As a rule, I don’t like rules. But, when I read Karen Stivali’s post that explained her perception of the rules of romance novels, and why her books did not fit that mold — I was smitten. I don’t write romance — and I know that. What I wasn’t sure of was what constitutes that line between some women’s fiction and some romance novels. Let us know what you think in the comments.
And please welcome Karen Stivali to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel
When my debut full-length novel, Meant To Be, released a few weeks ago I got a lot of questions from curious friends. There’s one conversation that I’ve been having over and over. It goes something like this…
Friend: What kind of book is it?
Me: It’s a love story.
Friend: Oh, it’s a romance novel?
Me: No, it’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements.
Friend: So, it’s a romance novel.
Me: No, it breaks too many romance rules.
Friend: But you said it’s a love story.
Me: It is. And it’s romantic as hell, but it’s not a romance novel in the traditional sense.
Most readers, and even many writers, are not aware of how strict the rules are where romance novels are concerned. I’ll admit, as a reader and a writer I always thought the rules were a bad thing, but now that I’ve written both romances and women’s fiction I can see why the rules are in place. And why I sometimes break them or cross genres.
Back when I first started writing I remember reading an interview with Nicholas Sparks where he vehemently denied writing romances. That floored me. Has he ever written a story that wasn’t romantic? Not to my knowledge. But technically the vast majority of his books can’t be considered romances. Why not? The most common reason is the lack of a happily ever after ending. He writes love stories. His fiction focuses on love and romance but is classified as either mainstream fiction or, as women make up the vast majority of his readers, women’s fiction.
Romance novels are popular. There’s no denying that. For decades they’ve had a huge, always-growing audience of devoted readers. Part of the reason for that is those readers want to know what they can expect from the stories. That doesn’t mean they want the same story churned out over and over again, but it does mean they want certain elements to be guaranteed. Romances guarantee the reader that they’ll find a story where the hero and heroine only have eyes for each other and where, no matter what obstacles they face in the course of the book, they’ll wind up with a happily ever after ( or at least happy for now) ending. They’re also guaranteed that the romance will drive the plot. Sure, there may be sub plots or side characters that aren’t romantic, but the focus of the story will be on the path the hero and heroine take to becoming a couple.
Women’s fiction is far harder to define. Some define it simply as books that will appeal to a primarily female audience. Others say it’s fiction written by women, for women, with a female main character (which would mean Nicholas Sparks doesn’t actually write women’s fiction either, as he’s clearly not a woman). Women’s fiction can have a romantic plot, but it certainly doesn’t have to. It can be a story of sisters, of friends, of mothers and children, husbands and wives, careers, losses, achievements, or any combination of those. Sometimes, however, women’s fiction does focus on a man and woman falling in love, or on the trials of male/female relationships. That’s the kind of women’s fiction I write.
Wait, you ask, then why don’t you write romances instead? The answer is sometimes I do. I have published several erotic romances that are all sweet, sexy love stories involving a man and woman falling in love and having great sex as they work toward their happily ever after ending. I just signed a contract with a new publisher on a (non-erotic) contemporary romance that’s a friends-to-lovers/second-chance-with-an-old-crush story in which the heroine has to decide if she can juggle having a career and the man of her dreams. I loved writing those stories. I love those characters. But sometimes the stories I have in mind don’t fit the romance mold. That’s the case with my women’s fiction, like Meant To Be (and its sequel, Holding On).
As a writer I stay very true to my characters and insist on telling their story. I don’t worry about rules or genres while I write, I write the story I have in my head. Period. Meant To Be is a friends to lovers tale with a an unusual twist. My main characters, Daniel and Marienne, are both married to other people when they become neighbors in a small New Jersey town. (Romance rule breaker number one—hero and heroine MUST be single at the beginning of the story.) The two couples become friends, sharing meals at each other’s houses, commuting to work together—normal things neighbors do. (Romance rule breaker number two—story must focus on the romance between the hero and heroine, not on other relationships.) Daniel and Marienne discover they have a lot in common. Similar likes. Similar histories. As their marriages begin to unravel they rely on their friendship.
