We all found it odd that she, of all people, was assigned to the romance department. Happily, you get to benefit from this strange juxtaposition.
Here you are, the “rules”—or, more accurately, the often unfortunate, now-cliché patterns—of romance novels, from a reluctant top reviewer. And yes: GK believes you can do much better.
After reading what I think amounts to at least two hundred trashy romance novels (note that not all romance novels are trashy, and not all trashiness is romantic) in the last two years, I am beginning to consider myself a reluctant expert on the subject.
I decided that the only way to maintain my sanity is to foist off what I've learned onto anyone who will listen. Writing a contemporary romance? Great. You should know the rules (some consciously adhered to, some not) before you break them.
Yes, these are tongue-in-cheek.
And yes, these are the rules I hope you will break. Please see my conclusion before you get your lingerie (specifically chosen for that rich, romantic vampire) in a twist.
#1-- Only rich people fall in love. Because if you can't whisk someone off to Paris at a moment's notice, you can't possibly show them how much you love them. Rather, only rich men fall in love. Women can have independent careers, but they never worry about anything as mundane as the rent... which leads us to...
#2-- A career is something that happens while you're waiting for a rich man (or in some cases, a rich vampire) to sweep you off your feet. If there is ever a choice between pursuing your career, maintaining friendships and enjoying daylight versus becoming a blood-sucking immortal fiend of the night who forsakes all human contact and can't practice medicine anymore, a woman will always choose her man.
#3-- Only white people of European descent fall in love. They also are the only ones who become vampires, get to time travel or do anything cool--especially the guys (see rule #1). Also, all the guys in question have accents. Never indecipherable or annoying accents, but always really cute ones that get American girls excited.
#4-- Minorities are allowed to fall in love--but only once their white best friend/the protagonist does.
#5-- The best friend of the heroine and the hero must also always fall for each other. But they also must always get it on offstage. They are also almost invariably more interesting than the protagonists.
#6-- Beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone who says differently is an ignorant ass. This must be repeated at least three times per book.
#7-- Beautiful men only come as 6'+, brawny, aggressive, with long flowing hair (and “manhoods” exceeding nine inches). Facial hair is optional, depending on the author. Furry chests are becoming popular again, but of course, any man with a furry chest does NOT have back hair or hair anywhere else they aren't supposed to. And remember, they're rich too.
#8-- All women are self-conscious about the curve of their derrieres; all men love them well-curved. Somehow, this comes up in every book, and yet real women haven't realized that, yes, men (and, for that matter, women) love these curves.
#9-- Everyone is a good kisser and has perfect breath all the time.
#10-- Foreplay, for the most part, can be accomplished with smoldering looks and approximately 200 pages of sexual tension. And while an occasional woman loves to perform oral sex and an occasional man will do the same, the greatest sexual satisfaction (and guarantee of mind-blowing, always mutual and simultaneous orgasm) comes from less than five minutes of missionary.
#11-- Only vampires and other supernatural creatures engage in kink. Kink in this case can be defined as anything that does not fit into the narrow perimeters of #10.
I know that you’re probably looking at this list and feeling some pretty legitimate criticisms coming on—particularly if you’re a genre enthusiast.
It’s no fun having escapist fantasy where the protagonists have to struggle to pay their bills all the time—so of course rich is key. But that doesn’t mean that the only romantic gestures worth a damn are grandiose ones.
Sometimes it’s the little things that count, and those are few and far between in romance fiction. J.R. Ward (The Black Dagger Brotherhood series) does a good job of bending these rules--at least here the vampires come with a dose of homosexuality, kink (edge play!) and psychological problems.
The career thing is trickier, because again, this is escapism. Now there’s a whole other line of feminist critique that we could go into about the choice to opt out of a career, etc. etc. (if you’re interested in a good debunking of that in a larger way, I suggest reading Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change The Way We Think About Power and Leadership) but, let’s face it, for a lot of us, fantasy involves not having to work. Totally fine, but could we also see some assertive women who know how to draw boundaries? THAT is sexy.
So what does make a good romance novel work?
Surprising the reader is key--within the genre conventions, of course.
Heroes who aren’t Neanderthals, but who are funny, warm (under a gruff exterior, naturally) and protective without being overbearing—these are sexy and fun.
Women who are intelligent, directed and happy with themselves, even before they find a man, and are happier and still directed afterwards—love those.
Original supporting characters, ideally witty, who serve as good foils.
Flirtatious dialogue—before you get to the deep penetration, please.
Surprise me with something I haven’t seen before, something that will actually make me laugh out loud while I read—because, if that happens, I’m almost guaranteed to like your book—even if it’s another story of a Scottish laird and his reluctant, fiery bride who is forced to marry him against her will.
I don’t expect all genre conventions to be turned on their head. They’re there for a reason, after all, but it takes a very good writer to take those conventions, own them and then write something truly special within their constraints.
And never use the word “tumescent.” Please.
Got it? Great. I feel much better for getting this off my chest.
Now I'm going to go write a review of a book about a time traveling Scottish laird and the American writer he falls in love with...