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Six Rules for Writing Category Romance

What are the two most consistent bits of advice that I’ve been given for writing a compelling category romance?

1. BUILD THE ROMANCE!

2. DEVELOP INTERNAL CONFLICTS!

Um, okay. Obvious enough. Those things are at the core of most romances. But how, exactly, do we do that in such a short book?It’s harder than it looks, and I still haven’t found the answer. But I have a list of evolving rules—let’s call ‘em guidelines—gleaned directly from rejection and revision letters I’ve received from Harlequin and Silhouette editors. (Though I’m targeting romantic suspense at the moment, I suspect that these ideas hold true for much of category romance.)

Guideline #1: Stir internal conflict on every page.

That’s right: EVERY page, beginning with page one. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to feel like you’re beating a dead horse with a golf driver, but trust me. I thought I’d done a pretty good job of this with my last effort—which won a 2009 Golden Heart, so for the sake of argument let’s assume it doesn’t totally suck—but a blessedly patient Silhouette Romantic Suspense editor came back to me with this: “As for your characters’ internal conflicts…they need to be brought up earlier in the manuscript. We also need to see how these things affect them and add to their romantic conflicts. There’s some of this, but readers need to get a deeper understanding of these things earlier and continue to see their progression throughout.”

Guideline #2: Minimize secondary characters.

I’ve been told over and over again, not only by these editors but also by my agent, to cut down scenes that do not feature both the heroine and the hero. So just do it. Seriously. Even if you think your hero’s sidekick is deliciously bad, keep his lines to a minimum. You simply don’t have the space for it. Write them into a longer book if you love them so much. This was from a Harlequin Intrigue letter: “However, there was a lot of time spent on a secondary character…, which overshadowed any developing romance between the hero and the heroine.” From Silhouette: “Scenes and conversations with other people…dominate, and while necessary information is revealed, these instances could be shortened and/or combined as well.”

Guideline #3: Let your main characters be active.

They should be the parties who resolve the external conflict. They shouldn’t just stew about their internal conflicts while everyone around them solves the crime or saves the school or finds the cure. A savvy Silhouette editor advised me to make my secret-agent heroine more dynamic. “She’s off the page for too long, and she needs more agent work to do throughout. Get her involved more.”

Guideline # 4: Get them together.

You don’t have the luxury of space, so get them together quickly, on page one if you can. I try to not introduce any secondary characters before the hero and heroine, or at least make it very, very clear that other males are not the hero, and other females are not the heroine. A Harlequin editor cautioned me, when I played too fast and loose with this guideline, “[the] hero and heroine don’t meet until well into chapter two and it’s not clear, initially, whether he’s the hero or a bad guy. There should be no doubt in the reader’s mind which couple to root for.”

Guideline #5: Keep them together.

If you need them to be apart, they’d darned well better be thinking about each other while they’re away, at least a bit. The SRS editor had this to say: “[Hero] and [heroine] are drawn to one another from the beginning,… but you could go further. Adding a bit more interaction or awareness between them in the early chapters of the manuscript would amp up the attraction and give their romance an even stronger base….We need to see more of them in romantic and/or passionate situations.” Later, when I failed to take it seriously enough, she wrote, “[hero] and [heroine] need to spend more time together—they have to interact in order to develop their romance. In the early chapters, consider trimming some material to reach the point where they join forces earlier.”

Guideline #6: Give them reasons to love each other.

Seems clear, but it’s one of the more challenging things to accomplish. It’s also the most important. It’s not enough to show a couple drawn together by passion and circumstance. The Silhouette editor suggested that I slow my fast-paced story down at certain points, forcing them to spend more quiet time together. “This will give them more time to talk about personal things as well, allowing them to develop feelings for each other, a deeper connection. As you have it now, their feelings of love come way too quickly and with nothing really to back them up.” Ouch, right? But so true! When I looked back at my manuscript, I realized that while I knew that these people were falling in love, I’d failed to adequately convey that on the page.

There’s more, of course—pages and pages of things I’ve done wrong—but these are the things that seem to be most important to the editors with which I’ve had the good fortune to communicate.

What do you think? Have you tried writing category? Do you think these ideas apply across category genres?

And my favorite question…

Have you violated one of these guidelines, but sold to a category publisher nonetheless?