Although it becomes clear to the reader that they’re beginning to fall for each other, there is never even a hint of cheating. In fact, they both stay loyal to their spouses, trying to make their respective marriages work way past the point where they’re truly viable relationships. Even when they both wind up single and available they struggle with the decision to risk their friendship to see if the romantic feelings are returned.
Since I write books that focus on relationships and since, in my opinion, sex is an important facet of most adult relationships, I write open door sex scenes. Sex is not just a physical act, it’s an emotional one. The interaction between characters during a sexual encounter can be far more telling about the relationship than a conversation or even an argument. For that reason, both main characters are shown having sex with their spouses. It’s very telling about the state of their marriages. It’s also romance rule breaker number three—the hero and heroine cannot be shown having sexual relations with anyone other than the hero/heroine (except in the case of consensual ménages, which I don’t write in any genre).
Romance rules aren’t the only ones I break with this story. By some definitions of women’s fiction I break a major rule of women’s fiction writing. Meant To Be is a story about Daniel and Marienne. As individuals, as friends, as two people falling in love. It’s about the journey they both take. They are each point of view characters and are equally important to the story. Although they both grow, mature and change throughout the course of the book, in many ways this is more Daniel’s story. In other word’s it’s by a woman, for women, but not just about a woman.
I often say this story is one long prelude to a kiss. Readers have told me they waited, breathlessly turning pages, dying to see if Daniel and Marienne would eventually find their way to each other at the end of this story. As I said, it’s a love story. It’s romantic as hell. But it’s not a traditional romance novel. It’s women’s fiction, with strong romantic elements. And a happily ever after ending. An ending that told me I wasn’t done with these characters and their journey yet, which is why there’s a sequel releasing at the end of November.
The sequel, Holding On, explores how even when you marry the person of your dreams, and have everything you ever wanted, relationships still aren’t easy. When you have everything you ever wanted the hard part is holding on. Is it a romantic story? You bet. Is it a romance? Nope. (Romance rule breaker—the hero and heroine cannot already be married to one another as the plot must focus on them falling in love and a married couple is, in theory, already in love.) It’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements, because I like my women’s fiction with a lot of love and a lot of heat…and a happy ending…but not the traditional romance novel path.
So, it’s your turn to tell me. Do you like your women’s fiction with hearty doses of romance? Do you enjoy having dual point of view from the hero and heroine in your women’s fiction? Or do you prefer if romantic plot lines are left in romance novels and women’s fiction focuses on the woman’s journey?
Karen Stivali is a prolific writer, compulsive baker and chocoholic with a penchant for books, movies and fictional British men. When she’s not writing, she can be found cooking extravagant meals and serving them to family and friends. Prior to deciding to write full time Karen worked as a hand drawn animator, a clinical therapist, and held various food-related jobs ranging from waitress to specialty cake maker. Planning elaborate parties and fundraisers takes up what’s left of her time and sanity.
Karen has always been fascinated by the way people relate to one another so she favors books and movies that feature richly detailed characters and their relationships. In her own writing she likes to explore the dynamics between characters and has a tendency to craft romantic love stories filled with sarcasm and sexy details.
In case you’re curious about Meant To Be, here’s the blurb:
Sometimes you’re already committed to the wrong person when fate finally brings you the right one.
When NYU professor Daniel Gardner’s career-obsessed wife convinces him to move to the suburbs, he hopes it’s a first step toward starting the family he longs to have. Instead of domestic bliss he finds his neighbor, Marienne Valeti. She loves her freelance design job, but must contend with a growing sense of isolation created by her husband’s indifference. A penchant for good books, bad movies, and Marienne’s to-die-for brownies sparks a powerful bond between them. Passion simmers, but they resist its lure, surrendering only in the seclusion of their minds. Their friendship helps them weather every hardship, from divorce to widowhood, leaving them both secretly wondering if it can survive a first kiss.