Monday, October 26, 2009

Romance Novels? How Embarrassing.

Formula One is not just for good looking European race car drivers anymore. Welcome to Inktropolis’s foray into the high drama truth behind writing a romance. Yes, there’s a formula. Isn't that what makes them so 'easy' to write'?
I suppose that’s raised some hackles. Good. Hackle-raising burns calories and gets the blood flowing. Good. Now, see the side bar please and note the disclaimer that the opinions of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of all the citizens of Inktropolis. Please read through to the end before jumping to romance’s defense. . . And by the way, I write romance. (Historical Romantic Suspense for the Inspirational Market--try fitting that on your business card.)
Literary fiction (you know, the REAL writing, the kind that writers would like to write but can’t so they write genre?) may not have a formula other than to make you think real hard and end up confused and depressed. KIDDING! Well, not completely. I can think of a couple books that stuck with me for weeks after I'd finished. I like that but I can't say they were uplifting either.
Anyway, when I pick up a Tony Hillerman mystery, I know what I’m getting. Mystery has a formula. If a mystery doesn’t have a crime and a body right up front for the “sleuth”, in this case Detective Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee, to investigate and solve, then I want my money back. Thankfully, mystery "formula" and great writing ruled and I always had an enjoyable read. (Thank you Mr. Hillerman, with love, for years of entertainment. You'll be missed.)
I hope I’m not bursting any reader’s balloons. If you read romance, mystery, thrillers or fantasy, please realize that the writer has to fulfill certain expectations or they will hear their agent and editor laugh out loud. In other words, try selling a romance without following the formula. Formula, Formula, Formula. There, I said it.
The Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on, folks.
Skip this next paragraph if you don’t want to shocked by the emperor’s man boobs.
Simplified: Boy Meets Girl, Boy likes girl, Boy loses girl, Boy gets girl back. Expanded: they should have superior motivation to achieve clashing goals and have a worthy conflict or opposition. Next is the black moment when all appears lost, and then (hear the chorus of angels?) all will work out and they’ll live HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
Or HEA in writer-speak.
Now take that formula and “Make it fresh”. Okay. Sure. Right. If you’re not writing, you don’t know how difficult this is. Note: I said difficult, not impossible.
Why is it that romance novels are the largest portion of all published books each year, and yet they are still looked down? Is it because they follow a GASP! formula? What's wrong with a formula. Duh. I think they work. Do you see any authors on the NYT list that have a good thing going and stick with it? I think so.
I blame all the anti-romance snobbery on those book covers. You know. Fabio. Ripped bodices on women whose hair is tossed by wind and their model-perfect makeup is on, even if its 1583 and they've been under attack by the border lords since MayDay and haven't had hot water for a bath in a month? Okay, that I can't argue with. But inside there better be a good story above all else.
Inspirational fiction has to take all the ‘must haves’ of good writing and add the dimension of spirituality. We are real jugglers. Christian Romance is not an oxymoron, either and if you think so, you're not reading today's market. Christian Romance celebrates the heart and the passion that draw two people together and keeps them together, sexy AND cerebral and held together by modeling the kind of love God has shown us. Selfless, strong, everlasting. Doesn't that get your motor running?
So, that’s my little rant on romance. Come back tomorrow and we’ll discuss how unrealistic or realistic it is. Oh dear. You won't all go away mad, will you?
Oops, before I go, I have to bring up Waller and Sparks. You know. The men who ‘write romance’. Well, honey, they may make you cry and say, “oh, how romantic”, but that’s not a romance novel. (See above on HEA.) I think they make a dollar for every tear that's shed. As I told my daughter, women write romances with happy endings, men write them with heartbreaker endings. I’m not such a cold old thing that I don’t cry my way through Message in a Bottle every time I see it, but my gosh, someone has to have a good relationship that works out. They can’t all die.
(And my apologies to the REAL men who write romance in the shadows of a women dominated field.) We have some great grand prize drawing gifties that will be awarded at the end of October. We have two super packages to draw for. But you must leave your EMAIL address to go into our Prize Czar's bucket. And please remember to leave your address safely, so the antagonists out there can't make things worse for you, our protagonists. We want a HEA.
Thanks for stopping in,
Debra (or if you don't like this post, my name is Gina)
Thank you to Flikr and DML East Branch for the Tony Hillerman tribute banner.


