It’s considered an established fact that the American public doesn’t read anymore, preferring movies and television. Yet romance publishing is a billion-dollar industry with a forty-percent market share. Somebody out there is definitely reading those books.
Trouble is, the original readership for romance -- those who devoured Barbara Cartland, Harlequins, and regencies -- is aging. The readers who have taken their place have spent years seeing more frank sexual content on television and in films. They’re not as easily shocked by the dreaded “F” word, and they see no reason anybody should shut the bedroom door on a love scene. They like sex, and unlike their predecessors, they weren’t raised to believe “good girls don’t.” As a result, many longstanding publishing-industry assumptions about the romance readership no longer apply.
(That’s not to say that the older, more easily shocked readers aren’t still around. They are, and many of them are truly appalled at what the younger crowd is reading and writing. Just flip open the letters section in any issue of Romantic Times Bookclub
, and you’ll see what I mean.)
With the advent of the small press Red Sage, and e-publishers like Ellora’s Cave, those more adventurous readers discovered the pleasures of no-holds-barred romance. Suddenly heroines could admit they enjoy sex with their handsome heroes. They didn’t have to be forced into anything in order to remain “good girls.” It didn’t have to be carefully bland, vague sex, either, but passionate and arousing. They could even sample edgier pleasures, like consensual bondage and submission.
Admittedly, those online readers weren’t a very large share of the market -- e-books still have only a fraction of the sales of print publishing -- but they constituted a younger demographic. Traditional print publishers took note, and realized the wave of the future might be hot and steamy.
So in the past few years, just about every print house has started publishing erotic romance and women’s erotica. The market rewarded them, as intrigued readers discovered the hotter, more sensual books.
I’m one of the authors who has reaped the benefits of that discovery. My erotic romances have appeared on the USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly
and Barnes and Noble bestseller lists, as well as the New York Times
Extended List. And I’m not alone either. Authors such as Emma Holly, Robin Schone and Kate Douglas are also heating up the lists with deliciously erotic tales of love and passion.
But that kind of success is more than a matter of stringing a few explicit sex scenes together. Just as in any other genre, best-selling erotic romance novelists write with the kind of creative power that seizes the imagination of fans. If you want to succeed as a writer, you need to do the same. Readers exploring an intriguing fad market will sample all kinds of things, but you want them coming back to your
Fads fade. Only those who capture the loyalty of the readership will survive when the EroRom bubble bursts. And it will burst. Ten years ago, westerns were hot, but now they’re very difficult to sell. Once regencies were dominant, but now readers just aren’t buying them at all. Eventually, EroRom will also cool off.
So why bother?
I believe that even when publishers are no longer in hot pursuit of erotic romance, readers will still expect more than the pallid passion of earlier years. They’re going to want more steam, and it would be to your advantage to learn how to write it with as much power as you possibly can.
In this book, it’s my objective to help you learn how to write the strongest novel you can. I intend to cover both basic and advanced concepts of romance writing, as well as techniques specific to erotic romance. I recommend you then follow up by reading some of the other books on writing that cover the specifics of plot and character construction in more detail. You’ll find some of those books listed in the bibliography. The greater your knowledge of story construction, the higher your chances are of achieving publication -- and hopefully, bestsellerdom.
But what exactly is erotic romance?
Though erotic romances are not your mother’s Harlequins, they’re not your husband’s porn either. The following are a few definitions to keep in mind.
: created with the sole purpose of creating sexual arousal in the reader as an aid to masturbation. The main character is usually a male with multiple partners. The story does not end in a monogamous relationship. Complicated plots, well-drawn characterization, and beautiful writing are rare, since readers are involved with the story for only a few minutes at a time.
: sexually explicit fiction with a more literary bent. A male hero is typical. Plot and characterization are better developed than in porn, and the writing style is literate. However, stable romantic relationships are usually not formed between characters; there are rarely the “happy endings” you’d see in the romance genre.
