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Studying the Romance Novel

Begin studying the Romance Novel in with this excerpt from On Writing Romance.

Falling in love has been a prominent theme in literature since people first started recording stories. Romantic love—whether fated, doomed, or happy—has drawn the interest of uncounted generations around the world.

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The romance novel, however, is a modern concept. A romance novel is more than just a story in which two people fall in love. It’s a very specific form of genre fiction. Not every story with a horse and a ranch in it is a Western; not every story with a murder in it is a mystery; and not every book that includes a love story can be classified as a romance novel.

Distinguishing a true romance novel from a novel that includes a love story can be difficult, because both types of books tell the story of two people falling in love against a background of other action. The difference lies in which part of the story is emphasized.

In a romance novel, the core story is the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The other events in the story line, though important, are secondary to that relationship. If you were to take out the love story, the rest of the book would be reduced in both significance and interest to the reader to the point that it really wouldn’t be much of a story at all.

In contrast, in other types of novels that contain romantic elements, the love story isn’t the main focus. The other action is the most important part of the story; even if the love story were removed, the book would still function almost as well. It might not be as interesting, but it would still be a full story.

So let’s say you’re writing a story about a woman who’s being chased by the bad guys, and she falls in love with the bodyguard who’s protecting her. Is this a romance novel? Or is it general fiction?

That depends on which elements of the story are emphasized. If the main focus of the story is the chase, what the bad guys are actually up to, and why they’re after the main character, the novel is general fiction. If the main focus of the story is the couple falling in love while they’re hiding out, it’s a romance novel.

The Modern Romance Novel
Though love and romance have long been a part of the literary world, the romance novel as we know it today originated in the early twentieth century in England. The publishing firm of Mills & Boon, established in 1908, brought out the work of such authors as Agatha Christie and Jack London—and also published romantic fiction. The firm soon realized that its hardcover romances, sold mostly to libraries, were more in demand than many of its regular titles. As the years passed, romantic fiction outstripped other book sales by even greater margins, and eventually the firm dropped other types of books in order to concentrate on publishing romance novels.

In the late 1950s, the success of Mills & Boon romances was noted by a Canadian publishing company, Harlequin Books, which began publishing Mills & Boon books in North America as Harlequin Romances. The two firms merged in the early 1970s, with Mills & Boon becoming a branch office of Harlequin. Harlequin began setting up independent publishing offices around the world and started to publish romances in translation. In 1981, the firms became a division of the Torstar Corporation, a Canadian communications company.

For a number of years, Mills & Boon continued to be the sole acquiring editorial office, buying books mostly from British authors. Though it began publishing American author Janet Dailey in the 1970s, Mills & Boon didn’t truly open up to other American authors until the early 1980s.

In the 1980s, Harlequin purchased its main rival, Silhouette Romance, from its founding publisher, Simon & Schuster. Since that time the two companies have functioned with relative independence under the Torstar corporate umbrella, though in recent years the line between the two houses has become less distinct. Other major publishers of romance include Kensington, Avon, Bantam/Dell, Berkley/Jove, Dorchester, New American Library (NAL), Pocket Books, St. Martin’s, and Warner. (Appendix E includes a more complete list of current romance publishers.)

For many years, only one brand of romance novel existed, known generically in the United Kingdom as a Mills & Boon, and in North America as a Harlequin. Despite the lack of brand-name variety, however, the stories published under these imprints were widely divergent. Contemporary, medical, and historical romances were all published as Harlequin Romance or Mills & Boon Romance.

But readers who gobbled up those original romances wanted even more variety, and authors wanted to stretch their wings with different kinds of stories—longer, spicier, more sensual, more confrontational, and including elements that just didn’t fit in the short, sweet, traditional package.

Various types of romances began to split off from the long-established core. Harlequin editorial offices in New York City and Toronto began acquiring new kinds of stories, written by new authors. Radically different cover designs and distinctive brand names helped the reader more easily distinguish between the various styles of romances.

Some of those changes were made in response to other publishers, who had noticed the success of the Harlequin/Mills & Boon machine and started bringing out their own romance novels. But not long after those other publishers launched their romance titles, they discovered that a commercially successful romance novel requires more than a simple handsome male meets cute female formula. Unsuccessful lines and subgenres soon disappeared from the market. Since then, the romance market has been ever changing, as new lines are brought out and foundering lines and subgenres are abandoned.

At any given time there are at least twenty lines, series, or categories of romance novels (we’ll look at the different categories beginning on page 8). The three terms are roughly synonymous, though series can also refer to a set of more closely related books (for instance, a trilogy in which each of three books features a different family member). In this book, however, we’ll use the term category romances.

Category romances are groupings of books that have certain elements in common; for instance, they all involve a mystery as well as the romance, or they are all romantic comedy. Category books are published in sets of a predetermined number of titles each month. Though the characters and story lines are different in each book, romances within each category are packaged with similar covers, and they’re marketed as a group rather than individually. They generally stay on the shelf for a month, sometimes less, before being replaced with the next group of titles.

In addition to the category romances, however, a bookcase full of new single-title romances comes out each month. Single titles are books that stand alone. They are designed and marketed individually, and they stay on the bookstore rack indefinitely.

The one thing all these books—category or single title, suspense or comedy, erotic or sweet—have in common is that, no matter what else is going on, the main focus is on the hero and heroine and their growing love for each other.

Beyond that, almost anything goes. Romances come in almost as many types as there are kinds of readers—from erotic fantasies to inspirational faith-based stories, from historical to contemporary, from dark suspense to light humor, from girl next door looking for Mr. Right to twenty-something city chick looking for Mr. Right Now.

