How to write a romance… or not

writing a romance novel for dummiesSince I learned there was such a thing as a How to Write book, I’ve loved those suckers. Even the books that were too basic for me offered something — new advice, a fresh perspective, inspiration to write. There weren’t enough of the darn books to satisfy me.

With digital publishing, just as new venues have opened up for romance authors, there are now new ways to publish a book on writing. Like romance novels, some indie authors of advice books write buried treasures, while others come out with books that merely rehash generic advice. Some even make me want to throw my eReader against the wall. What’s scary is that aspiring writers are buying these books and thinking they are getting great advice from a real expert, when those authors might be leading them down the garden path. No… What’s even scarier to me is that the next hot new indie romance novel I buy might be written by someone who got advice from a crappy “How to Write” book.


When I saw The Easy Way to Write Romance That Sells in the Kindle store, my curiosity got the better of me. It always makes me nervous when someone says they have an “easy” way to write something. This author had several books along the same lines. For example, The Easy Way to Write Fantasy That Sells and The Easy Way to Write Horror That Sells, as well as books on screenplays, thrillers, and autobiographies. Wow. It’s really rare for one author to know that many genres well enough to write about them. But it can happen. Was this guy one of those rare geniuses?


So I checked out the reviews of the romance book. One of the reviews pointed out that Parnell hadn’t written any romances. Huh. Then another review said that the book claimed romances couldn’t be about issues and that the hero and heroine can’t have flaws. Wait, what? So I backed up and read the sample. After glancing at the sample, I was astonished. And I couldn’t resist the urge to click and buy this book.


Right away, from the way he talked about Mills and Boon, I realized Rob Parnell was not an American. Indeed, according to his site, he is from Australia. The romance market in the UK and Australia is very different from that in the U.S. While those countries have category romances as a distinct market, they don’t have the same market for historical, contemporary, and paranormal romances found in the U.S. That might… explain a lot.


Parnell suggests that readers study books by the following authors: “Nora Lofts, Victoria Holt (aka Jean Plaidy) Kathleen Winsor, Helen Fielding, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson, Rosie Thomas, Judith Krantz, Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, Jean Auel, Virginia Andrews and Penny Jordan.” A great list, but most of them are not romance authors, and a number of them are no longer living. Also, perhaps Parnell does not know that in the U.S., Virginia Andrews is known as V. C. Andrews and is marketed as a horror author, rather than as romance/woman’s fiction. Besides, where are the historical romance authors? What about paranormal, futuristic, and urban fantasy authors? What about erotic romance? Heck, other than Nora Roberts, what about single title contemporary authors and romantic suspense authors?


He also mentions both Harlequin and Silhouette as publishers. Whoops.  Harlequin bought Silhouette in the mid-1980s, so they haven’t been separate publishers for a long time. A couple of years ago, Harlequin got rid of the Silhouette name, renaming all the Silhouette lines as Harlequin books. As Parnell’s book was published in September of 2013, I was left wondering what else he … uhm, missed. Later, he mentions the Intimate Moments line. Right. A line that was renamed years ago and exists only as occasional reprints under the Harlequin Treasury category.


OK, so what’s the deal about romances and issues? Parnell likes to emphasize that romance writers aren’t cynical. Unlike artists who rail against the world, romance writers want to improve the world. While authors often have real-world issues that concern them (such as poverty), be believes that  genre fiction isn’t the best place to bring that sort of thing up. Particularly romances. Yes, the story should be realistic. No, readers don’t care about what you have to say about poverty. He reminds me of the famous Hollywood producer who supposedly said “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Still, just as some of that studio’s greatest movies did have a message, so do many romances. It makes me wonder what kind of books people are going to write after reading this advice.


Parnell follows with a character creation exercise. Imagine my surprise when it ended with “The only provisos are that they can’t have any physical disabilities or any acute social dysfunctions. They must be healthy, attractive and reasonably sophisticated. The object is to make them not only desirable but entirely believable as people.”


Zzzz. Oh, sorry. You were saying? Somebody should tell Mary Balogh not to create characters with limps or a club foot or… Oh, too late? I really hope her books sell. It’s true that in the 1970s, category romance authors were not allowed to write heroes and heroines who had a serious disability. For example, an author mentioned that she wasn’t allowed to have a hero  who was blind in one eye. But that was a long time ago.


Later, Parnell explains why characters can’t have physical or social dysfunctions. He explains, ” Well, some romance publishers actually specify this in their guidelines. Okay, it’s not very PC but we are talking heroes here! We don’t want to have a reason to feel sorry for these people! Reading romance is about identification. Romance publishers know that their readers like certain types of heroines and heroes.”


