Learning to Write Romance

The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks1 typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?

Everything.

Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel.2 I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.

Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.3

Back to my story and moving forward a decade:

Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.

My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.

When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.

I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.

However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas4 I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.

I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa5 immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.

Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.

Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.

There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.

None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day.6 Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.

The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.7

I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.

Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.

Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.

Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted.8 Wish me luck.9

  1. I honestly can’t remember how long it was now []
  2. Or how to write a short story. But I was blissfully unaware of that back then. []
  3. Romances published outside the category are allowed to have sad endings. []
  4. And also Jo Bourne who I didn’t ask because I have not read her work. Looks Like I’ll have to now. []
  5. I feel like we’re now on first name basis after several Twitter exchanges. []
  6. Though if there is one point me to it cause that would be fascinating. []
  7. I ranted on Twitter recently about how people are always claiming stuff about YA with nothing but anecdotal evidence and here am I doing the same thing. Sorry. If anyone knows of any actual research that has been done on this I’d love to hear it! []
  8. Well, except for that attempt at 15 which I hardly think counts. []
  9. But don’t hold your breath. I just started a new YA and have many other books on my to-write queue before I get to having a go at writing an adult historical romance. []

12 comments

  1. Ronni on #

    I love YA romance and love stories, and that’s what I aspire to write… love stories especially because they don’t necessarily need the happy ending. This post is right up my alley!! Love seeing all the advice from the romance authors.

    Good luck with your attempt at writing an adult romance someday.

  2. Renleigh on #

    Wow, this is awesome. I love when people explain something that I never realized but that makes lots of sense. Also, this makes me want to read more romance!

  3. Stephanie Leary on #

    I found the whole Twitter exchange fascinating because I’m trying to revise a YA romance with dual narrators, and mine is also becoming less of a romance and more of a… I’m not sure what. The friendships and family issues became way more important than I’d planned, and now I’m stalled while I try to decide whether to run with that or not.

  4. Justine on #

    Ronni: Thanks!

    Renleigh: Every romance author mentioned in this post is fabulous. They write some of the very best books in the genre. Enjoy!

    Stephanie Leary: Since it’s YA I’d strongly advice running with it. I have the beginnings of a theory that part of what YA romance is about is juggling family and friends. So pleased this has been useful to people other than myself.

    Good luck!

  5. Hoss on #

    Wow, thank you for this. I recently started writing a YA romance (first time doing both YA and romance) and it’s a huge struggle. Writing about love does make you extremely vulnerable. So the advice is appreciated.

    I feel like I’m blatantly ignoring most of the guidelines here though, haha. I’ve been consciously avoiding the protagonist-needs-to-find-herself thing because I’m tired of seeing lesbian YAs where there’s more coming out narrative than romance.

  6. Justine on #

    Hoss: There are no guidelines here! I’m against guidelines! We were just describing what we’ve noticed happens in YA and adult romances and the differences not saying what they should be.

    I’m assuming you read Malinda Lo’s blog. She has some excellent posts on writing YA lesbian romance.

    Good luck with it!

  7. Hoss on #

    I don’t, but I should. Thanks!

  8. Niki S on #

    Hmm… What about Eleanor & Park? It goes back and forth between POVs, and their relationship is the focus of the book.

  9. Justine on #

    Niki S: I haven’t read it. But everyone’s been raving about it so it’s on my list. (That ever-expanding list.)

    However, I would be very surprised if the romantic relationship is the focus in the way it is in an adult romance. Nick and Norah, as I said above, is also two povs and you could definitely argue that their relationship is the focus of the book but it’s still very different from an adult romance.

    To be clear, though, I really like how varied YA romances are, that they are their own thing.

  10. Rachel Wilson on #

    Thanks for sharing this! I love that advice: “get them wet, cold, or both.” I don’t know that I could have articulated that as a strategy, but yeah, it works.

    And I think Tessa Dare’s absolutely right in this: “in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake.”

  11. Hana on #

    Thanks for this post, Ms. Larbalestier (we’re not on first name basis. Yet. Don’t worry, I’ll meet you someday and we’ll totally be cool–I’m trying to write this in not a creepy way). But seriously, I loved your last post (on the whole 300 words/daily x 265 days = ~80K).

    I’m currently on that crazy “write a first novel” adventure myself. And my genre of choice just so happens to be romance. (Although I like to think of it more like it chose me.)

    Actually, one day–in the not-so near future–I’m hoping to write a historical but my focus is more on contemporary at the moment. See I’m always thinking paranormal, and that comes easier to me, but I would love to write a contemporary romance (ala JoAnn Ross, Jill Shalvis, etc.) if not only for myself. :)

    Looking forward to more of these treasure posts. Take care! (AND GOOD LUCK!)

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