The Romantic Novel
“In the Romance novel, the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on the earth, the human male, to his knees.”
here are many genres of novels, such as, Crime Fiction, Romance, Fantasy, Science Fiction and so on. I do not have time or space in this series to look into all of these categories. However, I think it would be useful both this week and next to take a close look at one genre – Romantic Fiction.
Why would you want to write romantic novels? Do you enjoy reading them? I think you should never write anything you would not enjoy reading. If you like love stories with plenty of conflict and complications then you may want to try to write in the Romantic Fiction genre. Remember that it is a genre and like all genre fiction this category is based on form, style and subject matter.
There should be heated misunderstandings between the hero and heroine which are heart-warmingly resolved in the final denouement – the final part of the story in which everything is made clear and no questions or surprises remain. The story will have a beginning, middle and end. You will need to gain and sustain the reader’s interest, so that they want to keep turning the pages to see how a satisfactory ending is achieved, in spite of the fact that the couple disliked each other or seemed incompatible at the start.
There is a kind of snobbery about Romantic Fiction. Some people think it is beneath them and unworthy of their time and attention. I respectfully suggest that if you feel like that it would probably be best not to enter this field just to make money. Writing Romance that will engage the hearts and minds of readers is not easy. It requires respect for your readership, as any hint of condescension will be detected and despised. If your plots are rigid and formulaic and your heart is not engaged in the work it is unlikely it will be accepted for publication. It does not matter how intellectual you may be, if you are going to connect with your potential readership it is important to understand them. Romantic Fiction has a time-honoured form and having respect for and knowledge of how and why this works is essential for those who aspire to write in this category.
Originality is always important. Whereas you want to learn from the best writers by reading widely and frequently be sure that what you write is not derivative, as that sort of material is unlikely to be published. Write what you enjoy reading and bear in mind that good writing has not only structure but it has soul.
Writing is as much a craft as an art form. You will need to serve an apprenticeship in it, like any other craft. If you are to become a master craftsman you will need to go further than the average craftsman. Most publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts every year – if they accept unsolicited or un-agented manuscripts at all. In order to stand out from the crowd you will need to have something special.
It might be helpful, if you want to write Romantic Fiction, to banish any lingering elitism and regard this genre as a form of journalism – ephemeral, expendable – rather than “literature.” There is, of course, great journalism and reportage but in reality “ephemeral” and “expendable” are words that best describe most of what appears in the newspapers.
Mills & Boon are treated almost like magazines, selling over 80% during the first week of publication. They are written fast and they are sold fast, without much regard for who the author might be. Consumers of this product know what to expect. It is escapist, light Romantic Fiction. If you want to write this kind of material become familiar with the product. Go to your public library and read several of these books – if you are not too embarrassed. Peruse them at your leisure as this investment could pay dividends. Purchase some of the most recent publications. The more up-to-date they are the better, as conventions and requirements in the field are constantly changing in line with social values and editorial policies.
The challenge for you will be to produce your own version of the best of them; a fresh slant or individual touch, within the parameters of the category. Try to concoct the best you can manage, not replicas of what is already in print. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery but it will not serve you well in the publishing world, where originality is highly prized.
Get on the right bus
What are these parameters? If you have decided to write Romance in preference to other genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime Thrillers, Historical Sagas etc. you are embarking on a particular journey. There may be many routes to the ultimate destination (all with their own scenery) but they must bring readers of this genre to the destination promised. If books are correctly shelved under “Romance” in the bookshops they are like busses or trains – they must go where they promise! If you get on a bus to Dingle you don’t expect to end up in Donegal!
Evolution of the form
An element of Romance may feature in many types of books but what exactly is Romantic Fiction? Today’s Romantic novel has evolved over two centuries from the prototype works of Jane Austen. But Romantic Fiction stretches much further back than that – to medieval Latinate roots (hence “Roman”) and beyond. The word “Romance” implies fantasy, mysticism, bold deeds and heroics, adventure, escapism; the kind of larger-than-life tales that caused troubadours to warble and poets to wax lyrical. In French the word roman simply means novel.
One common element among these ballads, poems and ancient universal fables was certainly romantic love. But in archetypal romantic stories based on, for example, Arthurian legends, knights did not spend all their time rescuing tearful maidens from ferocious dragons. The heroes were not always conducting passionate and clandestine affairs with beautiful queens.
“Romance” is a word that relates to true love. Romantic Fiction implies a certain type of story; one which, despite trials and tribulations can be relied on to finish tidily and optimistically. There is a template and there are rules for modern Romance – it rarely ends in tragedy. It usually has a happy-ever-after finale. I’m talking specifically about MODERN Romantic Fiction here – what is sometimes pejoratively called “Chick-Lit.” There are, of course great Romantic novels of the past that do not end happily – such as Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, where Heathcliff and Cathy are lovers forever, even after death.
With regard to our cultural antecedents in terms of Romantic Fiction it should be said that those original love stories rarely ended happily-ever-after. Historically, in that genre there was a yearning for an ultimate but unattainable perfection, pure beauty. Characters might aspire to the joy of pure love and may glimpse it or taste it briefly but were not allowed enter and remain in this blissful state of rapture. This is the reverse notion of today’s happy-ever-after ending.
It was this craving for perfection in the form of true love, spiritual and sexual (as embodied in the lovers for each other) which constituted the Romance. Seeking, not finding; longing, not achieving was the central strand in Romantic myth, as personified in the quest for the Holy Grail. Hence many of the great romantic liaisons of literature and legend (Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere) were not permitted to achieve permanent bliss in each other’s arms. They died or were cruelly parted in some other tearful way, just before or soon after their first taste of love. There might have been a brief and temporary consummation but they did not walk that path toward a rosy sunset, hand in hand.
That was also the nature of Romance as it applied to the Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century (and earlier in France). It does not apply now to the writing of Romantic Fiction in any imprint that I am aware of.
Falling in love
The romantic novelist must aim to portray the process of falling in love. Never mind what the protagonists do in their ensuing, undisclosed years. That harsher future is for more “realistic” novelists to explore. The job of the Romance writer is to chronicle, in intense emotional detail, the blossoming of a relationship in its seminal moments – hours/days, weeks/months/years). The happy ending is only the beginning of this fictional pair’s life together. You need not concern yourself with their future beyond this point. Escapism is meant to sweep the reader away from the realities of life. It is not necessarily true that the readers of Romantic Fiction invariably have humdrum, difficult or possibly even bleak existences. They may have perfectly happy lives but they enjoy entering into another dimension, an alternative reality of senses and emotions.
To say that Romance is formula fiction does not mean that it is easy to write or easy to get published. The formula is simple: boy meets girl, difficulties ensue but in the end love conquers all.
Of course your Romance can feature LGBTQ characters, if you so desire. For example, The Danish Girl is a 2015 romantic drama film directed by Tom Hooper, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Elbe was one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery.
Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 American neo-Western romantic drama film directed by Ang Lee was adapted from the 1997 short story of the same name by Annie Proulx, the screenplay was written by Ossana and Larry McMurtry.
If you’re writing Romantic Fiction (straight or gay) you will need to have something refreshingly different to say and a fresh approach to saying it.
Read more about Romantic Fiction next week…
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.