You’re here because you want to write a short romantic novel, right? Grab a comfy seat and a mug of coffee (or tea, or whatever), and let’s get started.
Firstly, there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. I’m a planner, so I like to agree the outline with my editor up front; I have dear friends who are at the other end of the spectrum. Writing an outline kills a book for them; but doing it their way and working with a blank page means that I don’t actually do anything other than play word games and feel guilty (!). I like using a nerdy table for my outline; other friends do outlines with post-it notes. Takeaway? Give various methods a try. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, then the method doesn’t suit you – don’t worry, just try something else. The same goes for whether you write longhand (as I do), straight to screen (as I used to do) or a mix of the two. There’s no right or wrong, only what works for you – and you might also find that it changes over time. (I write longhand nowadays because otherwise I spend all day messing about on the Internet. I don’t have a special notebook, either – A4 narrow-lined paper and a Pilot V5 turquoise pen.)
Secondly, romances aren’t all the same. Give a roomful of novelists the same premise (eg a Cinderella book) and every one will be different. There are elements that are the same: two characters meet, there’s a reason that keeps them apart (conflict), and things happen (plot) that help them to resolve that conflict and reach a happy-ever-after. But you could equally reduce a crime novel to such basic elements: someone commits a crime and someone else works out whodunnit. These are simply elements which make your reader pick up a novel from that genre and that’s what they expect to find within the pages. What you do with those elements is what will keep them reading.
So here’s a quick and dirty guide to writing a short romance novel.
Your reader expects to fall in love with the hero and identify with (or want to be really good friends with) the heroine. This means you have to do it, too – if you don’t, it will show on the page and your reader will lose interest.
- Get to know your characters well, so they’re consistent and have integrity – so you know how they’ll react to a given situation. Motivation is really important as it often drives the conflict. Dig deep into their emotions.
- Dripfeed the information to your reader (aka ‘show, don’t tell‘)
- Put enough physical markers in so your reader can ‘see’ your characters (but avoid the ‘information dump’ with three adjectives per noun – less is definitely more)
This is crucial – without it you don’t have a story. You need a conflict big enough to sustain a whole book and give the emotional punch your reader is looking for. Your characters need a reason to be together (i.e. attraction) and reasons why they can’t act on that attraction (i.e. conflict). External conflict comes from outside the hero/heroine to keep them apart (eg Romeo and Juliet’s families) and there needs to be more than just that for short romantic fiction. Internal conflict comes from inside the characters – it affects their attraction to each other and is resolved by them learning more about each other. Conflict can’t be resolved quickly by just talking things through, and it’s more than arguing and sulking (that’s static and bores the reader – ditto ‘he loves me/he loves me not’). Conflict needs to:
- build tension
- show the hero/heroine’s motivations (i.e. a valid reason for their actions)
- make the hero/heroine face a choice
- change the characters (as the conflict is resolved, the characters grow)
- increase as you go through the book (i.e. put bigger obstacles in the characters’ path – or, as my editor always says dig deeper into their emotions)
It can be helpful to have your hero and heroine’s conflict mirror each other’s. If they both want something different from life (eg one wants children, one hates the idea), how do you resolve it?
Basically you’re looking to take your reader into another world. Make her laugh, make her cry, make her angry on your hero/heroine’s behalf, and make her punch the air at the end when the conflict is resolved and your characters get their happy ending. Emotional punch is what brings the story and the conflict home to the reader. How?
- Think yourself into your characters’ shoes – with their backgrounds/personality, how would you react to a situation?
- Think about the best and/or worst thing that’s ever happened to you and how you felt – then translate that emotional intensity into how your characters are feeling at a high or low point of the book.
- Add physical feelings to emotions – are any of your hero/heroine’s senses really intensified? How? (Remember there are five senses, not just sight. Use one tiny, telling detail as shorthand. What’s the one thing that will show the reader that your hero/heroine’s grief/pain/joy is so great that he/she can’t contain it? Try to avoid the single tear, though. That’s been done to death.)
Structuring your book
Beginnings – aka your chance to grab your readers and make them keep reading. So give them compelling reasons to keep reading.
- Start with a moment of change, preferably using dialogue
- Get the hero and heroine together on the page as quickly as you can – if they’re not physically together, at least get the other one’s name mentioned, in dialogue or thought (this is because your readers will have the strongest bond with the first characters they meet)
- Start in the right place – if you need lengthy explanations (aka an information dump of the back-story), you’re either starting too late in the action or writing the wrong story. Don’t be scared to cut for pace.
Middles – aka where your characters grow and start to change. It’s also a good place to reveal secrets (or, in a longer book, introduce a subplot) and complications. Don’t keep secrets from the reader, but your characters can keep secrets from each other.
- Watch out for saggy middles – if yours sags, you need more emotional conflict and tension to lift it. (Dig deeper. Or make sure they’re talking – if they’re keeping secrets from each other for too long, they’re not connecting and your readers won’t see any chemistry. Rookie point, perhaps – but I did that with my original draft of my 80th book… And it needed fixing!)
- Drop the bombshells here to increase the conflict rather than leaving them to the end of the book.
- The end of the middle section is a good place to drop the biggest bombshell, aka the ‘Black Moment‘ – where the characters seem to be in an impossible situation and the resolution isn’t immediately obvious.
Endings – aka the resolution, where all conflict (including the Black Moment) is sorted out. Maybe they’ve changed their minds about what they want; maybe they’ve found a compromise.
- The climax starts at the beginning of the end: where the hero/heroine (or both) has a choice between two courses of action.
- The book doesn’t have to end with a wedding or a baby – as long as we believe the hero and heroine will be happy together.
Other important stuff
Cut for pace. In category romance, you only have about 50,000 words to play with, so we’re talking about really tight writing. This means cutting for pace. How?
- Lose most of the introspection and descriptive writing (it slows the pace, tends to be passive and gets in the way). Change it to action and dialogue, but only if it moves the plot forward: otherwise, cut.
- Avoid flashbacks (they slow the pace unless you’re very careful with them – think of them as a seasoning rather than a main ingredient, and keep them short)
- Keep the focus mainly on the hero and heroine; use secondary characters to shed light on the main characters and/or move the plot forward, but don’t let them take over. (Dogs, cats and children are the usual suspects here.)
- Be brave about cutting – if it doesn’t move the book forward, lose it. (It’s not wasted work: it’s been useful background for you and you’ll know your characters better because of it, but the reader doesn’t need the same amount of background.)
Show, don’t tell. Would you prefer to watch a film where the characters talk for themselves and interact, or would you prefer to watch a slide show where the narrator only tells you what he/she thinks you need to know? The same goes for this type of novel. Show rather than tell by using:
- Dialogue rather than reported speech (i.e. ‘she told him she loved him and he told her he loved her too’ – reported speech is good for filling in the odd gap/skipping a period of time, but keep it to a couple of lines max)
- Interaction between characters
- Action (the reader need some introspection to get into the characters’ heads, but too much slows the pace down)
- The active voice (‘the chicken crossed the road’ rather than ‘the road was crossed by the chicken’ – active is where someone does something, passive is where something done to someone)