Genre Focus: Romance

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Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music

ASK THE AUTHOR: From Caleb Walton via aarongansky.com: I was listening to an older podcast about the active/passive voice. You made a good point about the first person present tense used in the Hunger Games and how it pulled the reader into the story. Suzanne Collins wrote in first person, but would third person present be an acceptable tense to use in fiction? (example: Jake sits on the couch and falls asleep.)

AARON: I mean, sure. Really, the verb tense can be manipulated independent of the point of view, but both must be consistent. Third person present tense is just fine. First person present tense seems to be more natural, more common, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do 3rd present. The advantage to present tense is a sense of immediacy. However, some readers are so accustomed to past tense, they tend to not like reading present tense. It feels “wrong” to them. Really, let the story decide. Which serves the story best. That’s what I say.

Al: I just finishing editing a novelization of a screenplay and the author did a first person, present tense for his protagonist (when the protag was the pov character in the scene) and third person, past tense for any other character pov. It worked very well, but then again, the guy has 15 published books under his belt, so he had plenty of experience. As Aaron mentions, some readers might struggle with it, or just find the whole thing a bit awkward. There’s a reason that most third person books are done in the past tense. This is not to say that what you’re suggesting can’t be done, but it does take care and, if you’re a new writer, I advise against it. Remember, most editors are used to reading either third person, past tense stories, or first person, past tense.

MOLLY: First, thank you Caleb for utilizing our prior podcasts! It’s great to know the library is being used. Second, yes, it’s acceptable. The key, as Aaron said, is consistency. Make sure how you write is clear. If you’re unsure how to proceed, take a few pages and write them both ways. See which sounds better. Then write the story that way.

Firsts in Fiction

Genre Focus: Romance

Al: Over the course of the next few podcasts, we’re going to hone in on particular genres and look at what makes them tick. Why do fans love them? What do they expect to see in novels of this kind? What rules should you follow? Which should you break?

A quick disclaimer: “genre” is a fluid term, and most works cross genres (the good ones do, at least). It’s possible to write a fantasy romance, or a romantic sci-fi, or a YA mystery, or an alternate-historical suspense, or a supernatural Amish paranormal dystopian thriller. But there’s no way we can cover all combinations. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the big boys and let you figure out how to combine the ones that most interest you.

First, I want to make it clear that we are not necessarily the experts in this genre. Aaron co-wrote a romance with none other than our esteemed guest tonight, Cindy Sproles! But he conscripted her service because he was painfully aware of his lack of knowledge about the genre. He’s not incredibly well-read in it, and it has never really been his cup of tea. Cindy is an award-winning novelist of Mercy’s Rain and Liar’s Winter. She joins us tonight to take a look at the super-popular genre of romance.

AL: I imagine most of our audience know what we mean when we “romance genre,” but it might be good to take a couple of minutes to distinguish romance novels from Romanticism and “romantic” authors like Edgar Allen Poe. Clue us in, Aaron.

AARON: Sure. Romanticism is a literary movement that really focused on, among other things, the supernatural, society, and the individual. It had little to do with “love” and more to do with philosophy.

So, I’m not a romance fan. I’m not sure why I got the itch to right one so many years ago at Antioch except to say that it felt like the natural genre for an epistolary novel, and I really wanted to do an epistolary novel. But that was a ton of fun, and I’m so glad I had you along to show me the ropes of the romance genre. Speaking of which, how should we define “romance” as a genre? What sets it apart from all the other genres?

CINDY: Obviously romance is love. The definition of relationship is the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected. One of the definitions of romance, is a work of fiction dealing with events remote from real life. In other words, romance is a lie, not real life. I think what sets Heart’s Song apart from other romances is not only the love, but the lies and how they tie the characters together, creating a deep bond. Romance by this standard is not real, but hope and belief in the idea of love makes it real. It’s learning to accept a person for who they are – flaws and all. Romance is digging deep into the soul and connecting to those oddities that balance us as a couple, be it good or bad. It’s bringing to the surface our love, but also our hates, then tending to the needs of both. Allowing the reader to see every aspect of a relationship keeps them wondering what makes our couple so attracted to one another, then wondering if the relationship can ever survive.

AARON: I love how you say the hope and belief in the idea of love. That seems to be at the heart of romance. Would you say this is a commonality among all romances? That it’s less about the love and more about the promise of love? The hope of love?

