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The changing face of romance


(As seen at the Williamstown Literary Festival , May 2006)


what is contemporary romance?


Once upon a time contemporary romance meant an Alpha male, a damsel in distress, and wedding bells to end.


The promise of the genre still means that for a book to be classed as a romance, it needs a hero and heroine and a happy ending, but the players and the plots can be so diverse the genre is almost unrecognisable.


Nowadays romantic stories are about pleasure hotels and footballers wives.  About speed dating and breaking up by SMS.  About post-feminist twentysomething heroines who want it all and fiftysomething heroines trying to find their way after their happily ever after went kaput.


Romantic fiction is miles away from where it was twenty, or even ten years ago.  But why?  Firstly, because romance is big business According to the Romance Writers of America:

  • In 2005, Harlequin alone sold over 160 million books worldwide – that’s more than 5 books every second

  • Harlequin’s books are sold in over 100 international markets and translated into 23 languages around the world 

  • Romances accounted for 54.9 percent of mass-market paperback sales in 2005 and 39.3 percent of all fiction sold in North America, which is the world’s biggest fiction market.

The publishers who buy and sell romance novels aren’t silly.  If they are to stay in business, as the tastes of romance readers grow and change, so must the books themselves.


And secondly, the face of romantic fiction is constantly changing because romantic fiction is popular fiction.  And therefore it’s only natural that it is affected by popular culture.


Ten years ago, divorce rates were skyrocketing and women were marrying later in their lives than ever before.  So came Bridget Jones who brought us chick lit and the search for not only Mr Right, but for a happily ever after in which the heroine comes to love herself first.   Boundary pushing cable television brought us Sex and the City which took the modern day understanding of romance a step further with a search for self, for brand names, and oh yeah, maybe a boyfriend too.  And for one out of the box, Buffy brought us vampires, and while paranormal romance used to be a fringe industry, it is now one of the largest growing subgenres.


So long as romance changes with the ages, and constantly shifts to reflect our culture, it can continue to dominate the popular fiction market.


Because novels are reflections on life.  And whether or not you have bought and read a romance novel ever in your life, there is no denying romance is one of the most important facets of the human experience.


Falling in love, yearning to fall in love, or lamenting one’s inability to find love is one of the biggest and greatest ongoing adventures in all our lives, which is why people so adore reading about it.  As a reader, putting yourself in the hero or heroine’s shoes as they trip and fall and stumble their way into a beautiful relationship is one of the easiest leaps of faith to make.


So it’s really no big surprise that of all paperbacks out there in the world more than 50% of them are romance novels.  And that’s just pure romance.  Straight romance.  The kind of romance found between the pages of a Harlequin novel.


That’s not even including the main stream novels that have romantic elements at their core, which a huge many of them do.  Think Sophie and Robert in “The Da Vinci Dode”, Arwen and Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings”.  Winston and Julia in “1984”.


Or think about the kinds of movies and TV shows you like to watch.  Most if not all popular TV shows will have a main romance or will allude to one.  Think Carrie and Big in “Sex and the City”, Buffy and Angel, Jerry and a different girl each episode in “Seinfeld” and Ross and Rachel in “Friends”.


Or there will be that flirtation, those made for one another moments, the romance that never quite happens but keeps us coming back for more just in case...  Think Josh and Donna in “The West Wing” or Luke and Lorelai in “The Gilmore Girls”.


If any of those sorts of TV shows appeal to you, it’s likely that you’ve been watching Harlequin type stories on the screen all your life, without even knowing it!


So what if you decide you want to write the great Australian novel?  Chances are it will have romantic elements of some sort.  So chances are you might wish to submit said novel to a publisher like Harlequin.  There are a good many others who also publish romance, but did you know Harlequin take un-agented submissions?  Did you know that they read each and every submission that comes through their door?  Good odds right?  Great odds!  Cut out the middle man and you’re in.  Easy huh?


Not exactly.  Harlequin receives around 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts at its offices around the world every year.  That’s 20,000.  Unsolicited.  That’s not including the submissions they receive from their stable of contracted authors.


But out of those, over the last three of four years they have picked up several new Australian authors every year.  And from a world view that number is high.


So the opportunities are really there.  To overseas markets we are exotic.  Australian voices are in demand.  So think on that novel that you’ve been playing with for years, or the one you have always hoped to write.  The idea that you might one day get it published isn’t a silly one.  I was in your shoes for years until the day I sat down, opened up a new word file, and just write the damn thing.