48 responses to “Six Rules for Writing Category Romance”

  1. Wow, Jamie, how lucky you are to have received detailed feedback from editors!

    I did attempt to write category (Blaze, in fact!) before I realised YA was my niche. I read across all lines and I do think your guidelines here apply to each of them. The danger in having too many minor characters or giving them big roles in category romance means there’s less focus on your hero and heroine. Mind you, I’ve read a few contest entries where I thought the secondaries were far more interesting than the h/h. 🙂

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    • Blaze is a great line for people who think Harlequin is all about the gagillionaire sheiks and their virgin brides.

      Not that I have anything against sheiks (or virgins), but category romance is a broad and varied animal. But all, I think, share an intense focus on the hero and heroine. There’s just no time for side stories.

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    • And yes, I’m super lucky! The Golden Heart contest has led to all of this. Without it, I’d not have any of these letters (well, except that first one-page rejection) to look at.

      I feel more than a little presumptuous giving my tips as an unpublished writer, but hey, I’ve got the documents in front of me, and I wanted to share them. I know more than a few of the RSS are trying to break into category, so I figured it was time to spread the editorial love.

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      • Elise Hayes says:

        Not presumptious at all! I always think it’s fascinating to see what editors say–so thank you for sharing!

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      • Jeannie Lin says:

        Actually, a writer in your position is more aware of what it takes to make or break a manuscript. It’s fresh in your mind and heart and you’re actively working with an editor and an agent. I think it gives you plenty of credibility, maybe more than a long time author who’s got all these things in her blood now and almost doesn’t have to think about it as much.

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        • Thanks, Jeannie!

          These things are SO not in my blood! I keep my letters on my desk as I’ve been revising, literally checking things off as I go, or highlighting as needed. I made this list up for personal use. It’s going above my keyboard.

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      • I don’t think it’s presumptuous at all. I loves ya for sharing.

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  2. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    To be honest, I don’t read much category stuff anymore. Too often, the rush to get to the romance left the characterization in limbo-land for me. Not that I have read a few that were very well done, but for the most part, I prefer single title where there is room for a relationship to develop in conjunction with coming to know the characters intimately.

    As a result, I have never tried to write category, but my hat’s off to anyone who does it well.

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    • Gwynlyn, not every category writer does this well. Frankly, I’m slogging through one right now that’s not just working, but I’m trying to learn all I can from it, nonetheless.

      But some just nail it, and it’s tons of fun to read! There are a few series romance authors I avoid, and others I seek out. It’s like single title, in that way, except they come out much more often, and you can expect certain common themes from every book in a particular category that you read.

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  3. Katrina says:

    This post comes at a great time for me. My first ms was a single-title contemporary, but I was really stuck with several problems. I’d never thought about making it a category-length novel, but when I won your grand prize back in October, Vivi read my first three chapters and said it seemed like it fit category better.

    Like Gwynlyn, it’d been years since I read any category stuff, and my impression was that they skimped on characterization because of the short amount of space. Then I read Karina Bliss’ What the Librarian Did and thought, I can actually believe these characters are real. Maybe not all category romance is the way I remember it from my teens – angry a-hole heroes and meek heroines.

    So I’m revising my first ms to fit Harlequin Superromance or Silhouette Special Edition. And I’m currently breaking your rules 1, 2, and 4. Whoops.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I critique for a category author and it’s helped me learn how to tighten my scenes and always push my conflict to the next level with each scene, which is great for avoiding the repetitive conflict loop that you see sometimes. That’s still one of my biggest hurdles.

      Good luck on the Superromance.

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      • Oooo! Now that’s a higher-level guideline. Avoiding that repetitive conflict loop is really hard, but it’s one of the keys to making your novel heartfelt and rewarding to those who read it.

        Now, if only I could figure out how to do it…

        🙂

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        • Jeannie Lin says:

          I haven’t figured out how to do it on my own manuscripts (of course). Small tweaks and escalations seems to evolve the core conflict enough to keep it fresh. Category seems tough because you have to escalate quickly. One wasted scene just glares out at you.

          Loop – “But this is only a casual affair for him, he doesn’t really love me.”

