What I Just Learned from a Room Full of Romance Writers

Forever and a Day (The Rumor)


Always wanted to write a headline like that.

Not everybody appreciates Romance novels.  Not everybody reads Romance novels.  That said, more people DO read Romance novels than any other single genre out there.  A genre that continues to grow.  A genre with more passionate readers and writers than any other.

Which means, we should all pay atention to what’s going on there.

I just got back from giving an intensive “advanced” workshop to about 100 Romance authors, a bash thrown by the Rose City Romance Writers, a wing of the Romance Writers of America that flutters hearts out of Portland, Oregon.  When I was invited to speak a while ago, I was immediately slammed by two realizations: a) I needed a quick crash course on the genre, and b) I was more than a little intimidated.

It happened.  I survived.  Am licking a few wounds.  And I’ve fallen in love.

Here’s what I learned.

I learned that from this point forward I will refer to the genre with a capital R.  The genre is Romance.

It deserves more respect than it gets outside of the club.  The novels are legitimately difficult to write.  They demand mastery of the most challenging of all the Six Core Competencies (characterization).  They have expectations and “rules” that are unique to the genre, and it’s a crowded market.

I learned they have more sub-genres than anywhere else.  If someone can fall in love, in any way, in any combination, in any place, at any point in time, in any dimension or on any planet, there’s a Romance sub-genre for it. 

My preparation not only included reading a few titles…

… but scouring the web for the conventional wisdom.  I was relieved to learn that the underlying fundamentals of story structure are no less valid in Romance than elsewhere… but they are somewhat complicated by the concurrent unfolding of two plotlines.  Not merely plot and sub-plot, but legitimately two story arcs that must eventually, if you’ll excuse the term, marry.

I’ve learned that the genre has evolved — loosened up with the times in terms of archetypes — but those expectations remain cast in stone: a HEA ending (Happily Ever After), a quick connection between a female protagonist and a male love interest who looks great with his shirt off.

I learned that the female protagonist is referred t0 (in the club) as “the heroine,” and that her shirtless male love interest is called “the hero.”  I gave in on that one, some things change easily… the story still has a primary protagonist, and it’s always the woman.  Which, in the larger vernacular of storytelling, makes her the hero… a word that is without genre in the writing world elsewhere.

No big deal, I can live with that.

I learned that scene execution is even more critical in the Romance genre.  These stories read like movies, there is very little expositional omnipotent connective narration, no musings about the state of things, just a tight focus on the moment.

I learned that these writers are smart.  Killer smart. 

On Day One, when I asked my usual warm-up question — how many of have been published? — well over half of the 30 available hands shot into the air.  I quickly learned that many of these writers had been extensively published, with 10 or more novels out there.  One had 23, another 24.  One had written over 40 — an admitted “pantser” who confessed that it took several dozen tries before the rhythms of structure became solid enough allow her pantsing ways to work… music to this Storyfixer’s ears.  Now she’s huge in the Romance game (see the cover shown above).

There was a sense that they had been there, heard that.  More than at any conference I’ve worked.  This tells me these writers are well-studied, that they haven’t grown their craft merely out of a vicarious reading experience, that they are far down the road to a professional level of craft.  Good on them.

I learned that these writers care as much about the “outside” source of story conflict (the non-Romance plotline) as they do the love story.  In fact, when we were offering and debating story ideas, hardly anyone gave the Romance plot any airtime in the discussion.  I found that fascinating… it was as if the Romance plot (which occupies up to 75 percent of the contextual content of the story) was a given, an easy-deal, and it was the exterior plot that challenged.

I learned that these writers were hungry for insight, tips and pointers that would empower them to elevate their work.  At the pace at which these writers work — some have contracts for three or four or more novels a year — this is a good thing.

I learned that these writers like sexual content, and context.  I mean, really like it.

I learned there is sometimes a vernacular attached to the genre that is misinterpreted, similar to the hero-heroine point above.  A misinterpretation can lead a writer to the conclusion that the rules of Romance fiction are separate from, and above, those that underpin any and all genres, and that the structure of Romance is immune to the natural laws of what makes a story work.

They aren’t.  My hope is that I convinced at least a few of these writers of this truth.

I left them with with two areas of emphasis. 

One: elevate your concepts.  Yes, Romance is driven by concept, too.  The stronger the better.  And Two: keep passion — you wouldn’t think I’d need to hammer this one, but I felt as if I did — as the driving fuel of the story. Not only to write about passion, but to write with it.

Love Your Genre

That’s critical, I think.  Consider writing in the genre you love to read.  To live in the world where your dreams, fantasies, experience and hopes reside.  Where your brain is challenged, your heart enriched and your hormones — whatever their flavor — are percolated.

And when you need a break, grab a romance and fall in love.