For me choosing to write contemporary romance was a no brainer.  I’m a total mushy romantic.  I love watching romance movies, I love reading romance novels, so the idea of writing one wasn’t such a stretch.  For those of you out there in the same boat, I hope I can give you a few pointers on what worked and still works for me.


the genre promise


Romance readers are big readers.  Fast readers.  Voracious readers.  This also makes them savvy readers.  They get the promise of the genre and they expect it.


But they also, and rightly so, expect a completely new, original, different story every time, and one which connects with them emotionally within the parameters of genre.


So as you write your genre novel, with a view to be read, bought, published and to make a living out of this game, how can you be one of the handful whose book is pulled from the slush pile and acquired for publication?


What makes an slush pile book different?  Eye-catching?  And unique?


Despite hooks, trends, and shifting subgenres, the staple ingredients of any romance novel are:


Boy meets girl and happy ending.


boy meets girl - it's all about character


Characters are the “take home” factor of any memorable book.  If you think on your favourite books, favourite TV shows or favourite movies, I’d bet you’d find that the characters are the first things that pop into your mind.


The theme, the setting, and the plot are important, but it’s the characters you fall in love with.  It’s the characters who keep you coming back for more.  You want to know what happens next to the characters.  You want to make sure the characters have a happy ending.


Romance novels in particular are all about character.  In a murder mystery the how dunnit plot is as important as the who dunnit.  But in a romance the hero and heroine are everything.


Take Bridget Jones - the girl you just want to wrap in cotton wool to stop her from tripping over herself time and again.  Or Pretty Woman’s Vivian Ward – the hooker with the heart of gold who lives the fairytale and saves the hero while he is saving her.  Or Ellen Ripley – battling Aliens to save her surrogate daughter, and keep her man.  And look at Seinfeld?  A show about nothing?  Hardly.  It was a show entirely about characters.


So how can you use characters to give your romantic novel a point of difference?  What kind of boy and what kind of girl can you create to make that happy ending longed for, cheered for, and despite genre expectations, still seem unexpected and give your reader a warm fuzzy aaahhhh kind of feeling when everything falls into place.


External markers


Costumes, hair and make-up – These are hugely important factors in movies and TV, and are just as important when building a mental image of your characters in a contemporary novel.


Does your heroine wear all black, or is she a pink girl?  Does your hero always wear jeans, or a perfectly cut suit?  Is there a reason why your heroine never wears anything sleeveless?  And what about the charm around your hero’s neck that he never goes without?


Does your heroine have multicoloured streaks in her Mohawk, or mousy hair, curls that simply won’t straighten, straight hair that won’t curl?  Does she always wear her hair up?  Does she get out of bed looking immaculate or does she stand in front of the mirror copying magazine pictures?


Think about what your characters are wearing.  It connects them to the world around you.  Grounds them.  Or makes them further from reach.  Chick lit made it okay to name names.  To brand.  To talk Coke, and Prada, and Starbucks.


All of these things are indicative of lifestyle, and socio-economic status, and ego and city living which are all trademarks of contemporary novels.  And if a heroine reads In Style or BRW it only helps with characterisation.  Stick a heroine in Jimmy Choos or Ugh boots and you can position her against the world around your readers in two words.


Think of the important roles poor Bridget Jones’s granny undies and haughty Mark Darcy’s reindeer tie had in the way they saw one another and the way we saw them.  Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s jeans and white sneakers.  Carrie Bradshaw’s Monolo Blahniks that she could ill afford.


Speech patterns – do your characters have any particular sayings?  Think Bridget and her “Singletons” and “Smug Marrieds”.


Do they speak in complete sentences, or in staccato?  Are they always joking, or always serious, so that those moments when they flip to the other side are that much more shocking?  Think smug Mark Darcy coming down off his high horse to talk dirty to Bridget.


Habits/tics – she bites her fingernails, she blinks when she lies, he bites at his inner cheek when he’s thinking, he whistles when he’s happy, he’s a chocoholic, she has a thing for Barry Manilow...


For example: Jerry Seinfeld collects Superman figures.  In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts fidgets when she’s nervous.


Occupation – this can be as much of a hook as anything.  Do they work in an office?  Is it a cool office?  Do they hate their office?  What makes their occupation an extension of their personality?  Are they ambitious?  Are they hiding in their job?  Do they work long hours?  Do they run out the door the second it turns five?


I’ve read Harlequin Romances with heroines who were tree doctors, bricklayers, divorce lawyers, and stay at home mums.


This is all about layering.  About giving glimpses into these people’s lives.  These extras help make them memorable.


But the most important thing about the external markers is that they be indicative of the characters’ internal states.