I wish he would quote those guidelines, and tell us where they come from. Is he quoting current guidelines from a major publisher? From a publisher that’s still in business? I wonder.  After all, he goes on to quote Janet Dailey of all people, only he spells it as “Janet Daily.” And he doesn’t exactly quote her, but rather paraphrases her. “Janet Daily (who sold over 8 million romance novels) once said, (I paraphrase), ‘The women should be strong, feisty and gorgeous, and the men tall, dark and sardonic.’”


Does this man have no sense of romance publishing history at all? Yes, Janet Dailey was the first American to break into Harlequin and write category romances, and she was a huge factor. But she was best known for the books she wrote from the 1970s through the 1990s. And of course, in 1997, she became best known for being caught plagiarizing Nora Roberts. Not the best current expert.


Then Parnell shares this gem. “For now, take your characters and give them a history. Create childhoods, family, careers, motivations, foibles and ambitions. Sorry, but no ‘confronting issues’ like child abuse, rape or any kind of sexual deviation is allowed! If you want to write about these issues, you’re not writing a romance, okay?”


Uhm. What? Really? What in the world? Nora Roberts (remember her, Parnell told us to study her) has written a number of characters with abuse in their background. Maybe Parnell should follow his own advice and read her books. I can’t begin to count the number of characters who are survivors of child abuse, rape, and other “confronting issues.” So many that readers started to complain it had gotten “trendy.”


The section on motivation was OK, until it got weird. Parnell mentions that your characters should have motivations before they do something. Then as an exercise, he suggests that writers create a list of aspirations their hero or heroine might have. I kid you not, they include things like “Climb a local hill” and “Own a kitten or puppy.” Oh I can’t wait until Karen Rose publishes that thrilling suspense novel about the heroine who wants to own a puppy! I’m sure he was being cute there, but couldn’t he have found better examples? Some of those might work for romantic comedy, but what about everything else?


Just when I’ve lost hope, he redeems himself by telling aspiring authors that when they think is a good idea, they should “try to think of another one.” He explains that the first idea is probably something the publishers have seen before, but the next idea might be fresh and original. This section has some great advice! It’s as if two halves of Parnell wrote this book.


Of course, he dashes my dreams, perhaps throwing them down that local hill. First, he starts discussing category romances, without actually explaining what they are. Then he says they are traditionally set in exotic locales such as “France, Africa, South America, and the East and West Indies.” Right. Good luck selling a Harlequin American set in France.


Finally, finally, he mentions historical romance. And he clearly understands that field less than category romance. While he mentions the Regency period, he also says that popular settings for historical romances include the Deep South and Outback Australia during the 1800s. Really?! When was the last time you read a historical romance set in the Deep South or the Outback? Then he says, “There’s no reason why you can’t think farther a-field though, say India, Malaysia, the West Indies, even China.” Many readers beg for more exotic settings, but we are also aware that authors have a really hard time selling books that aren’t set in Regency or Victorian England. Even Medieval England and the American West can be a hard sell. The Deep South? The Outback? Malaysia? I feel sorry for writers who follow this advice and end up with a novel they can’t tell in today’s market.


After a brief interlude about Barbara Cartland, he mentions an actual, real, current romance author — Emma Darcy! Yay! He also goes on to mention Penny Jordan. I think I see a trend. More Mills & Boon authors. Later, he admits that he read lots of Mills & Boon romances as research for writing this. Ah, you could have knocked me over with a feather. If only he had thrown in some historicals and more single title contemporaries, plus some paranormals. Something. Anything.


Finally he paraphrases some information about romance from the Romance Writers of America. Actually, “paraphrasing” is kind as he seems to directly quote paragraphs of it. Without using quotation marks. Whoops. Even then, he manages to be outdated. For example, some of the passages seem to come from a Romance Writers of America PDF, but the PDF is dated from around 2008. Hmm, that information might be a tad stale.


There are also market listings and a list of agents. I hate it when books include market listings because they’re often outdated by the time the book comes out. This one is no exception. I don’t know where his market listings come from, but they list publishers such as Avalon (now a part of Amazon) and Imajinn Press (also bought up by another publisher), as well as publishers that writers have had … issues. So the market listing is as dated as his advice on historicals. Then he calls agents “blood-sucking leeches.” Really.