          Escalation:
          – “This is only a casual affair for him.”
          – “Wait, could this possibly mean more to him, or why would he have done X?”
          – “Oh no, it sure is becoming way more than just a fling for me.”
          – “Maybe he’s not ready for a deeper relationship”
          – “Oh no, maybe it’s me that’s not worthy/ready for a deeper relationship.”

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    • Katrina, I’m glad I could help. That’s awesome that Vivi recommended you turn your ms into a category novel! It’s a fun market, to be sure. The editors are approachable and helpful, at least in my experience. It’s truly possible to get their eye straight from the slush pile, no agent required (though they are nice to have!).

      “Maybe not all category romance is the way I remember it from my teens – angry a-hole heroes and meek heroines.”

      Most of them aren’t, anymore. Even the Presents novels, which have the covers and titles of classic category romance, aren’t like that. Or, if the heroes are angry, they have strong, believable reasons for it, and they *never* take it out on the heroine. Some heroines are still a bit meek, but they tend to find their strength, when push comes to shove. And they, too, always have good reasons for being pushovers. but most are complex modern women who I can relate to.

      I encourage you to reconsider your rule-breaking. Maybe you’ll be the exception to the rules — er, guidelines. I thought I would be, but I wasn’t. You may as well make it as easy as possible on yourself to make that first sale. These things really do matter to category editors — and readers, who are the real judges we’re trying to please.

      Bend the rules on your second book. 😉

      Just my opinion, take it or leave it, but GOOD LUCK either way. Keep us posted!

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      • Katrina says:

        Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that I was proud of breaking the rules, or that I think the ms is stronger for it. It was more of a ‘whoops’ realization after I read your post. Fortunely, I’m early enough into rewriting that I can find ways to pare down.

        Thanks for the advice!

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  4. Jeannie Lin says:

    Wonderful guidelines! And I think they actually ring true for writing a compelling single title as well. That’s not to say you don’t have more space in an 80-100K work for secondary characters and more build-up before the first meet. But you still run the risk of distracting from the central romance and making the story less tight.

    And #1 is an important guideline for any book. Even “slow” passages in longer literary or women’s fiction books are are filled with brewing conflict. That was a hard lesson to learn — that you can never let up! A very gripping first three chapters doesn’t give you any leeway to slow down in Chapter 4. At first I was like you, feeling like I was forcing the conflict by inserting it in when there was none before. But slowly, I learned how to make it more organic and natural.

    Very useful post Jamie! And best of luck on the submission!

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    • Yup, yup, yup.

      The opera metaphor that Louisa used — that a writer can’t hear her own voice while she’s singing, and everything sounds brassy and loud in her own head — is so apt here. We have to push past the sense that we’re overplaying our hand, because most of us aren’t. Most contest entries I’ve read don’t, at least. And it’s usually easier to pull back than push forward. An editor can more easily ask you to “cut back on the hero’s internal woe” than “can you please tell me what his problem is, because I have no idea!”

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  5. Elise Hayes says:

    Great post, Jamie! And I agree with Jeannie–these guidelines are useful for single title as well as category.

    I still remember the first draft that I wrote of my first romance manuscript, back in the late 90s. I actually had about 80 pages, right in the middle of a 500-page manuscript, told from the POV of every possible secondary character. Yup, that’s right. Neither the hero nor the heroine made more than minor side appearances (and never together) for about 80 pages, as all of the secondary characters got to give their backstories, usually while sitting down and thinking about their past. (snort!) It still makes me laugh to think about it.

    So #2 (minimize secondary characters), #3 (let the main characters be the active ones), and #4 (get the hero/heroine together) are all important rules for any romance–not just category!!

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    • Too funny! It sounds like your first 80 pages were pre-writing, but you just didn’t know it.

      I came to writing romance after being a general fiction reader, never having more than dabbled in reading romance, so my sensibilities needed tweaking before I really believed these guidelines. I approached writing romance like it was general fiction, but with a strong romantic sub-plot, and that’s SO not how romance works. That’s NSRE, which is a great genre, but it wasn’t the one I thought I was writing.

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  6. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I break the rules every time, Jamie, and write fence-sitters that don’t fit anywhere. Editors love them, but they don’t know where to put them. Someday, when I’m famous, maybe no one will care if my books are a cross between single title and series romance.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      Laurie, this blog might be encouraging to you about agent Scott Eagan wanting to see more ST contemps.
      http://tinyurl.com/2a533wp

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      • Kim Law says:

        Thanks, Diana! I’m looking for agents who WANT contemporaries since that seems to be about all my mind wants to conjure up.