CINDY: Maybe. I think most romance readers want true love to happen . . . they expect that, but I’m not sure you find hope and belief in every romance. Sometimes I think writers just skip digging into the soul of their characters. It’s kinda like, oh, I see that girl. I like her. Let’s get married. I had a librarian tell me, she loved romances because they moved fast. A little conflict but mostly little depth in the story. When she read Heart’s Song, she said, “I have a whole new expectation for romances. I want to know more about the characters, more about who they are on a different level. That was a long trail to say, probably not. I don’t think finding hope and belief is a commonality.

AL: We know that readers of certain genres have expectations. What do those who read romance expect? Is it always boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back? How can writers deliver on what’s expected without being cliche?

CINDY: That is exactly what they expect – the formula for a romance. Boy meets girl, boy loses her, gets her back. But once a reader gets a taste of the formula PLUS a deeper knowledge of the characters, and a taste of the emotion of those characters, it takes that formula to a whole new level. It is cliché, but that seems to be what most romances do. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s worked for years, but I also think readers are growing to expect more. I hope we’ve started a new trend. When there is a deeper relationship with the characters, readers feel like they are family or friends. Readers remember them.They don’t want the story to end. Just ask Molly. She grew very invested in our characters. Isn’t that right, Molly? I remember her saying she didn’t want it to end. So deliver love, with an intimate relationship with the characters, deepen the story, and you have success – I think.

AARON: What are the essential qualities of a romance?

CINDY: For me, I think it’s the connection with the reader. I like to see characters connect on a level outside of love. The romance happens for me, when as their connection moves from external to internal. Cliché as it is, love has to grow. It doesn’t just happen. It’s cultivated. I never believed in love at first sight. I believe in LIKE at first sight – love is cultivated from the like. So, to me – the essential quality of a romance is common ground where conflict can seep in and relationships can be cultivated from experience.

AL: Any things we should be cautious about or avoid?

CINDY: Gushy! Readers like reality in fiction. They want their own wild dreams to be fulfilled. Most of the time that’s not gushy. Avoid gushy. Have I said that enough…gushy? Readers want the reality of a relationship that weathers the storm and is . . . well . . . sweet at times. NOT GUSHY.

AARON: Okay, not gushy. But then, what would you qualify as “gushy,” and how do we avoid it?

CINDY: Gushy…the obvious. No couple agrees on everything. They aren’t making over one another all the time. They aren’t sappy (don’t you dare ask me to define sappy). Readers want real emotions and connections, not relationships that are fake and perfect. Characters don’t do goo-goo eyes every time the meet one another, they aren’t all over each other all the time unless you’re reading something somewhat trashy. So overdone emotion: gushy.

AL: What tips and tricks do you have for those who want to write the best-selling or award-winning romance, considering the genre is so inundated by writers of all caliber.

CINDY: Don’t be ashamed of allowing your emotion to enter in. In Heart’s Song, we each responded emotionally. That was the fun part of writing this piece. Neither of us spoke on the phone, one wrote a chapter and the other played into the emotion. There were times, our character Geoff became completely unleashed. It was raw and honest. That was what made this romance so believable. Pour out your emotion. Don’t hold back.

AARON: On that note, that moment comes because Emily is acting very believably. We put a roadblock in their relationship, and they’re both trying to figure out how to handle it, and neither one knows how to do it properly. They disagree, and that tension really escalates. It works because it’s natural, it’s real. It’s how these characters would really react. I think those moments, those emotionally powerful moments, come from fully realizing your characters, really knowing them inside and out, for better or worse. And also, allowing them to make mistakes, allowing them to make believable, bad choices, and then making them deal with the consequences of those choices. That’s not just a romance thing–it’s a fiction thing. Except, in the case of romance, it’s usually some sort of stumbling block, some sort of conflict that’s introduced to the relationship–something from the outside–or even something from the inside, something neither expects, but something they must both address and deal with.

CINDY: Yep. You are right. That’s why I said don’t be ashamed to let your emotions fly. That’s what makes it real. But I think romance novels need those stumbling blocks for each character. Their individual stumbles are what make A NATURAL stumbling block in the relationship. It’s not a planted roadblock.

AARON: That’s about all we have time for today. Romance is a very popular genre but it can be tricky to write. As with all genres, the writer needs to keep the reader in mind. 

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