Writing Romance: A Word About Sex

Hello Campers,
Last month I promised to take a side trip here and discuss – ahem – sex.

Is sex necessary in a romance novel? That’s a huge question. Before I move into the real discussion, I’ll point out that my romances do not have sex in them. That is a personal decision I made, and I’m not here to get preachy in any way. I fully realize that this decision will result in some folks not buying or liking my books. Disclaimer done.

In preparation for this post, I googled “sex in romance novels.” The first hit was a Goodreads discussion titled “How Important is Sex in a Romance Novel?” It’s an interesting read. There’s everything from “super important” with points deducted if there is not sex, to folks who skip the sex scenes altogether, to one guy who says “Any good Romance story must include the points of love lust, sex & the aftermath, the sweaty bodies, the stained sheets or the unconventional romp in the park.”

Most said that it depends on the characters. That may or may not be true. It may completely depend on the target market.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel for an erotica publisher. I didn’t enjoy writing it, and on the 1-5 flame rating system, it got a 1. I didn’t write for them again. It wasn’t my forte. Another two-book “series” I wrote – before my change of heart – did contain sex, though it wasn’t a main focus of either story. I so love those two stories. Recently I went back to the first one to see if I could take the sex out. What I found out: sex changes everything. But you likely already knew that. If I took the sex out of that book, I’d have to go about setting up dominoes that were knocked down by that act.

What this means, though – and I think it’s a positive – is that that sex scene was integral to the story. It was not just obligatory.

That being said, I’m glad there’s a romance market for every reader and every writer. (What I’d like to see is a rating system – but that might be just me.)

Let’s look at some of the submission guidelines for various Harlequin brands.

DARE
• The heat level is explicit and graphic. The hero and heroine have a powerful sexual and emotional connection.
• We’re looking for authors who have a distinct, memorable voice and write stories with a high level of sexual tension as well as graphic sex.

DESIRE
• Sizzling sensual tension between the hero and heroine.
• Sexual language that leans more euphemistic and romantic rather than explicit.

PRESENTS
• A hero who will command and seduce. There's nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can't buy…except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!
• High sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension to quicken your pulse.

HEARTWARMING
• Plots unfold in a wholesome style and voice that excludes explicit sex or nudity, premarital sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of violence: references to violent incidents or premarital sex in the past are acceptable if they contribute to character development.
• Physical interactions (i.e. kissing/hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality: low level of sexual tension; characters should not make love unless they are married.

The inspirational imprints that have a “mandatory faith element” and no premarital sex.

As you can see, the HOT value of each of these imprints is different. So your decision on sex with these imprints is a market-based one. That may not be true for other publishers. Check submission guidelines for your target publisher.

Obviously, if you’re self-published, the decision is entirely yours. But you will still be targeting readers. That, of course, may not be your focus when writing your novel. It will be more about what you like to write – what you like to read. Let me assure you, then, that there is a market for every SIZZLE level out there. Write the book of your heart.

Your readers will find you.

Okay, enough sex talk. Next month we’re back to our outline, and we'll tackle the MIDPOINT.

Until then, BiC-HoK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

Cheers, Jax

Mambo No. 5

It’s not so much a rule as a repeated observation. While the plural of anecdote isn’t data, there comes a point where something happens often enough that one has to believe there’s something other than divine intervention at work.

The observation is that many authors don’t begin to get traction until they’ve published five novels. More specifically, they’ve published five novels in the same recognizable niche—ideally, in a series.

There are two reasons why this observation is important.

First, the goal is to gain an audience for your work. Having an audience means people like to read the stories you like to tell. Everything else comes from that basic premise. Fame, fortune, or just seeing your name on the cover of the book a stranger is reading, you can’t get very far in publishing without an audience.

To gain that audience, you need to be putting books in the places they look. For the average indie author, that means in a sub-sub-cat on Amazon. This creates a problem if your five novels are all in different categories. Sure, go wide if you want. Kobo and Nook and iBook, oh my, but the same observation holds across vendors and even formats. (Can you say "audiobooks?" Of course you can.)