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      • Laurie Kellogg says:

        Thanks, Diana. Unfortunately, I write family relationship contemporaries, and Scott Eagan has made it abundantly clear that he’s not fond of characters with baggage. Call me unimaginative, but I can’t come up with a relationship conflict that doesn’t involve personal baggage and back-stories that haunt the hero and heroine and that made them who they are. I can try submitting to him, but I have a feeling he’s just going to say my characters are carrying around too many suitcases. 🙂

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Soon someone’s going to grab one of them up and then say, give me everything else you’ve got! 🙂

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  7. Diana Layne says:

    I’ve tried to write category a couple of times. Both books are metaphorically under the bed. I tend to start wandering off on interesting side plots. Focus is a definite problem for me, especially if I find someone that needs killing. That’s when things really start getting interesting, lol.

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  8. Kim Law says:

    Great post, Jamie!!! And I agree with your whole-heartedly. These are exactly what category romances need to be the ones I can’t put down!

    #6 is my biggest hurdle…oh, and #1…on every page??? Oy! Must go back and double check a few things!

    And by the way, I definitely think you have the credentials to make this list and put it out here. Not only do you have the feedback directly from editors, you also are a category reader. And as a writer reading category, you are actively studying, and therefore picking up on these things. Never bad to share what you’ve learned, even if we don’t have that contract in hand just yet!!!

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    • Thanks, Kim. I *do* feel like I’m studying, like I’m working for my PhD or something. Can’t wait to graduate…

      #1 on every page…more or less. I’m exaggerating a bit, but it sure feels like they’re asking for IC on every page. When I get it right — that is, when my agent tells me I got it right — I know it. It feels right once it’s done, but strangely, not while I’m doing it.

      #6 is a tough one, especially — in my opinion — if you’ve got a compelling external plot to resolve. I get a little too wrapped up in the external plot, at least on the first draft. And second, and third, and fourth, and fifth…

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  9. Elisa Beatty says:

    Thanks, Jamie– And I absolutely agree with everyone who’s been saying these same rules apply to single title!

    Long gone are the days of long, sprawling 400-500 page historicals, with endless digressive subplots.
    Everything today has to be TIGHT, TIGHT, TIGHT, brewing with conflict, and an intense focus on hero/heroine that doesn’t let up. Readers/editors still want it to feel “big,” but in far fewer pages than used to be the case. (I’m realizing just how tight a cage 90,000-100,000 words really is…just barely enough room for all the necessary major plot turns.)

    I appreciate the advice to be sure the conflict is on EVERY PAGE and that it constantly evolves and builds. I think I should print out your list and put it above *my* keyboard.

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    • 🙂

      Thanks, Elisa. I kind of miss those sprawling historicals, though. I love “Rebecca,” for instance, which while not a historical at the time it was written, was lush and descriptive, with a creepy trickle of horror that I’m not sure could be accomplished in a more fast-paced novel.

      But now, yes. Big story in a small space. That’s what editors — and readers, I suppose — seem to want.

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  10. Wow! Thanks for the tips — they’re especially useful since I have several category romances that I thought were well on their way to being finished … Now I have to rethink that.

    In the first one (my 2010 GH entry that got solid 6s), the H/H don’t meet until chapter 2 — and she has a birthday lunch with friends and a chat with the coworker she thinks she wants to date first.

    I’m printing out this list so I can use it on my next read-through.

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    • I hope this helps, Arlene. I really think they like it when the h/h meet quickly, before any other potential suitors come into the mix. Might not be true for all lines, of course, but it can’t hurt.

      I’ve also been focusing on where I start. In my current unfinished project, I start with the heroine taking a bath and hearing footsteps outside her window. It’s a suspenseful scene that introduces her external conflict nicely, but doesn’t do much for her internal conflict. I can’t afford to waste the space, so I’m going to change it. I figure that if I can’t feature the hero in the scene — it’s really, truly too early for him to show up, as he’s the investigator she’s going to call to help with the footstep problem — then I’d better showcase the other Important Concept for Category Romance: the internal conflict.