Internal markers


Your characters must have specific goals, motivations and conflicts that make perfect sense considering their life experiences:


PAST - Is your heroine an only child?  One of eight?  An orphan?  Raised by her grandparents?  Did she have a happy suburban childhood?  A harsh rural upbringing?  Is she rich?  Poor?  Self-made?  Working for the man?  Running to something?  Running from something?  And how did these factors get her where she is today?


It is these conflicts and the way they but against the hero's internal conflicts which will make for the most interesting journey of all. 


Secondary characters


Should only be used to help create conflict or propel the romance.  That simple.


In Bridget Jones, her parents create conflict: they are in the process of breaking up and her mother has an affair.


Her friends create conflict as they constantly make her feel like she’s not alone in being unlucky in love.  They give her bad, conflicting advice and add a layer of guilt – how can she be happy in love if her friends are not?


Externally: Bridget smokes, weighs herself incessantly, and drinks too much Chardonnay.


Internally: Bridget feels like she is going to die alone.  She goes after a man like Daniel Cleaver as he is a safe option – a man who is like the male version of herself, non-challenging, non-committed, therefore when the whole thing fails, as it is doomed to do, she won’t be surprised.


Faithful dialogue


Dialogue gives white space on the page; it moves things along quicker than narrative and readers are less likely to skim over the dialogue.  It’s the fun part.  It’s confrontation and flirtation and admission.  So use it as liberally as you can!


Listen to your younger friends, your parents, your kids, your grandkids, girls talking on the train, guys talking at the football, people interviewed on TV.  Make sure the dialogue is faithful to the age, occupation, background and nationality of each character.


To keep an editor reading, to connect to a reader, to keep a story flowing and moving and growing and engaging:


  • KEEP DIALOGUE SHORT AND SNAPPY - remember its conversation, so no long bits of unbroken lecture-like speaking, have it snapping back and forth, have interruptions.


Watch your favourite movies to see how short each character’s lines really are.  Even invest in a screenplay. Most romantic comedies use only a sentence or two for each character at a time.  Anything longer simply becomes a speech!  I have read and re-read When Harry Met Sally a hundred times over, and am still in awe of the pace, the forward momentum and the brilliantly conflicting points of view while in each character's head.  Next:


  • KEEP IT MODERN - Don’t forget that people communicate in so many different ways nowadays – email and SMSing are quick easy and fun ways to change the way you approach dialogue as well.


The beautiful thing about popular fiction, is that you do not have to worry about perfect grammar.  To feel like you are deep inside your character’s head, it can be better to have your characters think as real people speak - using contractions, and half sentences.  Cutting one another off.  Getting distracted.  Changing subject mid-conversation.  Drifting off while someone else is talking.


Point of view


Men and women don’t talk the same way, therefore when writing from different points of view, make sure there are 2 very different voices.  For example:


1.   Your hero might see conversation as a means to relay info.  Whereas your heroine is constantly reading deeper into every word of the conversation.


2.   Your heroine would more likely use expressive adjectives like wonderful, gorgeous, fantastic, etc


3.   You heroine would phrase ideas with a question.  “What if we were to go to New York?”   Whereas your hero is more likely to say: “Let’s go to New York.”


4.   Your hero might have a large circle of ‘casual mates’ around whom he skirts issues while looking for advice, and your heroine a small group of close friends with whom she discusses every intimate detail.


5.   Men are visual and women are emotional – therefore it would be likely that the first thing he might notice about her is her long legs – whereas she might notice his kind eyes.


These differences between them are what make romantic novels so interesting.  The dichotomy.  The battle of the sexes.  The clash of opposites means that the two paths heading towards the same ending are fraught with different complications which makes for a more complex plot.




It comes down to doing your all to stop a reader from finding an obvious place to put in a bookmark and stop reading.  But for shorter books, such as Harlequin romance novels, pacing is even more important as you have as much story to tell in a shorter amount of time.


Be strong.  Delete the waffle.  The only important parts of your story are the parts that propel the book forward.  Jump cut from the end of one important scene to the beginning of the next.  Time is yours to wield.  Your book can last two hours or two years.  So long as each and every scene is pacey, and rocketing with momentum.


Remember it’s a romance


No matter what else, always keep the awareness on the page.  Whether the conversation is between the hero and heroine, or between the heroine and her gardener, or the heroine’s gardener and the hero’s great-grandmother make sure that every scene, every word, every movement forward is all about the romance.  The hero and heroine are always talking, thinking, musing, dreaming, arguing about one another...


how to make your romance unique


So we’ve made your characters vivid, we’ve made them engaging, so now how do we make put them into an age old genre and make it fresh – over and over again?