My personal bottom line — because I am a romantic by nature anyhow — I think I love this genre.  I think I might give it a go.  I even have a pen name in mind, one that would look totally hot on a book cover.

If you’d like to see what one of the attendees wrote on her website about this workshop, click HERE.  Still trying to figure out what she meant by not swooning… okay, sorry I don’t (or no longer) look like the guys on your covers.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

50 Responses to What I Just Learned from a Room Full of Romance Writers

  1. Forty novels?! What’s her writing rate?

  2. Carmen

    Now I’m wondering how many romance writers are males with female pen names…

  3. The romance writer world is unique. I’ve stepped out of it for years, more than once, but I keep returning because it’s really fun. And the politics and drama are off the charts.

  4. Carmen: the answer is, not many romance writers are male, less than 1%. The majority are female and they work at it with more dedication than many who can count on a weekly paycheck for their time and effort. Delilah Marvelle revealed that she figured out her hourly rate, from the advance paid but a publisher for her book, was about $1.23 per hour.

    Chihuahua0: There’s often a goal of 3 pages per day. Sometimes more, sometimes less. This is from the professionals who’ve honed their craft over many years.

  5. Thank you Larry. I write romantic thrillers. The romance genre is so much more than some think. So are you going to share the pen name?

  6. Larry,

    I’ve been learning from you for almost two years. So glad you finally found ‘us’ romance writers!

    I’m one of those, you’ve helped immensely and am still learning! Thank you!
    All the best,

    Joy w/a Darcy Flynn

  7. Larry

    As an exercise in learning story structure, I’ve taken apart quite a few novels. Can you recommend one Romance novel in particular to do this exercise with? I suppose any might do, but thought I’d ask.

    Have to admit, I want to know the pen name, too! Keep us in the loop. LL

  8. I’m dying to know that pen name!

  9. Welcome to the dark side, Larry! Like Rita, I write romantic thrillers so adding a suspense is one more story thread to combine with the h/h arc.

    Lake, my .02 is decide on what sub genre you’d be interested in, then go to RT Book Reviews, see which books in those subgenres got the highest rating and pick one of those books.

  10. Thank you Larry for giving the genre I love some respect and for your insights. I’m sad I missed your workshop, but am so glad you were able to soak up some of the awesome of romance. Romance rocks.

  11. Thank you!

    I look forward to buying my first romance novel with Larry Brooks prominently displayed on the cover. Don’t think we can’t tell a male author from a female one just from the penname.
    We are “Killer Smart,” after all.

  12. Larry, Thank you for having an open mind about romance and all the great information. You opened my eyes to the reason my book wasn’t making me jump up and down with excitement and once I put the revelations I made in your workshop into play, I will be excited about it.

  13. Since life in general holds a lot of romance, it’s no surprise the genre would have so many subgenres. Even Capt. Kirk often found a love interest in his trek through the final frontier.

    Thanks for recognizing the difficulty and challenge of the genre. Now I wonder whether you’re going to become Sparks’s greatest competition.

  14. Since I became a writer, although I write women’s fiction with romantic elements, my admiration for romance writers has grown immensely. They are a formidable group and the genre is highly read. I can see why it would be an intimidating task for you to speak in front of them. But it sounds like you learned a lot, too.

  15. Martha

    I wasn’t there for your presentation, Larry, but I’ve been in on a few of them, so I know it was dynamite. Glad to have you back in our town, even if for just a few days. The RWA was lucky to have you. And I’ll add my vote that you reveal your romance novel pseudonym one of these days.

  16. Very interesting. I’m wondering if some of the principles you mentioned that apply to the Romance writers also apply to much of YA fiction. Most YA fiction is read by teenage girls and they are HUNGRY for romance in their stories. (Hello Twilight.)

  17. @Larry. Who converted who? 🙂 I’ll be listening for your report on your initial go at structuring a Romance. Taint easy Magee. 🙂 I’m guessing you will find yourself deconstructing more than a few before you say…. “o.k. this is where I dig the well.”

    I’m going to also guess you have figured out you need to write from the female point of view. I’m betting you have also figured out a pen name that is female.

    The point of view has to involve a heart point of view as well as the head point of view. I’m thinking that’s where the two plot lines that
    converge / marry come from. Don’t know. Just guessing based on the few but very good and very intimidating Romances that I have read.

    As I’m sure you have noticed, best have your ducks in a row before you take on this crew.

  18. ‘Bout time Larry. Romance is where it’s at!

    I don’t think there is any excuse to not include at least one romantic storyline in every novel. It might make the world a more human world. The secret is… there is a range from “sweet” to “erotic” with much inbetween.

  19. Nice little article! However, the male in a straight love story can be the main protagonist of the book. This happens so often that I’m surprised that anyone could think that “the story still has a primary protagonist, and it’s always the woman.” For a few years not so long ago it seemed to me that EVERY (hetero romance) book’s hero was male. I don’t pick up every romance novel on the shelves, but currently it seems a 50/50 split on genders for hero-dom.