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  11. Tina Joyce says:

    Great tips, Jamie! Number six is especially hard for me since “conflict” seems to be drilled into our heads at every turn.

    The blaze of attraction is often an immediate thing, but you’re right, allowing those deeper emotions to develop slowly will make them more believable (and help the reader believe the bond that’s growing is one which will stand the test of time).

    Thanks for the insights!

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    • Yup. You write RS, so you know how hard it is!

      Silhouette Romantic Suspense is very interested showing two real people falling in love. Lust doesn’t cut it. Real, deep, heart-wrenching love is required.

      I read a great one recently by Justine Davis, called “The Best Revenge.” I’m usually one to skip over the lovey bits after a while and get to the action, but her hero was so compelling, I had to slow down and follow along as he fell in love with the worthy heroine. I think she brought tears to my eyes at one point, which I assure you, is a rare event, especially in that genre.

      http://www.eharlequin.com/storeitem.html?iid=20843&cid=231

      Totally recommended as an intro to modern category RS.

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  12. Loved your tips, Jamie. Probably a good thing to print out and stick by my computer! Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Liz Talley says:

    Well, so sorry it took me all day to get to the blog. Especially since I’m a category writer. But I got revisions back that my editor needs yesterday, so I’ve been slogging through, tightening, shifting, and bringing my conflict front and center.

    I would like to say that I break the rules somewhat. And I do think that I have fleshed out characters. That’s pretty important to me. That connection to the character before you give him/her the h/h meet. Otherwise, I think the reader will put the book down. So in my debut book (coming out next month – sorry had to promo) my heroine doesn’t meet the heroine until the second scene of the first chapter….and he totally blows her off. No real sexual tension until poor Nellie gets to Vegas. I have very interesting secondary characters (especially Kate who gets her own book in A Little Texas) and there are many scenes where the h/h aren’t together. In fact, there are three whole chapters in the middle of the book where they are in two seperate states.

    I say break the rules as long as the story is good and the plot sustains it. I don’t think my editor has a problem with it at all. And she’s putting good books out there. All the June books got 4 or 4 1/2 stars from RT for June. Pretty good reviews.

    Good luck to those of you pursuing category books. I’m perfectly happy where I am though I know that I would like to challenge myself one day with a bigger book a la Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

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    • Liz Talley says:

      Oops. That’s the “heroine doesn’t meet the hero”

      It is a Harlequin book. Not erotica. 😉

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    • Hi Liz!

      I was hoping you’d stop by, though I know you’re busy, so thanks!

      You’re writing Supers, and I’ve been wondering how they differ from the shorter lines. Perhaps they’re slightly more of a segue between category and single title? They’re a tad longer than what I’m doing, at least. Maybe that extra 10,000 words or so of leeway lets an author give more room to that spicy secondary character, and take a little more time to set the stage before the Big Meet?

      I’m terribly excited about your release! June…8, right? I actually went to B&N yesterday and stared at the racks, wondering if it was already out. Then I noticed another title with the “Home on the Ranch” tagline and realized that yours was next!

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      • Liz Talley says:

        I think you’re exactly right about the difference. Supers are not just restricted to hearth and family though many of them include those elements. There is a fair amount of diversity – settings from NYC to Australia and every small town in between, and I think that the secondary characters enhance the overall depth of the books. After all, the h/h don’t operate in a vacuum (well, unless they are stranded).

        My books are usually 66,000 words and I’ve heard rumors that Supers could go back up a bit. (Many of the complaints on surveys were the size change and paper quality). So the senior editor has been making some changes that I think has shown over the last few years. There are some strong Super writers, so I’m pretty honored to be in the mix.

        As to the opening, I usually give a h/h meet toward the end of the first chapter. I always try to establish character first because I want the reader to connect. The sexual attraction, secondary characters, hooks, etc. are important, but the reader has to care for the character to want to know the story. So I focus on that first.

        And I’m so excited about the release. I still haven’t gotten my author copies (they’ve been running late) so I haven’t held that puppy yet. But soon. 🙂

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  14. […] 05/14/2010 More food for thought Posted by kyree90 under Blind Date Bride, Musings, Stories, Uncategorized | Tags: advice, characters, first, OSNB | Leave a Comment  Over at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, my writing blog home away from home, I read a fantastic post the other day. It was all about what editors want from a category romance. […]

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