In all cases, however, the love story—not the mystery or the sexual details or the social issues—is the most important part of the book.

Romance novels are the best-selling segment of the paperback fiction market in North America. According to statistics compiled for the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels account for well over 50 percent of mass-market paperback fiction sold in the United States each year. More than a third of all fiction sold in the United States (including mass-market paper, trade paper, and hardcover books) is romance fiction. Paperback romances outsell mysteries, literary novels, science fiction novels, and Westerns. More than two thousand romance titles are published each year, creating a $1.2 billion business in 2004.

Who Reads Romance, and Why?

Why are romances so popular? There are as many answers as there are readers. And there are a lot of readers—RWA’s 2005 study showed that 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance in the previous year.

Half the readers are married; almost half are college graduates, and 15 percent hold graduate degrees. Women between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four make up more than half the romance-reading audience, but readers range in age from their preteens to over age seventy-five.

A fair number of men read romances, too—22 percent of all romance readers are male, according to RWA—but not many are willing to talk about it. (Some even subscribe to by-mail book clubs in their wives’ names to keep their secret from the mailman.)

Romance is just as popular in other countries as it is in North America. Harlequin Books publishes in 25 languages and in 120 nations, and counts its readership at more than 200 million individuals worldwide.

For readers worldwide, the attraction of romance novels seems to be that they provide hope, strength, and the assurance that happy endings are possible. Romance makes the promise that no matter how bleak things sometimes look, in the end everything will turn out right and true love will triumph—and in an uncertain world, that’s very comforting.

False Perceptions and the Reality of Romance

The detractors of romance novels—usually people who haven’t read any—often say that the stories are simplistic and childish, and that they contain no big words and very little plot—just a lot of sex scenes separated by filler and fluff. A common view of romance is that there’s really only one story; all the authors do is change the characters’ names and hair color and crank out another book.

Critics of romance also accuse the stories—and their authors by extension—of presenting a world in which women are helpless. Romance, they say, encourages young readers to fantasize about Prince Charming riding to their rescue, to think their only important goal is to find a man to take care of them. The books are accused of limiting women by idealizing romantic relationships, making women unable to relate to real men because they’re holding out for a wonderful Harlequin hero.

In fact, rather than trailing behind the times, romance novels have actually been on the cutting edge of society. Long before divorce was common, for instance, romance novels explored the circumstances in which it might be better to dissolve a marriage than to continue it. According to Mills & Boon historian jay Dixon, the books “have always argued, along with some feminists and often against prevailing ideology, for no-fault divorce.”

Even early romances often featured working women and emphasized the importance of economic independence for women. While some heroines are indeed young, inexperienced, and in need of assistance, the usual romance heroine is perfectly competent. Finding her ideal man isn’t a necessity; it’s a bonus.

Modern romance novels tell a young woman that she can be successful, useful, and valuable on her own; that there are men who will respect her and treat her well; and that such men are worth waiting for.

Rather than presenting women as weak and helpless, romance novels show women as holding the ultimate power. The heroine tames the hero, civilizes him, and helps him to embrace his softer and more vulnerable side. As romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz wrote in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, her study of romance novels, “the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees.”

When you look at romances on the bookstore shelves, it’s easy to see why people who don’t actually read them might think that all romance novels are alike. Each book published in a specific category, such as Harlequin Presents or Silhouette Intimate Moments, will have a similar cover design, and all the books in a particular category will have exactly the same number of pages. So how, the skeptic asks, can the stories possibly be different?

A soup manufacturer uses the same colors and design on every label to catch the consumer’s eye and assure her that she’s getting brand-name quality, whether she’s buying bean soup or corn chowder or cream of tomato. In the same way, the specific theme of a romance cover design tells the reader that this story will be the same type of story she enjoyed last month.

All the books in a particular category have the same number of pages to allow for economy in printing, packing, and shipping. Because the publisher doesn’t have to adjust the press for each new title, or buy different-sized boxes to ship different books, it can keep costs in check and pass the savings on to the consumer through lower retail prices. But books with the same number of pages don’t necessarily have the same number of words; margins, type size, and line spacing can be adjusted to meet the required number of pages.

So Is There Really a Formula?
Many people believe not only that romance novels are all alike, but that they’re simplistic and formulaic. Romance novels are usually small—they’re shorter than many other kinds of novels. They’re also light—they focus on an entertaining story with an upbeat ending, rather than on such things as the evils of modern society. (Though they don’t ignore reality, they don’t dwell on violence.) They’re also easy to read—the story is told in a way that is effortless for the reader to comprehend.

Because the books are small, light, and easy to read, some critics and even some readers think they are easy to write. Nearly every romance reader says, at one time or another, “I could write one of these.” Almost every romance author has been asked to provide the simple magic formula for writing a successful book.

It’s true that all romance novels have certain elements in common. All mysteries have certain elements in common, too—a crime, a perpetrator, an investigator, and an ending in which the crime is logically and clearly solved. But mysteries aren’t all alike, and neither are romances.

What romance novels have in common is this: A romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while they’re solving a problem that threatens to keep them apart, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime; this discovery leads to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.

That’s it. That’s the formula.

And even then, there are exceptions. For instance, there are gay romances, and there are romances that don’t include a permanent commitment as part of the ending.

Today’s romance novel allows an author wider latitude than ever before. Romance readers—and writers—have their favorite types of books. Just as a reader of mystery expects she will not be getting an Agatha Christie drawing room mystery when she picks up a new Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton novel, the romance reader knows Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, and Jennifer Crusie aren’t going to produce the same kind of stories.

Find out more about On Writing Romance.

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