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Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

But Is It Romance? 

An outsider's look at the genre

By Lazette Gifford

2002, By Lazette Gifford

Writing fascinates me:  All writing, and all books.  I want to know everything I can about how the different genres work.   I was recently surprised (even shocked) to find out how little I know about the romance field.  After considerable discussion on several mailing lists, checking through books, and haunting web sites, I now comprehend Romance a little better.  

There are guidelines that define any genre, but there are also rules in Romance that go beyond this.  Learning them helped me to better understand the field, and to discover what is and isn't considered romance in the current publishing world. In this article I'm going to cover just three of these rules.  There is, as in any genre, leeway within different publishing houses on how strictly some of the rules are enforced, but knowing what they are will better help a new Romance writer breaking into the market. 

The most important rule: HEA 

You've written a novel about two kids who grow up next door to each other, fall madly in love in their teens, marry and have a wonderful life, until the tragic death of the husband in a car accident.  Is it romance? 

No.  The story fails in what is the most important of the romance rules -- Happily Ever After.  Modern romance novels must have a happily ever after ending in order to be considered part of this genre.  That is the element the readers are looking for when they pick up the novel.  It might be considered fairy tales for adults. 

How about a book where a woman meets a wonderful man at the place where she works, but for some reason the romance doesn't happen.  She goes off and marries someone else, with whom she is in love.  And then the man comes back into her life, and she finds herself torn between the two? 

This is also not a romance by the normal definition.  The woman cannot have two love interests, and she cannot be forced to choose between them. With the above example, it's obvious that someone is not going to live happily ever after, even if it isn't the heroine. 

However, by following the rules, a story that starts with that initial contact, then summarizes a marriage that ends in either divorce (or even death) and the reunion with the original man could be a romance if it leads to an HEA ending for the two. 

Books like Gone with the Wind, which was once considered romance, no longer fit into that category, while Jane Eyre still does.  What these other books have become is not as well defined, but some have suggested 'Relationship Stories' as a term for the novels where something -- especially the ending -- does not follow the romance rules.  This tag might best describe all types of stories that involve romantic associations, whether they are accepted romance or outside those bounds.  

Rule # 2: I only have eyes for you... 

According to many of the people I discussed with this, once the hero and heroine meet, there should be no other love interests, even if the two do not 'hit it off' at first.  The relationship, both ups and downs, is the focus of a romance story, and in the end the HEA factor has to be apparent in either a marriage or the knowledge that the marriage will occur.  This is why my second story idea (listed above) could not be a romance.  The woman would be torn between two men she loved, violating this rule. 

Relationships in today's romances are rarely chaste.  The actual level of sexual content depends on the guidelines of the publishing company, and this is something that the new romance writer needs to take into account.  Some romance lines want a certain level of graphic description while others want all such description to end at the bedroom door, so to speak.  As the types of sexual activities inch away from 'accepted' practice, the book moves from romance to erotica. 

In romance as it is written today, the sexual content must be both consensual and meaningful to the relationship.  Books that just throw bodies together are not romances.  Romance stories concentrate on both the mental and physical aspects of the relationship. 

Rule # 3: POV 

Most readers of present-day romance want to identify with the woman, and from that aspect they are uninterested in the hero's POV.  Finding out what the hero is thinking isn't important.  Besides, part of the allure of romance is the mystery of the chase, and that can be much harder to maintain if the reader knows too much about the other character. 

This is apparently not a carved-in-stone rule.  Many writers, and readers, accept head hopping in romance.  Some said that third person from the heroine's POV is much better than a first person account.  But overall, it seems that most prefer the POV to be entirely from the woman's eyes. 

Romance and Mainstream  

While these may be rules for writing in the regular romance category, there is a section of mainstream publishing that is romance without the rules.  Several novels have hit the bestseller lists that would be considered romance except for the HEA rule.  Some are romance in feel, but not by the rules.  The Bridges of Madison County is probably one of the more famous examples of this type of book. 

There are authors who insist that their work, even without an HEA ending, is still romance.  They are in a minority, and from what I've seen, are often at odds with the others over this subject. Finding print romance publishers who are willing to step outside the rules is rare (although Harlequin's new Red Dress line seems to be heading this way), and so it appears that many of these writers are turning to epublishing and finding their audience on the Internet.  As often happens, epublishing companies are willing to take chances with material that doesn't fall within the normal boundaries.  If their reading public continues to grow, it may be that this type of book will find its way into a recognized subcategory of romance, along with the Regency, paranormal and other types.  Each of these subgroups have their own set of personal rules as well, and anyone who wants to write within these tags should study the types of books that are published. 

For those who write the non-HEA books, but aren't as insistent on the Romance tag, there are other publishing opportunities, though it might lose them a large part of a voracious readership.  The ability to have 'Romance' listed on the spine of a book (or the ebook tag) can make a big difference in sales.  At the same time, however, the readers of this genre have helped to define what it is, and putting something under the romance tag that doesn't meet their expectations is not going to instantly win them over to a new type of romance. 

Romance, like all genres, should always have a fringe group that is testing the boundaries and 'drawing outside the lines.'  They are, in fact, part of what helps define the core. Any time the fringe disappears it is a sure sign that the genre is in decline. Whether or not the larger group accepts the fringe material is not important.  The current style of romance grew from just such groups that had stepped away from the 'girl running away from the front of the castle' gothics and the polite adventures of Mary Stewart.  It is an evolving genre.  

Know what you are writing before you send it to a publisher 

There is no rule that says you cannot write whatever story you want, bending the rules in anyway that suits you.  However, if you've read this article, you should now realize that there are restrictions to what you can rightfully call romance.  And because of that, a writer needs to be fully aware of what type of material any publisher accepts.  Always read the publisher's guidelines.  Even if they say they are looking for romance, there is a chance that they will have a qualifier.   

Romance, despite what at first look like restrictive rules, is filled with an incredible range of material.  Sub-genres include historical romance, Regency (a very specialized type of historical), fantasy romance, sf romance, paranormal romance, and even a special category for time travel romance.  There are others as well, that fall just within the accepted range of material.   

There are even new publishers, mostly on the Internet, who specialize in gay and lesbian romance stories that would never make it in the normal print market.  This is (as I've said in other articles) the place where niche markets can grow. 

Understanding your market is important to writers of any type of book, but as I studied romance I was surprised to learn how complex writing for this genre really is.  I hope that this article has helped define some of the core needs for anyone who would like to be published in romance -- which is, by the way, the largest selling genre on the market.

Romance Writers of America is an expansive and helpful organization for those writing within the genre.  I urge anyone who is even considering writing romance to go and check out their site at http://www.rwanational.org/

The best description of romance that I found comes (paraphrased) from RWA's web site: Romance is a central love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.


(Thank you to the people of both the EPIC mailing list and the E-Spec mailing list for help in answering questions and interesting me enough to search out this information, as well as all the people who privately emailed me on this subject.)