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An Introduction to the Art of Romance Writing

An Introduction to the Art of Romance Writing
One of the most popular sayings in the world of romance is that the best writers are those who are the best readers. But this doesn't mean you need to read every romance novel with the eagle eye of an editor. It means that loving and enjoying romance novels is the most important part of writing romance novels. After all, unless you love what you write, you will never be able to convince your readers that they should love what you write, too.

Whether you've discovered a love of romance novels only recently, or you grew up reading them, romance is one of the most popular genres in the literary world. With thousands of romance writers all over the world and national charter groups dedicated to helping you perfect your craft, there's no better place to begin a journey into authorship.


In this article, you will learn about the romance industry and getting started in it.

ü How many romance novels are published annually?

ü What is the industry outlook?

ü What subjects and time periods offer the best possibility of publication?

ü How can you start exploring romance writing options?

History of Romance Novels

Technically speaking, romance novels have been around for more than 200 years, starting in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Unrewarded is considered to be the "first" real romance novel, published in 1740, but most people associate the beginnings of the genre with the late Georgian era, when popular novelist Jane Austen did her work (ca. 1810-1830).

Although the novels certainly adopted a different format back in the early years, the idea was basically the same: Romance novels were literature written for women, often by women, and with the primary goal of offering entertainment value.

Jane Austen's works were certainly considered among this set of entertaining novels, but more important for the field of romance writing were many of the Gothic novels Austen satirized in her own writing. These Gothic novels, of which Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho is the most famous, had all the elements that thrill romance readers even today: emotional turmoil, dark mysteries, brooding heroes, crumbling castles, and as much sensuality as possible (at least, given the times).

These Gothic novels also had something that romance novels today still have: a reputation as "bad" literature, regardless of the fact that they sold more than any other type of literature of the day.

Today's Romance Novels

Romance novels, as we know them today, didn't really appear until the 20th century. Some give the credit for the entire historical romance genre to Georgette Heyer. Heyer's first novel, The Black Moth, which was published in 1921, starting a long career in which heroines and their heroes parried around love and intrigue set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She developed a strong readership and even sparked a bit of debate in the publication world when other authors began to adopt her style and plots to create their own romance novels.

Less than a decade after Heyer started writing, Mills and Boon (now a category of Harlequin Romance novels) began to release category romance novels in the mass market publications that readers now associate with the genre.

The romance novels so many people fell in love with – the worn paperback books with steamy covers and bright, bold colors – came into being in the 1970s and 1980s. Although many of the books released during these years are now looked upon as substandard to those released today, these decades marked the real beginning of the romance boom.

The Romance Novel Industry

In all the years of its existence, the romance novel industry has grown steadily – no matter what the economy looks like at the time. Although the genre is continually picked on by critics and those interested in literature from an academic standpoint, romance novel sales account for more than half of all paperback fiction sales in the United States every single year. In fact, no matter what types of recessions occur or what is going on in the larger global community, romance novels continue to sell.

Since 1998, the number of total readers of romance novels has risen an estimated 20 percent. In 2007, this reflected a total readership of more than 64 million Americans and $1.375 billion dollars in industry income. And while most of these readers are married women between the ages of 25 and 44, the romance industry reaches virtually every age group and demographic in the United States. In fact, an overwhelming 42 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher.

These types of statistics mean good news for those interested in writing romance novels. Romance novel readership is so diverse, and so large, that there are good opportunities for first-time authors looking to break into the field. In 2007, more than 8,000 romance novels were published and released – not counting the expanding e-book options that many romance authors now rely on as a way to reach their fans.

These statistics also mean that no matter what you're interested in writing – from paranormal time traveling romance novels to historical mysteries set exclusively in 1855 – you have a good chance of carving out a niche of interest. And while the income for romance writers tends to be fairly small (at least at first), online sales platforms and self-publication mean that more writers have the opportunity to turn their dreams into realities than ever before.
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Romance Writing.

From Reading Romance Novels to Writing Romance Novels

Before you get started writing that romance novel, you need to make sure you know your interests, your market, and your expectations. While hours of research can help you in doing just this, it's actually much easier than that. All you have to do is pay attention to what you like.

In reality, the romance novel industry is fairly static in terms of what writers can and can't get away with. While there is always an exception to the rule, most aspiring romance novelists don't have the connections or the background to be able to start changing the way the industry works right away. This means that writers rarely get to "play around" with things like:

  • Novel length
  • Point-of-view
  • Central themes (the emotional love story)
  • The ending

But this doesn't mean that all romance novels are the same. There are typically no restrictions related to setting, time period, the gender of the protagonists, language, and the actual story line (as long as there is enough conflict to drive the plot and an optimistic ending), so the possibilities for innovation and originality are quite large. Of course, if you're writing just for yourself or to try and self-publish, you can also cast aside the industry standard rules, as well. Most of the "rules" are geared toward landing a deal with the bigger publication houses

Romance Writing "Rules"

Most of these "rules" are also self-evident. If you plan on writing a contemporary series novel like the most popular ones from Harlequin, chances are that's what you enjoy reading, as well. This means you probably already know the novels are typically short, centered almost entirely on the entanglement of the hero and heroine, and have steamy, but not over-the-top, sex scenes. If you're more into reading historical Regencies, you might already have an idea of the language of the time period, the liberties you can take in adding secondary plot lines, and how much additional length is typically required for this type of romance novel.