Don’t get me wrong. There are positives. Parnell comes very much to the defense of the romance writer, and the romance genre in general. Yay for that! He’s still ignorant about the genre, but less ignorant than, say, Palash Ghosh of the latest kerfuffle. Parnell also asserts that writers should approach the genre with sincerity rather than being cynical. Sadly, that’s something missing from a lot of writing advice.


Parnell also has useful advice about a lot of things. But even then, nothing earthshattering. If somebody meets a minor character, it should be relevant to the story. If the character has a hobby, it should have something to do with the story. If you character needs to be able to perform a task later, the writer should establish that they have that skill. Don’t forget to foreshadow. The problem is that I think I first read those bits of advice in a “How To” book in the early 1980s. Nothing new here, move on. The same goes for his advice about writing about the end. Did you know that when an author finishes a romance novel, she should make sure that the end resolves the plot elements, ties up loose ends, and gives readers a “satisfying closure”? Wow. Did you know that dialogue should sound natural, should move the plot, should create tension? OK, maybe there are some aspiring writers who haven’t figured this out yet and are just now hearing it for the first time. I just don’t want to buy their book unless they read someone else’s advice, too.


I also liked his section on point of view. He asks, no begs romance writers not to freaking switch point of view so freaking often. All is forgiven now. OK, not really, but … I’m still grateful that he mentioned that. On the other hand, I learned much more about POV from Alica Rasley’s book The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life. Although she is a stickler for POV, she explains how it is possible to switch POV during a scene, and how to do it without making it a headhopping mess.


Anyway, Parnell is great for the rah rah stuff, so I’m sure a lot of people are inspired to write by his “Get writing” attitude, and by his pages and pages of fun writing exercises. They look like a lot of fun. I just hope they read more advice books, and more romances, before trying to publish their books.


Let’s compare this to How to Write an Awful Romance by May Essex. I don’t know who May Essex is, except that she also published a Kindle freebie called A Regency Quiz Book. Unlike Parnell, it’s clear she has read a lot of romances, good and bad. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she is a romance writer using a pen name for this book. Why the pen name? Perhaps because she isn’t afraid to name names. For example, “Some very successful e-book romance writers seem to do entirely without proofreading and editing (I am looking at you, Kristen Ashley!) If your fans accept that, maybe you too can get away with it, but I am sure it turns off some potential readers.” She also manages to make “By all means also try the traditional publishers. I hear Avon is currently looking for new authors…” sound quite snarky.


In fact, Parnell might say she isn’t qualified to write a romance because she’s a bit of a cynic. That made her book far more fun to read. She doesn’t pull punches — and some are aimed at readers as well as writers. For example, “As long as you can hold her interest and have some hot sex scenes, the average romance reader is extremely forgiving. You can get away with lack of plausibility, flat characters, clichés, totally bogus historic backdrops, BUT don’t ever bore the reader.”


On research, she complains, “Many newer romance writers seem to have acquired most of their historic knowledge from the reading of other romances, although there are some who do carefully research their periods.” She tells writers to do real research, reading nonfiction, letters, etc. written in their period. But then she complains that “Fortunately, all that is unnecessary for writing the average historical romance, which will do quite well for 90% of your potential public.”


Essex then describes the advantages and disadvantages of several subgenres of romance — historical, Regency, romantic suspense, erotica, paranormal, time travel, contemporary. Even male/male — something Parnell did not seem to know existed. She has clearly read actual books, rather than reading a bunch of Mills & Boon for research. Heck, her section on time travel romances made some great points that I don’t often see made.


Essex’s theme seems to be that you can put a lot of work into a well-researched, well-written novel with careful editing… only to find out that the people who write “awful romances” are way ahead of you. Because while you were toiling on your great novel, the other authors were churning out books, so they have backlists and have built a fanbase. In other words, “But for an awful romance none of that effort is necessary: you can get started right now.” This reflects the frustrations of many romance writers, as well as readers who are looking for something better than the “awful romance.”


If May Essex is writing romances under another name, I want to read them! Cynical as she might be, she gets the genre. Her “take no prisoners” attitude would translate very well to romance novels.


On the other hand, if Parnell were to publish a romance novel, I’d run away. Although I might peek at the sample. Just out of curiosity…


Anne Marble




14 Responses to “How to write a romance… or not”

  1. Wow. Just wow. So my three books with protagonists that were raped aren’t romances? How about the one with the deaf heroine? No, not romances. Figments. The Essex book on the other hand – sounds like she’s on to something!