For an example:

In the old days, science fiction was on the Science Fiction shelf. Today it might be on the Space Opera shelf or the First Contact shelf or the Colonization Shelf or the Military SF shelf. If I want to gain an audience, I need to know who that audience is with a much greater degree of specificity than I might have had to in the past—and what kinds of stories each of those shelves hold. I write science fiction, but if I want traction, I need to pick one of those shelves to focus on because that’s where the most likely readers will look.

Which is not to say I need to run up the demographics on those people who have bought my books. I already know their most salient characteristic: they read space opera. Sure, they might read other niches as well, but in order to get their attention I need to have a big enough footprint in one niche to show up on their radar.

Second, amortization of your promotional investment becomes easier when you have more properties. As I wrote last September, backlist is your lever. The five-novel rule provides a rule of thumb for how long that backlist might need to be to effectively amortize your promotional investment in time, money, and focus across your catalog. When you can realistically expect buy-through on your catalog—because the books are in a series or at least all in the same niche—then justifying giving one book away for free becomes a lot more palatable.

This second bit is why I generally don’t recommend that new authors spend time, money, and attention on paid promotion. A Bookbub is great when you’ve got five books, but not so great when you spend $500 to give away a few hundred copies of your only title.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t work on gaining some early fans, but more like maybe focus on what matters most—having your five novels in play—and work on building relationships with the other authors in your chosen niche.

The career path for indie authors involves a different kind of dues. We don’t have to ride the query-go-round, but we have to look past the sales levels of our earliest works and grit through to at least five novels in order to find traction. While it’s true that some people capture lightning in a bottle on their first time in the rain, the odds of winning the lottery are still pretty small.

Somebody cue up Lou Bega. Suddenly, I want to mambo.

 

As an aside, what would you like me to write about as 2018 unwinds? Leave a comment or email me at nathan.lowell on the gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

Finding My Audience

When my latest book come out last month, I booked a romance blog tour. My promoter did a great job and got my book featured on about 40 blogs. About halfway into the tour, as I was thanking hosts and seeing no other comments—none—I realized I was wasting my money. The blogs were all focused on romance, but not the sort of books I write. They all seemed to feature contemporary and paranormal romance. I write historical romance, and this book is medieval, which is an even more specialized sub-genre. I was getting a lot of exposure, but very little with the people who actually read books like mine.

And yet, I know they are out there. I know a number of authors who write medieval romance and who are doing moderately well. It’s just that getting those readers to even know your book exists is a huge challenge. I realized I had to change my marketing strategy. I had to find a way to connect with those readers.

I contacted some authors I know and got suggestions. They all said you have to gradually build a following. Advertise on romance sites that feature historical romance, join Facebook groups, try Facebook ads, do giveaways, and build a newsletter list.

There are services that help you build a newsletter list. Others that help you get reviews by offering your book for free to interested readers. I did some of these things with my last book (which was Regency romance, a much more popular era), but it looks like I need to step up my game and do even more and spend even more money.

My publishing career, which was once a source of extra income, is turning into an "expensive hobby." But I have no choice. I’ve planned two more books in this series, and if there’s going to be any hope that my publisher will publish them, or that anyone will read them, I’m going to have to invest significant time and money into promotion.

I’m fortunate I’m at a point in my life where I can afford to do this. But there is a part of me that remains uncomfortable. I feel like I am being self-indulgent, trying to "buy" something that should just happen—that is, if my books were good enough. But then I think of my characters and realize that I’m doing it for them. I want to share their stories, and if spending money on promotion is the only way to get their stories out there, then I’m going to do it.

Writing Romance: Getting to Midpoint

Hello Campers! Are we back from holiday vacation yet? No, are we REALLY back from holiday vacation? Big confession – I forgot my deadline last week for this column. Rude awakening, that. Many thanks to Rachel for not beating me! Now I’m REALLY back.

