Writing Fiction: Preparing to Write a Romance Novel
Want to Tell a Story About a Romance?
For business reasons, you have to make up your mind about what genre your book will be in before you write, and certainly before it is published. It’s a fact of writing life that you have to write with a genre in mind, because the genre is tied to the audience for your book. If the audience for your book is not clearly defined, it can be hard to market/sell. And most of us write knowing we need our books to sell, even though deep down inside we all wish we could write simply for the pleasure of writing.
My first novel is closely aligned with the genre of Romance, but it is not purely of the Romance genre. I like to call it "Romantic Fiction," instead of pure "Romance." Is there a difference, you might ask? Well, some people among the writing/reading public would say "No," while others would make a clear distinction between the two. I guess I’m one of the latter. The way I see it, there is an important difference. Even though the two genres might attract much of the same audience, and even though most writers and readers might consider them to be much the same—the difference I see between the two is that “pure" Romance firmly follows a formula that writers dare not, must not, cannot toy with for fear that they will frighten away any possible future publishers of the genre, while Romantic Fiction allows you to create a literary work about a romance, but not necessarily sticking firmly to a prescribed formula. I see Romantic Fiction as allowing you, the writer, to say what you really want to say, how you want to say it, and still write a great fiction novel about a romantic relationship that is the primary theme, among other themes.
Just as it is true that not every romance you read is a Harlequin novel, it is also true that not every novel about a romantic relationship has to follow a strict formula. And while choosing to write Romantic Fiction instead of pure Romance might mean you will not attract some readers who prefer the pure Romance genre if your work is good, you’ll probably attract a broader audience (even though you may not get the types of sales possible with pure Romance).
It’s a slippery slope; a tough row to hoe, as my mother (who was an avid gardener) used to say. Making up your mind about how you want to structure your novel about a romantic relationship is difficult for many reasons. I admit that I chickened out a bit with my first novel, Silver, Waves of Turbulence, by Sallie Beatrice (my first and middle names). While I still believe it is a good-to-great first novel (and many of my readers have affirmed this belief), I have to say that I chose not to follow my heart completely with it. I listened to the advice of some professional editors who felt I should tailor it more to the Romance formula, even though I did not set out to write a "pure" Romance novel. Even listening to advice, I still followed my passion and included in my first novel many of the hardest questions that I feel must be asked when someone is faced with a situation such as the one that faces my protagonist.
I hadn't planned on following a prescribed formula in the writing of any of the books in my collection that I call “Living in Color.” My idea was simply to write interesting books that had a story about romance. To present strong and compelling storylines set in the contemporary South where now many of the walls once separating the races are finally beginning to tumble down. I decided it would be the mission of SB Middlebrook, when it comes to the novelist in me, to present African-American women and men in novels featuring a variety of unexpected settings, situations, and circumstances while creating complex characters and plots that I hoped would attract a broad audience simply because the stories were damned good.
Silver, the first novel in my color-coded collection, is about what appears to be a big old, hot, juicy black/white interracial romance. Only it's not. Well, not exactly. It is also about the "waves of turbulence" that come in sunami-size tidal waves when someone brings a non-black love interest into a family where none have ever been brought before. And even though I'm happy with Silver and I still love reading it, I’ll say once again that I did not set out to write a pure Romance novel, and I don't think it falls gently into that category. It is a story about Zarah, a young black woman who has very light skin, and it introduces the idea of "colorism" that still plagues black and white and other communities of our nation and our world. Zarah, my protagonist, had to fight all her life because even though she is "black," in grade school she was bullied about having "white" features. Light tan skin, light brown hair, and grey eyes are what kids saw when they looked at her, and to them, she looked white. So, Zarah grew up hating all things white because it was the white part of her heritage that did not fit in, inside the world she loved; her world. When she went to college at an HBCU (a historically black school), she becomes outspoken and strong, for the first time in her life. She finds her voice and becomes the editor of her college newspaper, and she creates a strong identity for herself as a black woman, on campus and beyond. Then, when she lands the internship of her dreams, she ends up falling in love with a man who everyone sees as a white man, even though she never dreamed she could fall for any white man.
Silver does not feel like a formula romance novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read romance novels. In fact, I’ve been a voracious reader of them most of my life, and I even became inspired to pursue my new avocation as a novelist based on the work of many writers of the Romance genre. Still, I never set out to write pure Romance. Why? Because it’s hard for me to say what I feel I want and need to say inside the somewhat rigid confines of the “Romance formula." Take a look, below, at the “plot formula” for the pure Romance genre. Traditional Romance novels are plotted using a formula that follows a set order that goes something like:
- Couple Meets Cute
- External Conflict (separates them, on a superficial level)
- Magnetic Force (brings or draws them together)
- Getting to Know You (they continue to interact)
- Their First Date
- Their First Kiss
- Their First Love Scene
- External Conflict is Resolved
- Internal Conflict begins (now they’re apart on an emotional level)
- Crisis Hits
- Darkest Moment (all seems lost)
- Moment or Time of Realization
- Internal Conflict is Resolved
- Together, Couple Lives Happily
Okay, so as formulas go, this is not all that bad. It is a formula, still, but then in a way, it’s not. What I mean is that you still get to write the novel pretty much the way you want to, as long as you include all the elements above, and as long as you don’t break any other “cardinal” rules of the genre (I won’t go into those here).
Most of my books will fall somewhere between Romance and Romantic Fiction, which is really where a lot of popular romance-based novels fall.
My "Living in Color" novels will always present a love story, but the books are about so much more than that. They are about strong, lifelong relationships and the closeness that happens between friends and within families. They are about family and friendship, about falling out and making up, about hidden family histories and other stuff families try to hide from the world, usually unsuccessfully. And, my collection will include stories about the extended family—something that is a big part of Foundational Black American (descendants of Africans enslaved in America) families, and other families in America. Grandmas, aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins of cousins, they’re all part of the mix, all part of the challenge of trying to live and love in peace. But, characters living life in a Sallie Beatrice "Living in Color" novel will always share one thing with books that are of the pure Romance genre: There will always be a happy, soul-satisfying ending that I hope will always keep my readers coming back for more.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD