When I began writing The Memory House after a long career writing romance for various lines at Harlequin, I didn’t give the difference between women’s fiction and romance much thought. I had a story to tell about a woman battered by life, a complex story that required more pages than my usual romance novels.
After reading my proposal, my agent insisted this new novel was not romance but commercial women’s fiction. This got me looking more closely at the two and why it’s important for us, as authors, to know the differences.
(Writer's Digest uses affiliate links.)
5 Reasons Why the Difference Between Romance and Women's Fiction Matters
1. Understanding genre allows you to target the proper publisher. Different houses have different requirements. A publisher that buys women’s fiction may not be interested in a pure romance and vice versa.
2. Women’s Fiction and Romance are labeled and shelved differently in book stores, whether online or brick and mortar, and readers shop accordingly. Goodreads, Publishers Weekly, and other reviewers also list by genre.
3. Marketing and promotion for the two genres differ in slant and demographic.
4. Though not a concern as far as selling your book, correct genre is required when entering contests.
5. Women are the major buyers of all novels, and as such are the single most important demographic to publishers and authors. These women bring certain expectations to the bookshelf and want to know what they’ll find within the pages of a novel before they lay down their money. To keep them coming back, we have to make them happy.
Those are just a few reasons why understanding your genre is important. You’ll also see that the way you write each one differs, maybe more than you realize.
How Romance and Women's Fiction Differs
A pure romance can be as long or as short as you want it to be but always includes two defining characteristics: a central romantic relationship and a happy-ever-after for the heroine and hero.
In writing my romance novels, I focus on the male/female relationship from start to finish. Love is the premise, the thread that runs from page one to the happy conclusion that brings the couple together forever. Growth of that romantic relationship is the main story arc. Each scene, each conflict and resolution serves primarily to move the heroine and hero closer to commitment.
The confusion between women’s fiction and pure romance sometimes occurs because the above elements of romance and a happy ending may also appear in women’s fiction. Yet, neither is a requirement in that genre.
The Memory House falls into this category. I chose to include a love interest for my heroine, but unlike my romance novels, love is not the thread that guides the story from beginning to end. Julia’s personal growth, her decision to grab life and rise above the darkness of a tragedy is the primary story arc.
This personal growth, then, whether it leads to a happy ending or not, is a major difference to keep in mind when determining if you’re writing romance or women’s fiction.
Another thing to consider is your lead character. Women’s fiction almost always belongs to the female. The male point of view can be included, but the issues, and thus the story, belong to the female. Conversely, in my romance novels, the hero is often my lead character or at least shares the lead with the heroine. His struggle, as much or sometimes more than that of the heroine, drives the narrative. For those who read romances 40 years ago, that change is a recent advent.
In today’s women’s fiction, the journey belongs to the female, be it toward self-discovery or coming to terms with life’s issues the way Julia must do. Her emotional development is what matters, and it’s this journey the women’s fiction reader is most interested in.
Like romance, women’s fiction is about relationships, but here the relationship may be among friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, co-workers and others rather than being purely romantic in nature. Julia’s relationships with other characters, as well as with the hero, help tell her story and give her the strength to rise above her brokenness.
Finally, women’s fiction, whether contemporary or historical, is more issue driven. These books may realistically wrestle with alcoholism, abuse, family dysfunction, divorce, the struggles inherent in dealing with sickness such as cancer, mental illness, or Alzheimer’s, or any other issues women face.
A romance novel focuses entirely and completely on the romantic relationship and guarantees a happy ending for the heroine and hero. Women’s fiction focuses on a woman’s journey, wherever that may take her and whatever that may encompass. Though usually emotionally satisfying, a happy ending is not an expectation.
Now, go write your wonderful novel, confident that you know exactly what you’re writing and who your target audience will be.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.