    • Anne AAR says:

      You’d like the Essex book. She even gives a few basic tips on addressing people with titles, then tells authors something like “Now you’re ahead of 80% of the other authors.” :)

  2. Jeannie Lin says:

    Really, don’t even try to set a historical romance novel set in China. *tongue in cheek*

    • Anne AAR says:

      I wish publishers would allow more of them. Sigh. :)

      • Anne AAR says:

        Edited to add: D’oh! Of course, HQN does publish historicals set in China, as well as the West, and even Rome. But I can’t remember the last time I saw an Avon set in the American West, let alone Asia or the Outback — and the West used to be a huge part of the romance market. It would be cool if Avon would start publishing romances set outside of England once again — as long as they are well-researched of course. :D

  3. LeeF says:

    Well, heck if it is as easy as reading a few books and following a few odd and arbitrary rules, I will just quit my day job and jump on this highly lucrative band wagon (tongue firmly in cheek)

    Thanks to authors who have a sense of humor about this stuff

  4. Joane says:

    There are so many ideas that pop in my head when I read something like this,… The good thing is that Anne Marble has said many of them better than I could ever say them. So thank U for this post.
    Only a couple of things.
    First, that I don’t understand why people that has read only a dozen romance novels think they know anything about the genre.
    Second, although I would love to see different settings I think that I will be very disappointed if they chose something the author doesn’t know anything about.
    Many times, when I read a book set in places I know something about or I even have been there or I know somebody from that place (as France, Ireland or Italy), I get angry because it’s obvious the author has never gone to those places or known any real 21st century people from those places.
    They look like topic representations from an American movie from the 1950s. Charming but totally unrealistic. So I’d prefer they stick to what they know.
    Anyway, in the end nobody knows how to write a best seller or even a little novel to be published by Harlequin. You can learn certain tricks of the writer work, but that doesn’t mean that you are going to be published. So these books are usuful to think about writing, but only to a certain point.
    I’d say if it’s so easy, write one yourself and try to sell it.

    • Anne AAR says:

      You’re so right. :) It’s one thing when authors give us a badly researched or wallpaper version of Regency England — heck, it’s what some readers want. But a badly researched or wallpaper historical version of, say, China or Malaysia runs the risk of being insulting, not to mention cultural appropriation. It reminds me of the stories in old pulp magazines about “exotic” characters with made-up names wearing costumes no one from that country actually wore, and speaking in bad accents.

    • BevBB says:

      I rarely have time nowadays to respond here even though I read (and follow) the blog posts all the time but I couldn’t resist taking the time to comment on the issue of most people’s perceptions of the “romance genre”.

      It’s been my personal experience over literally decades of reading romances that a lot of people may have some vague concept of how big this genre is, but absolutely no clear understanding of it’s breath or depth. Heck, a lot of people think category romances ARE the sum total of the genre.

      Of course, the flip side of that is what Ann notes about this guy’s list of recommended authors – there are quite a few “big book” authors that many people identify as romance authors that a true hard core dedicated romance reader wouldn’t even consider being romance. While visiting my own sister during the holidays, I realized she thinks Danielle Steel writes romance. I was so stunned speechless I couldn’t even figure out how explain it to her before we started talking about something else. ;-)

  5. Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful
    article. Thanks for providing this info.

  6. RosieH says:

    After reading this article I immediately downloaded May Essex’s book. I read it at one sitting and l Loved it, especially her comments on changeling fiction. However I don’t plan on giving up my enthusiasm for Nalini Singh.

  7. femalepov says:

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  8. Elizabeth Rolls says:

    Sigh. This guy has No Idea about even the Australian market. A visit to even a K-mart to check out their book section, let alone Dymocks, would have put him right. He’s ignorant. There are plenty of good How to Write a Romance books out there. Many of them written by authors within the genre. They give good advice, albeit often aimed at beginners, and we were all that once. When I judge for competitions and I strike a submission with problems in say, dialogue or POV I generally reference one of these books in my critique. Suffice it to say that on Anne’s critique I will NOT be adding Parnell to my collection, let alone referring aspiring authors to him.

    As for Palash Ghosh – I managed to read the article through once before my computer crashed. Symbolism, anyone? The problem there is not mere ignorance, but sheer, unmitigated arrogance as well. He knows nothing about the romance genre and less about women. I hope no one is out there wasting her time trying to convince him of the error of his ways. Frankly I’d say he isn’t worth the effort. A more condescending, patriarchal pile of uninformed drivel I have yet to read. I won’t comment in depth. For a start Anne only mentioned his “article”in passing, and I’m not prepared to risk my computer over him. Besides which, it would probably do my head in.