Over the years, I’ve taught many workshops, written numerous blog posts and articles, and conducted numerous lessons on writing romance and romance focused erotica (which are the genres that Black Velvet Seductions publishes).
There are those topics which are always popular. Craft basics like character, point of view, dialogue basics, conflict, and sexual tension remain some of the more popular topics that I’ve covered. However, within each workshop I’ve taught, within each blog post I’ve written, and each lesson I’ve taught, there have been topics that whether because of import, or because they don’t sound important and therefore get glossed over, are worthy of repeating.
Many of these things link directly back to the reasons manuscripts are rejected. Today I want to start by covering three of the top things that bear repeating. The first is:
Romance is about the developing relationship between characters.
It sounds simple doesn’t it? And when I say it, everyone will nod their heads and agree with me that, yes, of course, romance is about the developing relationship between characters.
But the submissions that fill my inbox seem to indicate that somehow this nugget of understanding was lost somewhere between the point at which we all agreed that romance is about the developing relationship and the point at which the author wrote the end, attached the file, and clicked send.
It remains true that one of the key reasons that both myself and my co-editor MM reject manuscripts is that the manuscripts we receive try to be about the developing relationship…but somewhere between the beginning and the end the focus on the developing relationship either never takes shape or is lost in favor of chasing vampires or hunting down serial killers.
The bottom line is if you are writing a romance then the focus of the story needs to be the relationship. You can have your characters chase vampires and hunt down serial killers, but even whilst they are doing these things they need to be about the business of falling in love, because if they are not about that business the manuscript will lack the focus and clarity to succeed as a romance novel.
I’ve been asked before about story arcs in a romance novel and also about the story arcs in some of the blended genre novels (like romantic suspense and paranormal romance.) In a pure romance the focus is squarely on the romance. There should be no distractions. Every scene in the story should play a role in the developing relationship either in terms of making the character:
- Want the relationship
- Not want the relationship
- Respect, admire, like, love their love interest more
- Doubt, dislike, distrust, their love interest
- Help the character see a way forward to happy ever after with their love interest
- Cloud the way forward making it impossible for the character to see the happy ever after possibility
- Cause more conflicts by adding to original conflict(s)
- Soothe conflicts by providing solution or understanding of original conflict(s)
- Provide experiences that allow the character to overcome their internal conflicts
- Provide experiences that allow the character to try to overcome their internal conflicts and fail
The point is…in a straight romance (without blended genre elements) every scene relates in some way to the relationship allowing the characters to move toward each other and the happy ever after ending or causing them to move away from each other and away from the happy ever after ending.
In blended genre romances what often happens is that scenes of suspense or other-worldly activity steal the focus from the romance. It doesn’t seem credible after-all, that someone being chased by zombies or a serial killer would stop to think about being attracted to the hero…or would stop to think about the problems facing a relationship with the hero. Yet, for the novel to work as a romance it must do those things. Even in blended genre romance the focus must remain on the romance…the developing relationship between hero and heroine. Without that the novel becomes a mainstream paranormal novel or a thriller which happens to have romance elements…but not a paranormal romance or a romantic suspense or romantic thriller.
Given this, my advice is divide and conquer. A blended genre romance will have two parts. It will have the romance (developing relationship) and the secondary aspect. For purposes here we will use the suspense element as the secondary element.
You have a beginning point for the relationship aspect and an ending point for that aspect. The characters start out disliking or distrusting or not knowing each other. They end up in love, committing to a life together. There will be some turning points along the path from the beginning to the ending point…some things that one or both characters have to learn, some ways that they have to grow in order to be worthy of their happy ever after ending. Define these either mentally or on paper. In this way you know where your character is and where he/she has to go.
You also have a beginning point and an ending point for your suspense or other secondary element. There will be a beginning point…the first murder that your heroine becomes involved with if you’re writing a suspense novel where your heroine is the target of a serial killer might be the beginning point. By the end your character will have solved the mystery of who the serial killer is and will have dispensed justice in some way so that the serial killer is no longer a threat. Between the beginning and the end you have to craft scenes which allow the danger to escalate. You also have to create scenes which allow her to find the clues that lead to uncovering who the culprit is. Within this framework you also need to craft scenes which allow the romance to develop between the hero and heroine.
If you could envision your romance arc and your suspense arc as separate arcs which overlap each other, then you could see the relative points when things need to change between the characters in their romantic relationship and where that coincides in the suspense arc. If the heroine doesn’t begin to trust the hero till after the second victim is found you know that the scenes leading up to that point will need to show them being aloof with each other. That means that scenes written when he questions her about her role in finding the first victim will be used to SHOW the distrust between them. Scenes after that point will focus more on building trust between them.
As you look at the scenes you need to build the relationship and the scenes you need to solve the mystery and save the heroine you will be able to see that most scenes can do double duty…both building the relationship and leading toward the eventual conclusion of the suspense element. Some scenes might focus more on the suspense element and some might focus more on the romantic element but by and large the romance and the suspense (or other secondary element) must go through the romance hand in hand, entwined for the story to work as a romance. If the focus shifts too much from the romance and focuses on the mystery then readers of romance will be disappointed in the romance aspect and at some point the story will not work as a romantic suspense, crossing the invisible line into suspense as opposed to romantic suspense.
In a similar vein, it bears repeating that fiction needs to maintain a tight focus.
One of the common problems that I see in romance novels, erotic short stories, and blended genre novels is a lack of focus.
Readers need one or two big things to worry about. They can handle two big things…will the hero and heroine fall in love and live happily ever after – and who is the serial killer targeting the heroine’s friends?
If you add in additional things…Will the hero and heroine fall in love and live happily ever after, who is the serial killer targeting the heroine’s friends, will the heroine make up with her estranged brother, and will the hero make up with his estranged mother, and will their friends Jed and Jake fall in love and live happily ever after is just plain too much. Your reader will go crazy with this lack of focus.
Narrow it down. Know what your main story is about. Subplots are fine. But they should be that…subplots. Subplots should relate in some way to the main plot. Will the heroine make up with her estranged brother might be germane if the heroine’s brother is somehow connected to the heroine’s lack of trust in men or if he is connected to the serial killer in some way. It is not germane if the heroine just happens to be estranged from him. Ditto the hero’s mother. To be Germane the answer to the question “will the heroine make up with her estranged brother” must be one that requires an answer for the rest of the story to work. If she can go happily along, either making up or not making up then whether she makes up or not really doesn’t matter. It is filler.
Stay focused. Keep your reader focused. Connect your sub-plots to something in the main plot. Make something in the main plot hinge on their solution. Readers need to know what to worry about. If they can’t see how the pieces of your sub-plots relate to your main plots they lose that focus.
It also bears repeating that conflict fuels story.
By and large conflict is that element in a story that provides the reader their focus. Everything in the story relates to the conflict as the conflict is that thing that stands between the character and what he or she wants. When a reader engages with a book he or she is essentially engaging with the character’s journey to achieve that thing he or she wants. To work well a story needs a conflict worthy of the character’s (and therefore the reader’s) attention. If the conflict is too easy (communicate to solve a misunderstanding for example) then the conflict is too easily resolved and isn’t really worthy of the character or reader’s attention. Readers of romance like stories in which there is a deep conflict which they can’t readily see the solution for.
I receive a ton of submissions which are built almost totally on external conflict which pits the hero and heroine on the same side against some external crisis. It is FINE to have the hero and heroine EVENTUALLY on the same side against the external crisis. But whether the hero and heroine team up together against the external conflict or not the hero and heroine need to have conflict that relates to their relationship and why they can’t be happy together. It needs to be more than just bullets are flying. It needs to be something that would still stand in the way if bullets weren’t flying. Something inside the characters themselves needs to keep them from committing until the end of the story. It might be fear of falling in love, fear of commitment, trust issues, a former betrayal, any number of things. But the bottom line is that it must be between the hero and heroine…not be entirely external to the hero and heroine.
This is a common reason that manuscripts are rejected at Black Velvet Seductions.
So there you have it…three of the top things that bear repeating.