  1. Great post Debra! I think the formula works too, and honestly, without the HEA, I wouldn't read romances.
    I either forgot or didn't know that you had suspense in your historicals! That's such a good idea!

  2. Debra,
    Thanks for sharing that "secret" formula! Loved the edgy writing. I think there's a place for you in women's fiction....


  3. I think the use of formula is such a hot-button issue for romance writers because some literary snobs act as if ONLY romance has a formula. In reality every genre has one, by the same token, within every genre are a few who can and do successfully suspend the formula. No writing is easy, formula or not. Tastes vary, but even for me, a huge mystery fan, I love it when a book's theme is expanded by a touch of romance. It becomes so much more satisfying.

    All that said, the formulas that exist are loose enough to accommodate infinite variety, and they do, and do it well.

  4. Good Morning!

    Hi Jessica, good to see you.

    Patti, there's a women's fiction book in me wanting to come out but I expect I'll hide it inside a historical suspense.

    Lisa, the emperor thanks you for your support.

    I'll be back at lunchtime.

  5. One of the things I find interesting is how narrow or broad people define the romance "formula." Under some definitions, my writing qualifies, and under others it doesn't.

    I will say this, my writing certainly is "romantic." So I've decided to start a new genre. In place of "Historical Romance," I'm going to use the term "Romantic Historical."

    "Anyone want to join the wave?" asks Dina Sleiman, 2009 winner of the Touched by Love contest for new romance writers, although she doesn't follow the formula :)


  6. Good morning, Deb. Anyone who has entered a romance writers' contest and read the judges' comments, can surely agree that there is a formula of one sort or another. The hero and heroine MUST meet on the first page, or at least on the first three pages. They have to be together as much as possible. If not in every scene, then they have to be at least thinking about each other. That's not what I say, that's what the judges always say to me. Clearly I don't follow that formula very well.

    I think "formula" sometimes masks itself as "rules" or "reader expectations". I think if anyone has any doubts about this, simply go on a hunt for the judging scoresheets for whatever contest you want to enter. Most of them are spelled out pretty plainly on those scoresheets.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with writing to a reader's expectations. After all, if I pick up a romance, I expect certain things. I'm not so sure I expect H&H to meet on the first page, and I'm not so sure I expect them to be together or to think about each other in every scene, but I do know I excpect the heroine to be strong and not a wimp. I expect the hero to be heroic, willing to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves.

    But I also like to be surprised.

    I could say tons more, but I have to dash out the door to work or I'll be late. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  7. Very interesting post. Most informative. Thanks for the info.


  8. Couldn't have said it better.

    I agree with Lisa. All genre fiction has a formula. The romance formula is simply the most widely talked about and perhaps the most easily deconstructed. That doesn't make it easy to write.

    And you're right. Those men do not write romance.

  9. Deb, what a great post. You can call the 'formula' anything you want, even a recipe, reader expectations, no-no's, etc. but there are rules to follow and when it's written well enough, rules to break. HEA is the constant, thank goodness. It all comes down to a great story within guidelines. Even story length is dictated!

    Have a great day! I'm going away happy and look forward to tomorrow's post.

  10. Deb, superb post. You've done an excellent job explaining what formula is and isn't. When I've told certain folks that I write romance, they've mentioned how easy it must be because romance writers follow a "formula." They assume the term means that there's a fill-in-the-blank notebook where you just pick your time period, hero & heroine's names, and presto! You've written a publishable manuscript!

    Wait, there isn't a notebook, is there? Is someone selling a notebook??? :-)

    Oh, I miss Tony Hillerman; I loved the universe of Jim Chee and Lt Joe Leaphorn.