Make your characters’ lives extraordinary


When choosing to use two to three precious hours out of your day to read a novel, you’re not looking to fill in your time reading about Jane and Joe making tea, tending the garden, and watching the telly.  You’re looking to be taken away.  Uplifted.  Made to laugh.  To cry.  To be taken on an emotional roller coaster ride.


In the pursuit of this, you’ll often find the lead character thrown into sometimes unreal situations.


For example: After having an affair with her boss and quitting in a dramatic display of bravado the likes of which none of us would likely have the guts to carry out,  Bridget Jones instantly lands a job reporting on a hip cool TV show even though she has no journalistic experience.  Right, sure, like that would happen!


But I always like to think that the reason why we all wanted to read Bridget’s story, and those like hers, is because in her life those sorts of things DID happen.  She fell bottom first into a live TV camera while sliding down a fireman’s pole.  She had two grown men slogging it out on a London street over her.  She turned up at a fancy dress party in a bunny costume only to find it was not longer fancy dress.   She had a cool, unattainable, gorgeous guy tell her that he liked her “just the way she was”.


Her life was that little bit more extraordinary which is WHY her tale was told.


The same goes for any romance novel.  The hero and heroine in your tale go through something extraordinary.  Their problems are deeper, their romance brighter, their falls bigger - they live their lives that little bit harder and faster and more spectacularly than the rest of us so that in reading about them we can either lie back in the bubble bath and sigh happily as we are taken away from it all, or conversely think ‘thank goodness my life isn’t so damned complicated!’.


On the flipside: Keep it real


While you are writing about two characters who are just a little bit larger than life, whose romance is something special and extraordinary, the characters’ reactions to the events going on around them, cannot be.


THEIR ACTIONS AND REACTIONS MUST BE REAL - For no book is worth reading unless you root for the characters, like them, would want to be friends with them, and are happy to walk a mile in their shoes.


Romance readers have been around long enough to recognise literary devices such as forced intimacy, black moments, happily ever afters.  And that’s fine.  That‘s all a part of the fun, of the promise.


But on the flipside, they have been around the block enough to know when a heroine is acting out of character, and they simply will not accept her.  There are ten other romance novels teetering on their “to be read” pile so if you give them a vulnerable heroine who is afraid of spiders but still walks around a corner in a dark spooky house to see what that strange noise was she will be deemed TSTL – or too stupid to live - and that book will be thrown at the wall and never finished, and they will never fork out their hard earned money to read your work again.


Our Bridget is flawed – she struggles with her weight, she practices party conversation while vacuuming in curlers, she swears at inappropriate times, her parents are having marital problems – these issues make her real, and they make her likeable.


But she is also extraordinary – she lives in a great apartment in London, she has a cool job in publishing and when she quits ends up with an even cooler job in TV, and she has not one but two gorgeous, eligible men vying for her attention.  These issues make her life aspirational.


So romantic literature is about keeping it real with just a touch of fairy dust.


for a happy ending - you must have conflict


But romantic literature is also about character growth.  How can they truly be a hero or a heroine unless that have sacrificed, given in, stood tall and generally put themselves on the line for their beliefs?


To ensure a truly believable, sustainable and satisfying happy ending, the boy and girl must have overcome great odds in order to be together.


Once you’ve made your characters both real and extraordinary, both loveable and aspirational the next thing you need to do to keep a reader reading is to keep your characters on their toes.  Constantly.  Complacency only gives a reader an excuse to stick in that bookmark and go to sleep.  So keep them in constant angst.  The minute they think all is well in the world, throw in a spanner!


Give us a romance heroine who is 16 stone - Jennifer Weiner's IN HER SHOES or GOOD IN BED, in a wheelchair - RITA nominee THE MARRIAGE MIRACLE by Liz Fielding, on the run from the law THE CINDERELLA FACTOR by Sophie Weston, or IN THE SHELTER OF HIS ARMS by Jackie Braun.  Make her juicy.  Difficult.  Complicated.  Give her a situation at first glance you can’t possibly see your way out of.  And more importantly that your readers can’t possibly see their way out of.


A great example of a novel that never lets up on the external conflict is ICE STATION by Matthew Reilly.  Just as you think you can take a breath, another foe turns up on the horizon.  It’s a constant barrage of scrapes and liberation and if you can find a spot where you’ll happily put in a bookmark and go to sleep when reading that book, then you’re tougher than me!  (And don’t forget, this book, a boy’s own adventure at heart, also had a romance between two of the personnel Scarecrow and Gant at its core)


Creating multifaceted characters is fun.  This part, the throwing in of spanners and creating conflict, is the hard part.