: more akin to literary erotica than to romance. The main character is a woman who is a strong, well-developed character. She’s on a voyage of self-discovery that may include experimentation with sexual practices such as bondage and submission, and she will often have more than one partner. These books may not end with the formation of a monogamous couple, though some of them do.
: the focus is on the formation of a monogamous romantic relationship between a heterosexual couple. Characterization is key, as is plot and romantic conflict. Sex may or may not be portrayed on the page, but if it is, it’s given less focus than other plot elements. The language is euphemistic, with a careful avoidance of four-letter words. There are rarely more than three love scenes in a novel, and they’re often quite short, usually only a few pages at most. The hero and heroine form a monogamous married couple by the end of the story. This kind of ending, called a Happily Ever After (HEA), is not only expected but demanded by editors and romance readers.
: as in conventional romance, the focus of the story is on the formation of a romantic relationship between well-developed characters, but the love scenes receive more attention. There are more of them, and they are more detailed. Sex also plays an important role in driving the plot, which must be structured to allow for earlier and more frequent love scenes. The language tends to be blunter, with fewer euphemisms. As in traditional romance, an HEA is critical.
However, where mainstream romances end with one man and one woman in a committed relationship, in Erotic Romance -- or EroRom -- the romance may include as many as three partners. (I suspect any more than that would be very difficult to pull off with the emotional intensity readers expect.)
Many readers are intrigued by the idea of alternative lifestyles, particularly one they’ll never experience personally. Erotic romance gives them a safe way to conduct their explorations. Yet no matter how many people are in the relationship, readers want to know they’ll stay together at the end. An erotic romance is still a romance
-- first, last, and always.
Women, pornography and the importance of passion
Critics love to accuse EroRom of being pornography, but anybody who’s ever read porn knows there’s definitely a difference.
Men read porn as a masturbation aid, but it takes them only about half the time it does us to reach a climax. You’re not going to get into a whole lot of plot and characterization in fifteen minutes, so there doesn’t tend to be much of either in most male porn. Thus you have co-eds seducing the pizza delivery man.
Another factor is that male sexual arousal tends to be a bit simpler than ours, being based around sight and sensation more than anything else. We need more emotional involvement to become aroused, and it takes us much longer to come to a good roiling boil.
Why is there such a difference? I think women are hardwired for romance. Even when women have casual sex, more often than not, somewhere in the back of their minds, they’re still wondering if this guy is the
Scientists think we evolved to look for love, not because of some girly hearts-and-flowers ideal, but out of cold-eyed practical necessity. Our primitive foremothers discovered the task of raising children alone in the wild was virtually impossible. Children require too much care to allow you to go off in pursuit of high-protein game. Basically, those mothers needed some guy to go out and bash the woolly mammoth over the head and drag it home for the kiddies.
Love and romance evolved, science tells us, to ensure bigger, stronger males hung around to assist in child rearing. True, the guy who spread his genetic material to as many women as possible stood some chance of siring kids that survived. But if he found one partner and stuck with her, that improved his offspring’s chances even more.
So romance serves an evolutionary purpose, and that makes it incredibly powerful. Feminists may not like it, literary critics may sneer, but that’s the way it is. And that’s why women look for romance even when they’re reading for arousal.
I certainly do. When I read male-oriented porn back in college -- nobody was writing the female version back then -- I often found it hot, but ultimately unsatisfying. Most of the female characters functioned as sexual props more than people, while the heroes were self-absorbed and abusive. I wanted something more.
I conducted an informal survey of my Angela Knight Yahoo group that suggests my readers share that view. Several of them had indeed sampled male porn, and found it just as unsatisfying as I had.
“The stories had no plot,” one wrote in response to my questionnaire. “It was just sex. For me, if there is sex in a book, it’s better when you know what brought the people together and what’s going on with them.”
Another agreed. “While it got me aroused, it also left me flat, ya know? Nothing to the story except getting off.”
At the same time, though, many of the readers weren’t completely satisfied with conventional romance, either, at least not when it came to love scenes.