  11. Great post! I need my HEA. I look forward to having everything work out.

    I agree with the covers. Some of the secular romance covers these days are just awful. i remember reading something just recently and the hero on the cover was bare chested and my husband looked at it and said "You're reading that!" I think the cover offended his masculinity because he started to wonder if I was imagining this guy in his place and then he said he would never be that buff no matter how hard he tried. I explained that I simply thought the plot of the book sounded rather interesting and I could care less about the cover model and I managed to soothe his shattered male ego. The experience made me wish again that these books weren't going the route of trying to show as much flesh as possible. I have been really shocked by some of the covers I have seen lately both online and in stores. Some of them are really pushing the envelope on flashing skin and I hate my kids having to look at that. I think it is sad.


  12. Thanks April and Patricia for 'chiming in'!

    Hey Inkies--Good to have your support. (waving at Connie!)
    Susie, I don't know of a workbook either. But if someone writes one, you know it'll sell.

    As far as those contest scoresheets? Now if that isn't proof of the secret formula, I don't know what is. Thanks Suzie.

    I told Patti that I left out a chunk of this post about women's fiction (Due to length, you'll all be thankful) and after Dina's comment, I remember that her Dandelion book is hard to categorize too. Women's fiction with romantic elements? Yikes. It's crazy. We writers love to analyze, I guess it's easier than working some times.

  13. I'm a mystery fan and thought Hillerman's Leaphorn/Chee series was excellent. I had not heard of his passing, so thank you for your comments about him, Debra.

  14. Hi Cherie,
    I haven't picked any (secular romances) up in awhile but I've noticed a lot more than are bare chested and more. yowsers!!

    Carole, yes, it's been just about a year. I think Mr. Hillerman had battled cancer a few years ago but I don't know if this was related to that or not. I'm a big fan of the southwest and I loved being transported to the desert and inside the Navajo community. And I guess I'll miss new stories about Joe and Jim too! Thanks for commenting.
    Do you want your name in the drawing for the grand prizes?

  15. Fun post, Debra! And I won't comment too much, because I'm posting on Wednesday and won't have anything left to say! :)

  16. Fun post, Debra! And I won't comment too much, because I'm posting on Wednesday and won't have anything left to say! :)

  17. LOL. Sure, Deb, blame me if anyone takes offense. ;-)

  18. Excellent post, Deb.

    Yes, I follow the formula. It's proven and it works.

    Like in the military, you go to your workplace and your complete job description in every situation is laid out in the Standard Operating Procedures. (SOP's)

    Here's a true story: When hubby and I ran into problems as young newlyweds, hubby could be heard exclaiming, 'How am I supposed to know what to do? I can't find the SOP's for being a husband!'

  19. Missy! I know. I'm looking forward to see your take on the 'dark side of romance novels'! I thought I'd check in and see if anyone jumped down here after reading Dina's wonderful post.

    Gina - so far so good,eh?

    Anita. How funny. I can attest to that. I had no clue what I was doing and then when I did. Oops too bad!

  20. Great post, Debra. Hear, hear to romance novels! I love the HEA and the mystery of how this particular couple will make it through their trials to get to it.

    Unfortunately, there's a bit of "looking down the nose" in any art form. This woman who is a music major and sings children's songs all day long says, a pox on music snobbery. :) I don't have time or energy in my life for looking down my nose at anyone's idea of good music, a good story, etc. Viva la difference! :)

  21. Hey Gwen,

    I've been thinking about where the negativity came from regarding romance novels. You know there are a few really popular authors from years ago that started to really just write the same story over and over again just with different names. That definitely made "formula" a bad word.

    I think I know what you're saying about the music industry. And I often think of the fun you're having in your classroom. When I worked in an elementary school, I loved going by the music room!

  22. My name is Laurie Alice Eakes and I am a ROMANCE writer. And I have no desire to change that fact. My books are historical and have suspense and mystery and the foundation is romance. Hurray for the genre and its complexities.

  23. Forgot my e-mail address, though I think most of you inkyladies know it

    lauriealice . eakes at gmail . com


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