market is ready for it, they’ll find a publisher or readership. The book just may need to sit in a drawer for a couple years.

What is the best advice you can give to romance authors?

READ! Read what’s popular or well-reviewed in your subgenre. Read in other subgenres. Read in other genres. That way you’ll know what’s already been done, recognize stereotypes to avoid, learn new tricks from the masters, or pick up elements from other types of books that might inspire you.

Thanks, Peter!

Image of Peter
Peter Sentfleben

Peter Senftleben is an associate editor at Kensington Books, where he is continually building his own awesome list. He joined Kensington in 2006 after sharpening his editorial skills and red pencil while working at literary agencies. A graduate of Tulane University with a degree in chemical engineering and math (yes, math), Peter occasionally indulges the numbers side of his brain with a challenging Sudoku puzzle or by baking, but he can more often be seen watching trashy television shows. Peter is currently working on all types of fiction, but his main interests include: mysteries, thrillers, mainstream and women’s fiction, all subgenres of romance, gay fiction, and new adult. He is often drawn to quirky, offbeat projects with distinctive voices, stunning writing, realistic characters, or stories that will make him LOL (literally), cry in public, scare the bejeezus out of him, or engage him so deeply that he skips meals. Submission guidelines are You can and should follow him on Twitter at @gr8thepeter.

2 thoughts on “Genre Specific – Romance

  1. Being a romance writer, I really enjoyed your post. Granted, I’m lumped into that played out sub-genre of paranormal romance, but still. Maybe a drawer is where my books will stay, but I still enjoy writing them. Thanks.

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