Your Path to Being a Best-Selling Romance Writer
Think there’s no money in book writing? Think again.
Does the very term “romance book” conjure up a very specific picture of a type of book, reader, or author?
If so, once again, think again!
I just returned from San Diego where I delivered a keynote address to over 2,200 people — mostly women but also some men — at the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference.
Published and aspiring writers from 20 countries came to network, meet their favorite authors, and have the chance to pitch to editors of major publishing houses.
More than anything though, they came to learn. The four-day conference featured a whopping 100+ workshops.
Whether people came as complete novices or seasoned pros, there truly was something for everyone.
Topics ranged from character development… the art of the backstory… self-publishing… historical research… working with agents… online marketing… attracting raving fans… even costuming historic characters.
Here I am with members of the San Diego Costume Guild.
Did You Know?
Before RWA asked me to speak, I didn’t know a lot about this field either.
Today I know romance writing is a $1.08 billion industry.
I also know that despite the stereotypical image of what a romance novel looks like, there are many distinct genres. For instance…
- Young adult romance is largely aimed at the teen market — a genre is all about G-rated firsts… first crush, first kiss, first heartbreak, first love
- Historical romances, which are very popular, are set prior to 1950
- Suspense/mystery has these elements as the central theme
- Erotic romance which includes explicit sexual interaction between the two main characters
- Inspirational or Christian romance were also referred to by the authors I met as “sweet,” meaning they have either no or closed-door sex are referred
- Paranormal romance includes “elements beyond the range of scientific explanation.” In addition to science fiction, ghosts, and time-travel, you see this genre in the massively popular vampire-themed Twilight series which went on to become a blockbuster film.
- Regency romance covers the British period between 1811-1820 and the early 19th According to Wikipedia, “the more traditional Regencies feature a great deal of intelligent, fast-paced dialogue between the protagonists and very little explicit sex or discussion of sex”.
Wikipedia offers an excellent overview of the century’s long history of romance writing.
You’ll find links to more information on the different genres, insights into varying tastes in romance books around the world, and the staggering success of the genre.
That’s where I learned:
- Harlequin sells more than four books per second, half of them internationally
- As of 2014, romance is the most popular literary genre in Russia, especially among the younger audience
- 8 million people read an English-language romance novel in 2008
- In the UK, over 20% of all fiction books sold each year are romance novels
The Many Faces of Romance Writers
Who do you picture when you think “romance writer”?
I’m guessing it’s not Karna Small Bodman.
Karna served in the White House under President Reagan for six years with a post on the National Security Council.
Today she draws on her unique background to write political thrillers.
The writers I met come from a wide range of backgrounds including people who were, or still are working as professors, nurses, administrators, home schooling parents…
People like award-winning Shirley Hailstock (pictured here on the left) didn’t start out as romance writers.
Shirley earned her undergrad degree in chemistry from Howard University and her MBA in chemical marketing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
She went on to do sales analytics for a pharmaceutical company and was an adjunct professor of accounting at Rutgers.
Today Shirley is a seasoned published writer with 35 novels and novellas under her belt.
I also met a lot of attendees who are just starting out.
Fledging writers who came to learn the craft of writing romance and to make the kinds of connections it takes to get published.
Like Bernadette J. Campbell (pictured above on the right).
Bernadette had a long career working behind the scenes at a television news station in Philadelphia. She’s also a minister interested in inspirational speaking and writing for the Christian market.
One of the huge benefits of the RWA conference is the opportunity to pitch your book to representatives of major publishing houses like Avon Books and Harlequin.
Bernadette tried pitching at last year’s conference but didn’t get any takers.
Undeterred, she returned home, tightened up her story line, perfected her one-minute pitch, and returned to try again.
This year Bernadette got a bite!
Other writers I spoke with have published dozens of books. But it wasn’t always easy.
Roz Denny Fox has written 52 western-themed novels. Roz began writing while still working as a secretary. She was also raising four kids.
Starting out Roz told me that she wrote during the only spare time she had — between midnight and 3am.
(As impressive as that is, the quantity prize goes to best-selling writing phenomenon Nora Roberts with a whopping 214 books!)
Things weren’t always easy for Sherry Thomas either (that’s Sherry on the left after her hysterically funny as well as inspiring talk ).
Despite immigrating from China as a teen and struggling to learn English… despite the crushing disappointment of having to pass on a full academic scholarship to an elite graduate program at Harvard because of a pregnancy… and despite struggling for two years with post-partum depression, Sherry went on to become an acclaimed writer.
Hard work and perseverance paid off for Sherry and for the many other bestselling authors at the conference. Like the ones signing books for this long line of fans!
The Riches Are in the Niches
Like I said, there are so many genres of romance I had no idea even existed.
Shelley is not Amish herself.
But she does live near Ohio’s Amish community so knows there’s a keen interest in the simpler lives and relationships found in Amish culture.
Not pictured here is a young woman named Emma Prince.
Emma decided to put her PhD in English literature and her passion for history to use by writing Scottish historical romance.
This is me with conference keynoter and award-winning author Beverly Jenkins. (Finally someone as short as I am !)
Beverly is also a historical romance writer. But instead of Scots, her characters are African American.
In writing about black romance, Beverly filled a publishing niche that no one else had — or historically-speaking, was allowed to.
Beverly has helped all of her loyal readers become more aware of the historical realities of black Americans. But for black women especially, her work has been tremendously validating.
Click here for a short video of Beverly and fellow writers on a historical research trip to South Carolina. Following that video are a series of interviews with other writers.
Finally, there’s Tracey Livesay.
This former criminal defense attorney specializes in an even more specialized niche – multi-cultural romance.
Her latest book Love On My Mind is about the attraction between a successful African American PR executive who is secretly brought in by a corporation who needs her to finesse a reclusive computer genius (aka the “sexiest geek alive”) who is white.
First off, if you’ve never read a romance novel, pick a few authors you met here and read their books to get familiar with the genre.
Notice too that many of the writers featured here build on their previous careers, life experience, love of history, or personal factors to either build their storylines or choose a genre.
Ask yourself — is there something in your own background or experience you can draw from?
Next understand the basic structure of the romance novel. Writer’s Digest offers a good overview.
If you’re still interested in trying your hand at writing, by far the best way to get started is to join a local, international, or online chapter of Romance Writers of America.
This article about the Naples, Florida chapter will give you a good idea of what happens on the local level.
Best-selling writer Bronwen Evans from New Zealand also offers some helpful tips and links for people just starting out.
Will you become a best-selling writer? Who knows.
Sometimes it’s more about doing it for yourself without expectations.
At least that was the case for the first-time author I met who only started writing after her husband became paralyzed.
During the eight weeks she took off from her state job to care for him, she said writing was a way to cope.
Happily, she recently published her first book – a paranormal romance!
As with anything… the key is just to start.
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