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Having written two thrillers, and seen many romance novels as a publisher, the thought that invariably comes to me is whether I can write a romance.
At one level, writing thrillers with a wide canvas allows me to not just create an engrossing story, but also use it as a platform to comment upon the changing sociopolitical, business and cultural environment of an India on the move. There are large macro social trends that are shaping the country–from an increase in youth population and massive urbanization to simultaneous increase in global impact through media and changing attitudes of and towards women-leading to a clash of modernity with age-old traditions. I find it interesting to capture this through fiction.
At another level, writing a credible romance is extremely tough. It is akin to baking a soufflé or painting a watercolor – seemingly easy – and yet extremely tough to render with style and lightness. Having guided several romance authors through their books and having read many more, here is an insider’s guide to why romance writing is tough.
1. Credible Characters: While romances, especially Mills & Boon, follow the trajectory of attraction, conflict, resolution and happily ever after, the story must revolve around two compelling characters. The heroine should be someone we can identify with, the hero should be someone we can fall in love with. Because the characters are introduced upfront, we need to like them from the get go.
The Indian Mills & Boons have featured Bollywood stars, former royalty, industrialists, entrepreneurs, executives, doctors and celebrity artists as the hero. The heroines have been doctors, bankers, executives, journalists, PR professionals, artists and students. But characters are much more than their professions. It is the attitude they bring into their stories that is counts. While the focus is on the characters and their romance, the setting and context of the story must be delicately woven into the narrative.
2. Conflict: Romances tend to be quick reads when compared with other genres of fiction. They are slim, and hence it’s important to establish the conflict between the characters as quickly as possible. They need to be attracted towards each other, but there also needs to be an emotionally relevant reason why they dislike each other or why they can not succumb to their attraction. If the conflict is not strong enough, it does not propel the story forward. In an Indian romance, the deterrent could be personal misunderstandings or machinations of friends and family. Families tend to play a stronger role in an Indian Mills & Boon, perhaps reflective of our cultural mores.
3. Emotional Drama: While a heroine in a romance is a typical young girl who is absorbed in education or career, friends and family, we need to feel her emotions as she goes through the story. We need to feel her anger or irritation when she meets the hero; we need to feel the simmer of attraction as they continue to meet; we need to get into her despair when the relationship doesn’t work out; and finally we need to root for her to find a successful resolution to her story. In a story, emotions- both positive and negative- must be amplified.
4. Passion: What is romance without passion? Yet it remains one of the toughest parts to write. It is not as much about the sexual act as it is about sexual chemistry and the buildup of desire. To what degree authors feel comfortable exploring this varies – some books, even within the Indian collection, are chaste, while others can literally burn a fire. Indian youth in urban areas are very open to sexual experimentation and the stories written by younger authors reflect this changing paradigm. But every book needs to have the attraction, the anticipation, and the desire for emotional and intimate connect built into the interactions of the characters. It is beyond a mechanical description, and needs to make the reader experience the intensity of desire.
5. Humor: It peppers through the dialogues and interactions of the characters. Stilted dialogue can really bring down powerful characters. More so in a romance, we need to chuckle through situations where the hero and the heroine are placed in antagonistic situations. If passion is tough, humor is even tougher to write. But in a romance that offers escape, if the characters are having fun or are willing to laugh a bit at themselves, readers can experience that excitement as well. Humor is like the twinkle in the eye – without it, the characters are lifeless. But humor is rare in India, and to find it within the pages of a romance novel can be truly refreshing.
6. Giving in to and defying the stereotype: Typically, the hero is an alpha male – but in today’s times, we need to tread careful ground. The hero cannot be overtly brash or disrespectful towards the heroine or women in general or exhibit a boorish attitude. Yet, the easygoing, shy, under confident, boy next door may lack sufficient charisma to maintain the illusion of romantic escape. The real life Indian man may look up to Mummyji for decisions, but within the pages he is sensitive, caring and yet has a take-charge attitude towards life. Similarly, the heroine need not be in the first blush of romance. Both may be recovering from past mistakes or broken relationships. There may be trauma in the past. Neither need be virgin. The shy, retiring heroine is not one today’s reader can identify with. So it is important to show a strong young woman, who may be vulnerable in love yet has core tensile strength.
Youth perhaps is another stereotype, and it is true that romance can happen at any age. Yet from the perspective of romance fiction, whether the reader is young or old, youthful characters hold sway. This holds true for Hollywood romantic comedies, Indian romance dramas and fiction. Yet in a romance, the characters should not be so young that they cannot stand upon the conviction of their feelings and take decisions. This is even more important in India, where women till their mid-twenties and men till their late-twenties remain within the fold of parental decision-making.
7. Setting: Many readers have experienced different countries and popular cultures through Mills & Boon. Yet, how does one make a reader based in India appreciate a story set in India? Familiar setting mean that readers can identify with this, but at the same time does not remain an escape. The local Mills & Boons have not just showcased the social milieu of the cosmopolitan cities and small towns that the stories are set in, sometimes the characters also find themselves in situations where they travel to feudal havelis, mountains in Himachal or Ladakh, beaches of Goa or Andaman or even overseas to Singapore, US or Mauritius, giving readers a sense of different places.
8. Brand promise: Mills & Boon romances promise a quick reading interlude that transports the reader to a fantasy. It needs to read fast. It needs to evoke certain emotions. So while the story needs to be credible, the passion intense, it cannot be too real.
Ultimately, a romance is an escape. It is an essential pick-me-up that offers fun and fantasy. It needs to be crafted with care, to create that idyll that readers want to indulge in. It is structured and yet gossamer light. Many romances are written, but the ones that tug at our hearts are the ones that evoke the right blend of passion, seduction, laughter and a romantic ideal that makes us want to believe in romance all over again.
At some point in my life I hope I will be ready to bake a delectable romance soufflé, but for now I am a happy reader!