“I HATE when a romance novel is full of life and color and sensual descriptions of fine food and great wine and starry nights on tropical islands -- and then the hero and heroine go to bed and suddenly I’m meant to cope with the most unintelligible euphemisms and strange descriptions of sex as some kind of mystical voyage to another dimension, hot waves lapping on distant shores, stars exploding in the abyss between two overlapping souls … Please! I read a category romance once where I had no idea that penetration had not occurred until it was mentioned in dialogue chapters and chapters on. I just assumed from all the fountains and waves and ripples of ecstasy that it must have done! It’s just so phony, when otherwise competent authors do that.”
“In most real relationships sex is a factor. Let’s face it, no matter what we say or hope, we feel attraction to another before we ever feel love. Attraction, unfortunately is often physical, which is desire/lust. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a perfectly normal human reaction.”
“In real life sexuality and sex are a big thing in relationships (or in most of them), and romances that eliminate that factor just seem stagnant. Erotic writers seem to understand the hungers/needs of readers. They don’t shy away from it.”
Another reader explained why she found EroRom so powerful. “I had forgotten the edge, the raw emotion that first-time lovers feel for and with each other. Then I was introduced to erotic romance. This type of literature shows need and want, longing and desire without the flowered words that make me feel uncomfortable.”
But though sex is important to the readers who answered the survey, they still want the same strong storytelling they find in mainstream romance.
“Characterization and plot are very important; without it the sex is just bad porn. Erotic compared to romantic means the characters let nature take its course and sex was involved. Which is more realistic. So some sex is important, very important, but it’s not THE most important thing.”
“Sex and sexual tension are integral parts of erotic romance. It has to forward the plot, always. A character has to be believable. The people involved in an erotic romance are no different in motivation, thought processes, or needs than the characters involved in ‘real life,’ as long as the writer does it correctly.”
What can we conclude from reading these comments? EroRom readers like vivid sexual storytelling, yes, but they also want believable, well-developed characters and strong plots. They’re not just reading these stories as stroke material. They want the whole story, not just the sex. They also see the love scenes as a natural part of the romance that deserves just as much attention as any other part of the story.
In the coming chapters, I will examine how to structure a strong erotic romance in terms of plot, characterization, and dialogue. Other lessons will include the hero, the heroine, and the villain, as well as the nuts and bolts of actually writing a love scene. I’ll dissect several of my own erotic scenes, and I’ll explain why I structured them the way I did.
I’ll also tackle language -- the F words, the C words, and which ones you should avoid. As with this introduction, I’ll include extensive quotes from my readers on what they do and don’t like, and why.
A word of caution
Some of the guidelines I give in this book are opinion, based on my experiences with readers and their reactions. Others are based on my tastes as a writer -- the kind of things I like to write.
For example, I firmly believe that EroRom works best as galloping adventures with lots of humor rather than dark psychological drama, but that’s because I don’t much like dark psychological drama. If you do like it, by all means write it.
Sometimes I’ll give advice based on market wisdom. However, remember that the market shifts. Several years ago you couldn’t sell a vampire novel if your life depended on it. Now paranormal is one of the hottest markets out there, and furred and fanged heroes dominate the shelves.
You may be the lucky soul who writes an “unmarketable” novel that takes off. Somebody has to write the book that turns the market in a new direction. It’s always better to lead trends than follow them.
Don’t forget that readers can be seduced into trying all kinds of things by the right author. Anybody will tell you books about football players are destined to failure, yet Susan Elizabeth Phillips has written a blockbuster series around her fictional Chicago Stars team. Readers may be a little dubious about football, but they love Phillips’s wonderfully quirky humor.
In short, if you find my advice doesn’t ring true to you, follow your own instincts.
Be warned, though: a few of my guidelines are so hard and fast, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Some situations and plots can alienate readers and damage your career. If I give you such a guideline, I’ll explain why it shouldn’t be flaunted.
Now let’s start with the basics: planning your romance.