The Haiku of Category Romance

 So, I got asked to go teach a class about world building in Reno this April (not at RT, this is at Truckee Community College) and I was going through my notes (okay–I was putting my brain together because I haven’t spoken about this for a while) and one of the points I’ve made before (and Damon Suede makes a lot as well) is that while people think of contemporary romance as “real”, as much world building goes into a contemporary romance as goes into a paranormal romance or urban fantasy romance, people just aren’t aware.

When you’re writing a contemporary romance, and you’re deciding on tone, you need to make some world building decision. Example?

Manny Get Your Guy: Taylor was injured in the military. Is he bitter about his service? Is he worried about his appearance? Is he suicidal? Have PTSD? Is his life still threatened about his injuries? Can he still get wood? Do these injuries provide interest to the love story or are they a tremendous obstacle to the lovers getting together? Is he tortured because of them? Or are they just a practical consideration?

The answer to these questions almost uniformly lies in, “What kind of world am I building?”  And the nuances of that world are very much dictated by the fact that Manny is category romance.

Now, for those folks who think, “Well, that makes category romances easier to write and boring to read!” you’re missing the point.

Writing for a category does place some restrictions on the prose and the world–but it opens up some possibilities that true lovers of the genre appreciate.

The same restrictions placed on Taylor’s injuries–that they can’t be too graphic, too painful, or too much the focus of the character–are also placed on sex. Not too graphic, not too painful, and NOT the focus of the plot. They’re also the same restrictions placed on the emotional pain the characters undergo. Channing Lowell was saddened by the loss of his sister–he wasn’t suicidal.

But those restrictions also set us free.

Much like writing a Christmas story, when I feel free to focus on the romance, on the small, meaningful personal interactions that make the coming together of two people such a delight, limiting the amount of heartache in a story can also free the writer up to simply focus on the romance. The myriad combinations of quirks, flaws, and heroism that makes up a successful couple are quite simply a delight to explore. Of course Tino wasn’t going to be a virgin by the end of the book–but how he got to that deflowering, that was the real question, and watching him and Channing dance was part of the joy of writing it.

I think some of the confusion for readers who haven’t been exposed to a whole lot of category romances comes in the subtleties and nuances that have been forced upon us by the form.

Think about it as a type of poetry.

Anybody who has ever tried to write a sonnet or a villanelle or a haiku poem has spent copious hours tapping their pen on their desk, trying to sound out the beats and rhythmic declensions, while also utilizing the appropriate rhyme, and, hey, for fun, making those few words mean something.

And the smaller, more compact the poetry form, the more ingenuity was demanded of the poet.

Often, the writers of haiku poetry had giant lexicons of each word used in poetry, along with that word’s denotative and connotative meaning, including colors, sounds, and smells that could be associated with that one word.

Think about it–one word.

Autumn, for instance.

Autumn is the year end, it is the time of dying, it is the time of long shadows, it is the end of summer, or the end of love, or the end of joy, or the end of a long life. Autumn is gold, amber, green, and brown, it is the smell of smoke, it is the haze over the sun. It’s a certain shade of blue that makes most people’s hearts ache in their chests, and a time when you gather your harvest to see if all your work paid off, and how long, how bitter, the winter would be.

Farm animals are slaughtered in the autumn. Clothes are gathered to repair in the autumn, in anticipation of long winter nights.

One word, and a thousand different meanings. That one word depended on the few syllables on either side of it to determine why it was there.

A category romance is like that.

Yes, the tropes are established–there are even trope lexicons, like there are word lexicons for poetry. But for each trope, there are infinite combinations with other tropes, and with the characters depicted within the trope, to make a different story. An experienced category romance reader will pick up the book, spot the tropes, and then wait to see what the characters will do with them. The beats of the story are already established, but the nuances are new. The ending of the story is always the same–but it’s never the same, because the characters are different, and the roads they took to that happy ending were different and the trope combinations were different, every damned time.

And for people who accept this, embrace it, envelop the play of trope and character that can be found in a compact little haiku volume of romance, the clues to romance, to happy ever after, to individual human beings finding contentment in a vast and impersonal society are there for the taking.

How many people were surprised when Harry Potter ended up with Ginny Weasley at the end of the series?

I betcha category romance readers weren’t. We saw that romance develop from Ginny’s first stirrings of hero worship to her mortification that Harry should be the one to rescue her in the second book. We saw it through Ginny’s determination to have her own life and her own suitors and not to let the big doofus break her heart, and through Harry’s ill-fated attempts to court another girl. No matter what the characters were doing or saying to each other at the time, we saw the clues between the two of them that told us they would be together, and the ending was not so much a surprise as it was a sweet fulfillment of a long-ago promise.

An arranged marriage of sorts–which is another favored trope.

Christmas novellas are my favorite category romance to write–I won’t lie. There is something about writing a story for the holidays that frees me to write as happy as I dare, as sweetly as I possibly can. But the rules to the Christmas story are just as strict as the rules to the Dreamspun Desire–and I try never to forget it.

In fact, I revel in it.

I’ll write unapologetically happy as often as the rules will let me, and Regret Me Not is an example of following category romance rules (even if it’s not a Dreamspun Desire.) My characters need to be happy at the end, they need not to be too consumed with their own pain, and they need to have learned something by the end that lets them be happy.

And hopefully, they need to be likable enough for us to want to see them happy.

Regret Me Not is coming out December 4th. I love this Christmas novella, this “Christmas trope” of category romance. Pierce and Hal make me sublimely happy–and I hope you love them too.

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I hope you all have a lovely Thanksgiving–whether spent by yourself or with family. May you have peace and some joy, and please, I offer every prayer to any deity that you are fed, clothed, warm, and safe as you read this.

Take care!


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