Above all else, writing what you love is the most important part of romance writing. If you don't enjoy reading them, then writing them probably isn't right for you. If you don't enjoy paranormals, it's probably best to stick with realistic settings for your own work. After all, unfamiliarity with a subject matter or disdain for the genre is almost guaranteed to show in your writing.

Before you start on your romance novel, consider the following:

ü What do you enjoy reading about the most?

ü Do you usually only read romance novels from a single publisher or line?

ü Can you write the full length of the typical novel in your genre (55,000 words for a series title, 90,000 for a single title)?

ü Are you willing to research historical details, or would you rather write what you know?

Once you have a basic idea of what type of romance novel you'd like to write, you can actually get started playing with plots and characters right away. If you aren't sure, however, you're in a good position to have some fun with romance writing. There are many different types of romance novels, and there is plenty of time for you to decide which direction is right for you.
Genres in Romance
While writing what you know and what interests you most is the best way to go, there are actually few limitations in the world of romance writing when it comes to subject matter. New genres are explored every year, and what was once taboo (time traveling lesbian romances or S&M novels featuring plus-sized heroines) are now popular parts of romantic fiction.

However, while the lines between the romance genres blurs with every new publication, most romance writers do stick to the primary romance categories. If you know where your book is going to land among those categories, you'll have a much better chance of finding publishers and literary agents interested in your completed work.


In this section, you will learn about all the romance genres.

ü What are the romance genres?

ü How do the genres overlap?

ü What are the requirements for each?

ü What is the difference between a single title and a series title?

Single Titles vs. Series Titles

Overall, there are two types of romance novels: single title and series title (or "category romance").

Single titles are full-length novels between 90,000 and 100,000 words in length. They span all types of genres and can be released in either hardback or paperback, depending on the publisher and author. Most of the big names in romance – Nora Roberts, Johanna Lindsey, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips – are single title authors. These books often hit bestseller lists and may be on the bookshelves for years at a time.

Series titles come in around 55,000 words. They are more to the point (meaning they stick to the love story) and have a shorter shelf life than single titles. They are usually associated with a specific line released through Harlequin – usually as part of a series like "Intrigue" – although other publishers carry series, as well.

In series titles, the content must be geared toward the series as a whole. For example, in the Intrigue series, the publisher clearly states that these are "dynamic mysteries with a thrilling combination of breathtaking romance and heart-stopping suspense." All books are expected to contain just that.

Most series titles can be expected to be on bookshelves for a month, which is when the next batch in the series is released.
Writing Series Titles

In almost every case, a series title is either a contemporary novel, a historical novel, or an erotic novel. They can explore everything from certain careers (billionaires or cops), to situations (baby on board or S&M), depending on what the publisher wants the series to be.

Because the publisher decides what each series will entail, it can be difficult for writers writing series titles to try and "break down barriers" by exploring other sub-genres. Those really interested in writing sci-fi or fantasy series titles may want to look for e-book publishers with unique lines, since online publications are more likely to offer variation.

Anyone interested in writing a series title should always find the series they'd like to write for first, and then tailor their manuscript to fit the specified guidelines. Publishers like Harlequin and Kensington provide the details of each series release (including required word count, genre, conflict, and setting) online, and they also indicate whether or not they are taking submissions at that time. Turnaround times are fast, and many writers find that they produce as much as one novel per month for a specific line once they've built a name for themselves.

Remember, though, any writer who doesn't want to conform their writing according to someone else's standards should probably look to single titles. Series titles are better suited for those who want to explore existing boundaries.

Single Title Genres

Single titles offer romance writers the most flexibility in terms of what they want to write and how they want to do it. There are 10 subcategories in the single title genre, but with a little innovation and imagination, there are actually limitless possibilities. In fact, there is no rule that says you have to remain in just one genre – you can play around with settings and ideas to come up with your own take on romance novels. Remember, though, that if you are targeting a certain publisher or genre type (such as the Christian or inspirational category), you do have to stick to certain parameters.


The contemporary genre is the most popular and the best selling, making up over half of the romance readership base and national sales. It is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of romance novels, and it isn't unusual for some of them to be so universally well-liked and carry larger themes that the line between women's fiction and romance novel can be blurred.

The only real requirement for contemporary romance is that it has to be set in "modern times," which is defined as any time after World War II. This means that you can have a hard-core female detective heroine and a male missionary hero living in 2009. It also means you can have a dark, brooding man from the epicenter of New York fall in love with a librarian from Sheboygan in the late 1960s. However, most writers and readers of contemporary romance simply work within their own time period.


Historical romance is usually the second thing people think of when it comes to romance novels. It currently makes up about 17 percent of the romance market, with a surge in recent years due primarily to the revitalization of Jane Austen's works in popular literature.