It doesn’t come naturally to me at all.  I’m a big softie and if I wasn’t in this game to publish would likely let my hero and heroine fall in love in happy fairyland where there was no such things as fights and misunderstandings and torrid pasts.


Conflict is difficult.  But that’s why the greater the conflict the greater the pay-off when your characters finally beat the odds.  Conflict must be sustained, and sustainable.  It must be strong yet fluid, and it must seem insurmountable.  It can’t be a misunderstanding the hero and heroine could have sorted out over a cup of tea. 


The journey of pulling your characters through this conflict is the reason why people will keep reading.  What happens next?  How will they get out of this one?  How can the hero and heroine ever come together with this great huge wall between them?


This is the hook that drags your reader through your story, so make it a good one!


Bridget Jones is prejudiced, Mark Darcy is proud.  These conceits are soul deep and are indicators of their own self-esteem problems.  How can two people at such loggerheads, at such different ends of the socio-economic and educational spectrum hope to fit into one another’s lives?


The pay off is in the crumbling of the conflicts.  In the breaking down, and in the giving up of the things that they thought they wanted in the beginning.


Though she tried so hard to be the modern woman, Bridget’s granny undies showed that she had self-esteem issues, and above all just wanted to be loved.  And though he tried so hard to be pompous, Darcy wore the reindeer tie his mother gave him for Christmas as he is above all things a good man.  These external markers, these simple wardrobe choices were in fact indicative of the first hints that they might be able to overcome the conflicts keeping them apart.


Remember: Heroism comes not from handily and perpetually surmounting every obstacle but from overcoming what you’re afraid you can’t overcome.


Point of difference


Unless you are already top seller or sold your soul to the devil in order to wangle a killer contract, things like title and cover are completely out of your hands.  The things that are in your control are the words on the page.


Hooks – think of some fabulous contemporary idea that hasn’t been used as a device before.  Or take an old device and turn it on its head.  Vicki Lewis Thompson wrote a book called “Nerd In Shining Armour” –rather than relying on the tall dark handsome archetype she went the other way and became a New York Times Best Seller.  Several years ago Janet Evanovich gave us Stephanie Plum - a bounty hunter heroine whose previous job was as a lingerie buyer and who hates guns therefore keeps hers locked up in the sugar jar at home.  She is now up to book twelve in the series.


Words on the page -  Whether you are a reader standing in a bookstore flicking through the first page, or a writer wanting to be taken from the slush pile by an editor or agent, you have to grab the reader pretty darned quickly!

Janet Evanovich is a master. These are a couple of her opening lines:


“Okay, so here’s the thing.  My mother’s worst fear has come true.  I’m a nymphomaniac.”  Hot Six


“When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants.”  High Five


The first line draws you in, tells you so much about the character, and gives you a definite taste of things to come.  And that’s the X-FACTOR – your Voice - The way you see the world, the way you construct a sentence, your language and pace, your humour, your sadness, your sense of tragedy, and your life experience.


Be yourself, write a book that grabs you by the collar and drags you though to the end as if you’re not hooked why would anyone else be?  Your voice is the greatest X-factor that will make you stand out from the crowd.


If you write funny, make it the funniest book you‘ve ever seen.  If you write sexy, make it so sexy it’ll make an editor blush.  If you write drama well, don’t pull your punches.  For in romantic fiction, like in all fiction, you are looking to make an emotional connection with your readers.  You are looking to reach out from within the pages and grab them by the heart, the funny bone, the cerebral cortex or the g-spot.


Don’t be afraid to be yourself, as that is the biggest point of difference you have to offer a reader.


the end


In the end, like any novel romance novels are primarily about the journey of characters.  About character growth.  And about seeing enough of yourself in the character you are reading about to empathise.  About living in their shoes as they overcome great obstacles, internal and external to be worthy of the love of a lifetime.


Beyond that, today romance fiction is whatever it wants to be.  Within the constraints of the genre the possibilities are endless.  You can still find Alpha male, a damsels in distress, and wedding bells if that’s what you like to read.  But it can also be so much more.


Carrie Bradshaw summed up my take on new face of the contemporary romance novel best in the final line of Sex and the City:

The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.  And if you can find someone to love the you you love, well that’s just fabulous!

But that’s this week.  Who knows what next week will bring?



All articles copyright © Ally Blake, not to be reproduced without permission.











































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