Remember at the beginning of this series, we talked about the very basis of the three-act structure: Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out of the tree. Now that we’ve crossed over into Act 2, it’s rock throwing time. But recall, last month we also said: until the Midpoint, the hero and heroine are confronted by “tests, allies, and enemies.” And up until that Midpoint, the hero and heroine are still trying to live their lives with their old pre-romance ways. So, going back to our rock throwing: up until Midpoint, our hero and heroine are dodging rocks individually. At Midpoint, they’ll team up and work together to dodge rocks.

We also pointed out that Act 1 = first quarter of the book; Act 2 = second and third quarters of the book; and Act 3 = last quarter of the book. In a 300-page book, Act 2 takes 150 pages. And getting to the Midpoint takes 75 pages. It’s the time when, according to Jami Gold, “the protagonists react to the new desire, but suffer from one step forward and two steps back.”

Susan May Warren, in her book How to Write a Brilliant Romance, says that Act 2 is made up of wooing, sparks, and sexual tension. Of course, the devil is in the details of the three of those, depending on your subgenre. Wooing looks different in a historical romance than it does in a contemporary suspense romance. And wooing may not mean what you think it means. It could mean small compliments, small gestures, or flowers and dating. But remember, H&H are still operating as separate individuals and maybe still thinking they can get back to the status quo they left.

Along with the wooing, there’s the sizzle. By this, Susan doesn’t mean sexual sizzle. She means conflict. During this time, the hero and heroine have goals that are at odds, and that causes conflict. Or, they have similar goals but their approach is at odds. At odds is key during this phase of the romance. Susan writes about having them fight and fight some more. I’m not sure I agree. Fights are fine, but I don’t see arguments as being a way to fill these pages. But you do some homework – read through the second quarter of your favorite books and see what goes on there.

Then there’s sexual tension. This is a critical ingredient, and how you do it depends, again, on the subgenre and how much sex you want in the book. But remember that sexual tension doesn’t automatically mean sex. Susan further states that this is the building of awareness and desire and the realization that they are definitely not repulsed by each other – even though they may want to be.

Next month, we’re going to chase a rabbit before we return to the second half of Act 2 – we’re going to discuss sex.

Until then, keep studying romance books and movies, taking notes, and sharing your aha moments. And don’t forget BiC-HoK – Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

Writing Romance: Crossing into Act Two

Welcome, Campers.
Last month we approached the turning point that launches our duo into Act Two.

By the end of Act One, your characters will likely have stated - either in their heads or actually out loud - that they want nothing to do with the other, nothing to do with a relationship with the other. No way, no how. But the final plot point of this act will not give them that choice. It will make it impossible for them to walk away. Not until. . . So at the end of this piece, your hero and heroine are completely “up a tree” with no way of escape.

In Hero’s Journey language, we’ve established the ordinary world of our hero and heroine. We’ve sent them a call to adventure when they meet each other. They’ve said NO NO NO - the Refusal. And sometimes they’ve met with a mentor or friend that has nudged them into the adventure.

And, at the end of Act One, they’ve begrudgingly Crossed the Threshold.

According to Jami Gold's Beat Sheet - which we’ve been following as a loose outline - in Act Two, “the protagonists react to the new desire, but suffer from one step forward and two steps back.”

As you can see in this beat sheet, Act Two is sandwiched between Pinch Point 1 and Pinch Point 2. Act Two is usually half the book and divided in half itself with an important Midpoint.

Up until that Midpoint, the hero and heroine are confronted by “tests, allies, and enemies.”  And up until that Midpoint, the hero and heroine are still trying to live their lives with their old pre-romance ways. They may give lip-service to working together, might even try to work together. But when the rubber meets the road, they’re working alone. In a way, they’re trying to get back to their ordinary world unscathed. Have they got a surprise coming.

An Ordeal at the Midpoint will force them to admit that the road they’re on doesn’t go back to that ordinary world. Something big has changed and they move forward through more challenges, learning to approach life differently: together. Sometimes this moment is capped with The Kiss.