Like contemporary romance, World War II is set as the marker for the historical genre. However, it can go back as far as the writer wants it to go, spanning through Victorian times and the dark ages, to prehistoric times. For many writers and readers of historical romance, the real appeal is in the details; historical accuracy and period costumes are almost always a must. In the past, a heroine's virginity was also a must, but this requirement has changed in recent years.


Thanks in large part to the popularity of the young adult series by J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter) and Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), paranormal romances are experiencing an incredible surge in recent years. Filled with vampires, demons, werewolves, witches, wizards, ghosts, and the humans who fight them, this genre is usually a little bit darker than the standard romance.

No matter what else is going on in the book, the only real requirement is that the love story is central to the plot. For example, Twilight would technically fall within the romance genre, but Harry Potter would not.

One of the favorite things about paranormal romances is that there is great room for variation. Many of the other sub-genres (historical, sci-fi, fantasy, and time travel) can all blend with paranormal to create a truly unique setting.


In many cases, fantasy and paranormal romances can be intertwined and exchanged. Fantasy in fiction is defined as any element that doesn't have a place in the ordinary human existence. This means that a knight who travels through time to rescue a maiden in the 20th century, a world where vampires are treated as a lower class of citizens, or an alien entity that takes over human bodies, could all be considered fantasies.

However, in the traditional sense, fantasy novels are closer to science fiction than any other genre. They draw on elements of fabricated or historical universes in order to move the love story along – often in the shape of knights, dragons, and other Medieval favorites.

Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)

Science fiction romance is one of the few genres associated with male authorship. While sci-fi romances still remain primarily in a female sphere, many traditional science fiction novels (written by both men and women) include elements of love and relationships, allowing them to cross over into the romance genre.

Sci-fi is actually a very large genre all on its own; it is second only to romance in terms of popularity among U.S. readers. Visit any bookstore, and you'll see how the two genres play off one another. Numerous shelves of romance typically give way to numerous shelves of sci-fi, and the potential for success in either one is fairly large.

Time Travel

Until recently, time travel romances have been included under the larger umbrella of science fiction or fantasy. That's because there is a certain element of suspended belief that has to go along with a world where time travel is possible.

Most time travel romances include one character who travels through time to meet the other. In about 75 percent of the cases, the heroine travels to the past, which allows the author to include a little bit of contemporary, a little bit of historical, and a little bit of science fiction. As with traditional historicals, a strong component of any good time travel romance is factual accuracy and realistic reactions to the change in time and space.


Suspense and mystery romance novels are much like the other sub-genres; they can take place in any number of settings. Amanda Quick, for example, is famous for writing historical mysteries. Georgette Heyer often includes a strong mystery plot line either above or below the romantic story. Harlequin has several lines dedicated solely to heroes and heroines who work in the crime-solving field (usually FBI or the military), and are almost always set in the contemporary genre.

Unlike many other romance novels, which rely on the tension between the hero and heroine to move the story along, suspense novels bring in a number of external issues. It's not uncommon for the main characters to fall in love in the middle of a dangerous escapade, and they can only focus on their feelings for one another once the danger has been resolved. This makes them a favorite among romance writers looking for a little more action.


The inspirational and Christian romance genre is small (about five percent of the current market), but growing in popularity. These romance novels explore love between the hero and heroine alongside a spiritual growth most often associated with the Christian God. In accordance with these themes, these novels are almost always G-rated, in that there is minimal violence, language, and sex. If sex does occur, it is usually only after the hero and heroine are married, and even then it is not described in detail.

Many inspirational romance novels are series titles, although they can also be single titles and fall into the sub-genres of historical, contemporary, or even time travel.


Erotic romances are another sub-genre that has seen a recent explosion of interest. They are categorized by a strong focus on the sexual relationship between the characters, although romantic love and personal development also play an important role.

Erotic romances usually contain numerous sex scenes that avoid the use of purple prose, or euphemisms during the sex act. They are often found through online publications (such as Samhain or Ellora's Cave) and in e-book form. This is because, until very recently, publishers assumed readers wouldn't feel comfortable buying erotica from a traditional bookseller. These assumptions, however, are changing, and writers now have more options for publication than ever before.

Young Adult

There is some debate regarding whether or not young adult (YA) novels can ever be strictly romance novels. While the love story plays a central role in many of types of young adult novels currently in existence, it is considered by many to be inappropriate for teenagers or other underage characters to focus solely on a developing romantic relationship.

In most cases, the love relationship actually needs to be secondary to the coming-of-age story. For example, a heroine who falls in love with her hero should also be exploring her own growth and transformation into adulthood.

Breaking Down Barriers

Of course, these aren't the only options for romance writers. Romances that focus on gay or lesbian characters, plus-sized heroines, disparities in age, cultural differences, and the erotic world of bondage are also becoming more common. There are few barriers any more, with the exception of inappropriate subjects that glorify physically harmful rape, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, or other subjects associated with crimes against women or children.

The most important thing to remember is that you can write whatever you want to write. Writing what interests you the most is the only way to make sure that you can stick with your subject for the full 200 pages it takes to reach completion. If you love your work, your characters, and your setting, chances are that will come through in your writing. And that's what makes a good book.

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