  20. @terri brooks: I just remember some authors write three books a year. It seems like romance is one of those genres where it’s possible to do such a thing more easily than other genres.

    @Mary E. Ulrich: Unfortunately, no romantic arc is better than a bad one.

  21. Barbara Rae Robinson

    Larry–I love that you learned from us while we were learning from you! Powerful weekend. Now I know I’m going to have to concentrate on my concept more before I start writing. Yes, we want to know your pseudonym. We’ll buy your books!


  22. Laureli

    I had to laugh when I visited Tess’ website to see what she said. From her take of your structural advice: “it was like a skeleton from which to hang the meat of your story on”. All I could think of was how appropriate for a thriller writer like you to make that kind of impression! (I can’t bring myself to read thrillers after a few of Dean Koontz books). I’m looking forward to reading your novel Whisper of the 7th Thunder though – it’s my only summer reading planned (I’m busy writing you know)!
    The Romance novel was killed for me by reading Danielle Steele. Before I ever knew anything about structure I could always see how it would end as soon as the hero was introduced so it’s impossible for me to pick one up now.
    I vowed not to write ‘that stuff’ either, but it’s funny when I started writing/pantsing a Western for my Dad -with female protagonist. We share of love of Westerns and I thought I could just write one like Zane Gray (kinda dry without detail and the sky is ALWAYS “bronze”), when I inadvertently started following the ‘romance novel formula’. I guess because it was so familiar but maybe it’s something genetic? All I can say is that I was busy indulging in details it just happened! It almost made me quit when I realized what I was doing, but Dad is in his 80’s and I owe him one finished book. It’s good to hear that it’s OK, lol.

  23. Terri Reed

    It was great to meet you this past weekend. Your talk was insightful and full of gold nuggets. I loved the way you broke the novel structure into four sections. I’d never seen that before and it made me realize why my current book had come to a stand still. I had skipped right from set up to attack, completely missing the response section. Now I’m shifting everything and adding in the missing piece. Thank again for speak to our Rose City Romance Writers chapter.

  24. Diana McCollum

    It was very nice to meet you last weekend at the Rose City Romance Writers Spring Intensive Workshop. The story structure was eye opening presented by you. Thanks. Could you maybe hint at your pen name?

  25. You’re excused. And, just so you know, you’ve converted this hard-core pantser to a true plotter/planner. You should see the very cool chart behind my office chair outlining my next (sweet heat level) historical Romance/suspense.

  26. Thanks for clarifying a few things about four-act story structure during your workshop this past weekend. Love your deconstructions on this blog; examples solidify things for me.

    I’ll second Carole Strickland’s comment – in the twenty-first century, many Romance novel protagonists are male.

  27. Not only are we smart and have a burning desire to perfect our craft, but it is also one of the most supportive genres to write in, meaning that I’ve encountered so much support for my endeavors from fellow writers than I’d imagined possible. Thanks for giving our genre credit!

  28. No, Larry. The romance novel protagonist isn’t “always” the woman. In my SSE (Silhouette Special Edition, THE OLDER WOMAN, the protagonist is a man. (Yes, I know. Just when you thought you had a handle on this romance genre thing.)

  29. First, Larry, great article. Glad you are converted. However, I agree with Cheryl that the heroine is NOT always the protagonist. I’ve read and written books where the hero was clearly the main character. I tend to write heroine as main character more often, but that’s just me. I know plenty of authors who skew the other way.

  30. @Larry, I reread your article. Question. Am I hearing strains of Ray Parker Jr. here? “He’s in love with the other genre?”


    ( P.S. The devil made me do it.)

  31. Insightful post! I often send students and clients to your blog. This was a fun read. Well done and welcome to the genre. (Leslie G. mentor & adjunct; Seton Hill Un. MFA: Writing Popular Fiction)

  32. Carole (and Sarah and Cheryl and Julie) are right about the male protagonist frequently getting equal, if not more, POV time in romance novels. This isn’t rare.

    But also, I disagree with your comment that the romance has to be between a man and a woman. There is a healthy portion of the Romance genre that is dedicated to same-sex romance stories. In fact, just as there are chapters of Romance Writers of America (RWA) dedicated to mystery/suspense romances (Kiss of Death), Fantasy/Future/Paranormal, Gothic, ChickList, etc., so too is there a chapter dedicated to same-sex romances: the Rainbow Romance Writers.

  33. (But other than those two points: great article! fascinating to see things from the “other” side…) 🙂

  34. @Laura — you’re right of course. It was my intention to cover that base in the paragraph about any combination or style or location or time or combination of genders (should have said it that way) has a sub-genre for it. An oversight, not at all a limited view. It’s all love, and it’s all a story we should write about and read about. Thanks — L.