At the end of Act Two comes another turning point. This one will drive a huge obstacle right through their relationship. Often, it leads to a breakup. And then it’s on to the last quarter of the book in Act Three.

Next month, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of getting your couple to that Midpoint.

Your homework: get out those romance movies. See if you can map the story with the information you have right now.

Oh, and BiC-HoK - Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.  (And Merry Christmas)

The Ultimate Victory – Writing The Too Perfect Book

By Aaron Ritchey

So I was sick of it all. Sick of the rejection. Sick of editors. Sick of my stupid Amazon ranking. Sick of the current project, which was completely unmarketable. Like any publisher is going to want a young adult sci-fi/western, steampunk, biopunk, family drama, dystopian epic. Epic I tell you!

Sick of it all! Sick to death.

In December of 2012, when Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II came out, I watched all five Twilight movies, and I was really moved by the experience. You laugh, but I was. I left and bought Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” and listened to it over and over. The song is on the soundtrack. Google it, if you don’t believe me.

I wanted to write something simple, something completely genre, completely marketable, a perfect example of a young adult romance. I studied the genre. I read broadly. I outlined the story. I kept the characters relatable, and I worked on streamlining the language. I hired an editor, took it through my critique group, used beta readers, did a final polish.

In the fall of 2014, I started querying my young adult romance. The rejections were slow in coming. Several agents read the whole thing. I was closer than ever! My hard work had paid off!

Last week I achieved the ultimate victory! I got a rejection from a big-time literary agent who complimented my story structure and called my writing commercial. However, she basically said my book was too genre; it wouldn’t stand out.

Which is exactly what I wanted.

I am not sugar-coating this rejection. I really do feel a sense of accomplishment. When I was querying my epic, I had a lot of agents and editors scratching their hands. One laughed when I pitched it as a post-apocalyptic cattle drive, and she asked me if I was serious. Yeah, I was. The Hunger Games with cows. My epic finally found a home with WordFire Press and will be out in the fall.

So the book I adored, my cross-genre sci-fi/western, has a publisher. So far, the YA romance I wrote for the market hasn’t. What does this tell me?

There are no rules. There is no manual on writing the perfect book. It’s all very subjective, and in the end, I need to write books I’m proud of.

My YA romance will one day see the light of day: either through a traditional publisher or self-published.

But do you know what?

If it goes through my Indie press, I’ll take my little YA romance, which is too genre, and I will Aaron Michael Ritchey the hell out of it.

‘Cause those are the books I’m proud of. My books.

The Real Deal Isn’t

NMS cropA couple of weeks ago an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher published a - I'm calling it a bitter rant - about how he can tell the "truth," now that he's no longer teaching. I think that's a fair representation, given that the article is titled "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One."

The article annoyed people on a number of levels, largely because the author makes so many sweeping statements that he asserts as absolutes, but that are really a matter of opinion. For example, he says that writers are born with talent - either you have it or you don't - and if you don't, you might as well not even try. We could have along debate there about talent vs. work, but I think most people will agree that having talent helps, but it's far from a guarantee of success. And the concept of "talent" means different things in different aspects of life.

On of my fellow members of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Kyle Aisteach, asked on those forums how we all felt about the line "if you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it." He conducted an informal poll of the membership - and in SFWA, you have to meet a publication standard to be a member - on who felt they were serious about writing as a teenager. I'm one who was serious about being a doctor or a scientist as a teenager. That's me in the high school yearbook photo for those of us who qualified as National Merit Scholars. Yeah - we hammed up our nerdiness. It's can be a long story, but suffice to say that it took me many years to see a non-science career as a worthwhile pursuit. I didn't take writing seriously as a teenager because I didn't see it as valuable.

I think that's an important point in responding to the part of this article I want to address. In case you don't want to click to the article (really, who could blame you?), here's the bit I'm talking about.

If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.

Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters. Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity's Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.

Conversely, I've had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren't into "the classics" as if "the classics" was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy "all sorts" of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books "that don't make me work so hard to understand the words." I almost quit my job on the spot.

