In the meantime, I’ve studied the genre and learned that a love story is not the same as a romance. Romance follows specific expectations readers demand and publishers insist upon. But a love story doesn’t have to fit into a genre’s mold. It can be a literary gem. What this means is that in a love story, we don’t have to follow the rules of the romance genre, yet we can still have characters fall in love. We can use that love as a strength or weakness (addiction) explored through characterization. For literary love stories, two novels by Louise Erdrich come to mind—LOVE MEDICINE and TALES OF A BURNING LOVE. Keep in mind, the focus in literary fiction is not solely on the development of love, but more on the human condition to which that love is a part.
For genre romance, look at Avon Books, Zebra Contemporary Books, and Harlequin.
So how do you decide if the romantic theme you are nourishing fits the romance genre or if it’s a literary love story?
In genre romance, the happily ever after is the promise readers want to see. It offers an escape from reality, which isn’t always so happy. Reality is real life. Life is messy. Romance stories can have some mess in them, but only as long as it halts at the end, when the lovebirds recognize and admit their feelings for each other and come to some type of commitment in honor of that love. (I consider genre romance a promise of love and hope, not just an escape.)
In literary love stories, sometimes a couple falls in love, then one of them dies. Sometimes it is after a death that the depth of the love is finally realized. But someone doesn’t have to die to make a literary romance work. The couple might fall in love and face the basic struggles most couples face. For literary, there will still be a satisfying ending, albeit it may not be what readers are expecting (or wanting). There’s a strong sense of union between the couple, but you can never be sure from page to page that everything will work out for them (the way you wanted). But it’s still a love story and therefore, you can tap into your romantic soul.
Just remember that in literary work, plot is secondary to character, and relationships are viewed from the perspective of how they define the human condition. (But there can still be some spicy romance in that relationship.)
What I never considered until I read a stockpile of “rules” for genre romance is that the characters should not be over the age thirty. Seriously? Reading that, the bratty little rebel in me immediately started creating a character who was thirty-one. I guess I’d have to go for the literary arena.
Then I read the rule that the hero or heroine cannot have any disabilities, and he should be good-looking, strong, virile, and well to do (preferably rich). The heroine, of course, is gorgeous, strong-minded, and independent.
To sum it up, if your hero or heroine has a handicap of any sort, whether physical, mental, or financial, you better stick with literary writing. A good thing about that market is we’re allowed to acknowledge and understand that people in their forties can fall head over heels, and so can that handsome gent in the wheelchair and the dirt poor couple down the street. If these are the characters you enjoy creating, you may be writing a love story, but it is not a romance—it is a literary love story, and it will tell is much about the human condition as a whole is it will the process of falling in love.
If you’re looking to get noticed by one of the big publishers looking specifically for the happily ever after, you do need to pay attention to the expected conventions. And keep this in mind—it is not because the publisher is close-minded about real love between real people, but it is because readers of romance expect a tidy happy ending, an escape of sorts, and they will not tolerate you coming up short in that area.
Something to keep in mind for a literary love story is that literary works explore multi-layered themes, and the conflicts are more of the human condition, not just a murder to solve or an obstacle standing in the way of love. Some say there’s also an expectation of stronger voice and that more attention is put into the language (descriptive, use of metaphor, etc.). While that may be true for the latter, I don’t agree that literary fiction always has a stronger voice. True in some cases, yet I know some genre lovers with very authentic voices.
For myself, I’ve concluded that one of my stories is literary, while the other is a traditional happily ever after. So much for consistency.
What type of romance are you writing, and why do you consider it such?