  35. Awesome possum. Again, great blog!

  36. Pingback: Blog Treasures 4~7 | Gene Lempp's Blog

  37. Enjoyed the post very much and agree that romance writers and books have not had the respect that so many of them deserve. I also agree that we authors need to have passion for our characters and our stories. If we don’t care deeply about them, how can our readers.

  38. Terrie

    I read Story Engineering last summer. What a gift! I’ve been reading romances and looking at how they fit into the structure since. It’s easy to see that many of them fit right into four parts where the divisions occur right where you say they will. There is a challenge in keeping the romance plot running alongside the outer plot line, and sometimes even though the heroine is the character who gets the highest reader identification, there are a lot of novels where it is the hero who has the most significant character arc. I’d love to see you write more about the dynamics of how to balance all that in a Romance.

  39. Pingback: Friday Favorites – The Saturday Edition « Shannyn Schroeder's Blog

  40. Sounds like an awesome class. I love watching male writing gurus encounter RWA. Michael Hauge and the late Blake Snyder come to mind. They get hooked, and go on to speak at lots of RWA conferences and chapters.

    I’ll chime in with agreeing that the modern romance is about BOTH the hero and the heroine.

    @Laureli, Danielle Steele is NOT a romance writer. Nor is Nicolas Sparks for that matter. Both authors have romances in their books, but not the HEA, that would make them romance novels. Therefore if Danielle Steele is your idea of a romance, you should check out a books to see what they’re really like. I suggest picking the subgenre that’s the same as the type of movies you like.

  41. Sher Davidson

    Thanks, Larry for the wonderful insight into applying good structure to the romance novel. I hadn’t consciously realized that I was writing a romance novel though romance definitely plays a part in a four part story with strong sub-plot that I just finished. Now it has to pass the test of compelling characters and a “tent” that will stand up under the four support poles. I’m doing the final editing and so far it’s matching the descriptions you give, but I know there is still work to be done. If writing about passion with passion is a main ingredient, I’ve certainly done that on this one, my first piece of fiction. I look forward to any future workshops you might be doing in Portland. I missed this one as I just got back from three months in Mexico. By the way, you ought to think of coming down and being a presenter at the San Miguel de Allende International Writers Conference. They’d love you!


  42. Good on YOU, sir, for coming with an open mind, not just with a lot of answers that might work for thrillers, sci-fi, screen plays, or literature, but don’t fit exactly with romance.
    One point echoing the above: The heroine is NOT always the central protag. Sometimes, the weights of hero and heroine’s journeys are equally balanced, sometimes it’s more his story (example: some JR Wards), sometimes more hers. Sometimes they take turns (yeah, with this too). I’ve yet to find a male presenter who can wrap his head around this concept, so be patient with yourself.
    There are also sometimes two separate external conflicts, though a good book will entwine everything–romance, character, external conflicts–more and more tightly as the big black moment approaches. Approaching this like a formula will work out about as well as painting the Mona Lisa by numbers…And who much fun would that be, anyway?
    Welcome to the club!

  43. Maybe what we’re trying to say is that the emerging relationship is the protag. Will think on this…

  44. Pingback: Writing on the Ether | Jane Friedman

  45. Pingback: Friday’s Mash | Tracy Cooper-Posey

  46. Thank you Larry for saying this and I do hope that you give it a go. We have several male writers in Celtic Hearts and in NJ RWA. It’s refreshing to get a male’s POV.

    I attended a Michael Hauge event last month and it was wonderful. The room was packed with romance writers of course because NJ RWA hosted the event but there were a ton of screenwriters, sci-fi, womens lit in the room. We had one person at some point call us “those people”. If you could have heard the hissing around the room. Drama indeed!

    I was completely offended by the way she labeled romance writers. The stigma continues even though we are a billion dollar industry. Something think about when you are dusting off that novel.

  47. Larry, thank-you for the excellent article. Much appreciated.

  48. Thanks for giving romance, I mean, Romance writers a little love. (No pun intended there.) If you look at RWA statistics from 2010, (http://tinyurl.com/6hgwtzq) romance novels accounted for as much as 13.4% of the market, beating out all of the competition. If we are going to continue to dominate sales, people are going to have to realize we aren’t just mommy porn but are legitimate novels with plots of substance and characters who experience real growth. Thanks for telling people what’s really going on cover to cover.

  49. What a wonderful endorsement of a genre that has gotten so little respect outside of publishers with fat bank accounts from all the sales. LOL The best of the genre are as meticulously written as any other good book and the authors need to be appreciated. Glad to see there is at least one more man who does. (smile)
    And you are handsome enough to grace one of the covers. Need to see the abs, though. (smile)

  50. Pingback: Melissa McClone » Contemporary Romance » Hugs