I have a number of issues here. Yes, I totally agree that writers should read. Reading is key to our understanding of our own work and the work others are engaged in. I object, very much, to the idea that a serious reader is one who reads books that are 1) "Hard," 2) "Big," 3) Not short, 4) "Classics" 5) Full of hard-to-understand words. That kind of arrogance rubs me the wrong way. The idea that more-difficult is more valuable is part of what kept me focusing on a course of study and career that I didn't love.

The worst part of this, however, is the unconscious sexism here. At least, I HOPE it's not consciously done! Note that the student he dubs as "The Real Deal," is male. It also seems he's quite privileged, as he spends his school break reading huge tomes and writing extra-credit essays. Not, say, working 12-hour days at a job to pay tuition. Note also that all three books the author suggests as "serious" reading are by white, male authors. Conversely the student he disdains, who - GASP! - had never read The Great Gatsby, another book by a white, male author, about white, privileged people, is female.

Could be a coincidence? Except his reported response to her is to want to quit his job on the spot, not the special effort he gave The Real Deal Guy, by suggesting specific books that might work for him.

(I also think it's funny that he decries the assumption that "'the classics' [are] some single, aesthetically consistent genre," when I could probably assemble a decent argument for that very thing.)

In the end, it's clear that this guy is Disappointed. He tries for the claim that it's not important that people think you're smart, when he's spent the entire article convincing us how smart he is. Certainly far smarter than the chick who'd never read The Great Gatsby. I don't really care about him - but I do care about the aspiring writers he may have wounded in his vanity. I wish I could reach out to that young woman and give her some reading suggestions. I'd like to tell her that talent means little compared to hard work and perseverance.

Most of all, I want to tell her - and that author - this: There is no such thing as The Real Deal.

Honoring Your Contract

By Katriena Knights

One of the most important things you can do is a writer is honor your contracts. I’m not talking about your contracts with your publishers. I’m talking about your contracts with your readers.

Wait, what? Authors don’t sign contracts with readers, do they? So what am I yapping on about this time?

Readers have expectations. These expectations vary depending upon what kind of book you’re writing. Or, in some cases, the kind of book you claim to be writing. Violating these expectations can lose you your readers—sometimes permanently.

Of course this is more true with genre writing than literary. Most mainstream books have some built-in expectations, as well, but they’re a bit more fluid. Still, when you move from writing for yourself to writing to an audience, it’s a good idea to keep those audience expectations in mind. Most of these expectations have to do with the book’s ending.

For example, in a romance, your reader expects a happily-ever-after ending—an HEA—or at least a happy-for-now—HFN. If your romantic couple decides to go there separate ways, or if one dies horribly, your book isn’t a romance. If you market it as a romance and it lacks the HEA or HFN, your readers will discover you’ve violated that contract and probably won’t come back.

Mystery readers expect the crime to be solved, whether it’s a murder or petty theft. The solving of the crime should drive the plot, and the solution should drive the climax. Loose ends might be left here and there, but the main crime should be wrapped up. If you decide to be extra “edgy” and “realistic” and leave the crime unsolved, you’ve violated your contract. (There are mystery writers who’ve successfully published books that don’t wrap everything up, but they were long-time, established authors with a fan base willing to go along for the ride.)

With any book, of any genre, readers expect a conclusion of some sort. If too much is left hanging, plot points are tied up, or characters are left without resolution, you’ll lose some readers. This is why my copy of Trumpet of the Swan fell apart after about ten readings, but I only read Stuart Little a couple of times. Louis got a nicely constructed happily-ever-after, but poor Stuart didn’t get a nicely tied-up ending. I suppose maybe it was appropriate for his story, but I’m still bitter about it.

However, that’s an example where the genre didn’t dictate the ending. It wasn’t a violation of a genre contract, but it didn’t live up to my personal expectations. As a writer, there’s nothing you can do about that, so there’s no point trying. But do keep in mind the expectations of your genre and of your average reader when you’re stitching that plot together.