I have a confession to make: I grew up on Harlequin romances. They weren’t the most well-written novels and they were usually full of cheese, but they were plentiful and I was a voracious reader. This was the time of Harlequin Superromances, Harlequin Presents, and Harlequin American Romances. Each novel was about 50,000 words and had no sex scenes. If there was any sex it happened off page and between married couples.
Then the publishing industry changed and in order to sell more books, romances started including graphic sex scenes and naming body parts. I remember picking up a novel that had a graphic sex scene in Chapter 3 between two perfect strangers on her country porch. Anyone driving by could’ve seen them and they’d barely said a word to each other. By the end of the novel this couple still barely knew each other and had already been in bed numerous times. There was no mention of love, no mention of marriage. He never brought her flowers, bought her gifts, or did anything other than call her nasty names which he thought was “sexy”. It wasn’t even clear if the hero was going to stick around at the end of the novel. He had one foot out the door.
That’s about the time I started reading science fiction and murder mysteries. Science fiction still has sex, including alien sex, and murder mysteries have violence, rape, and some seriously depraved murders, the more graphic the better for book sales. So what’s a girl supposed to read?
When the current material is just too explicit, graphic, and violent, go back to the older stuff. I pulled out my old romances and read them all over again and again. Do you know what I discovered? Our tastes and sophistication as readers changes over time. I used to think the hero who insisted on doing everything for the heroine was being sweet. Now he’s controlling. The heroine who flirted with the hero to get his attention is no longer charming. Now she’s needy.
I also noticed the older novels read at a snail’s pace. The pacing is so slow I can barely read them now. Don’t even get me started about the ridiculous plots. Look at some of the Harlequin titles today and you’ll see what I mean:
- The SEAL’s Second Chance Baby (Cathy McDavid, Jun 2016)
- Secret Baby Scandal (Joanne Rock, Apr 2016)
- Shackled to the Sheikh (Trish Morey, Nov 2015)
- The Sheikh’s Pregnant Prisoner (Tara Pammi, Feb 2016)
- Bought for a Greek’s Revenge (Lynne Graham, Jun 2016)
- The Sheikh’s Last Mistress (Rachael Thomas, May 2016)
At Harlequin they have a deep fascination with becoming a sheikh’s pregnant mistress. 😉
The perfect romance novel is a novel with romance. You know, the romantic things men do for women to show they’re interested and that they care. Courtship. Fixing your porch swing, making you chicken soup when you have a cold, buying you your favorite author’s latest novel. That’s romantic. Grabbing a woman and telling her to s**k your c**k is not romantic at all. It’s disgusting. If some man said that to me, I’d pull out my frying pan and hit him over the head with it. Why would I pay money to read that? When I pick up a romance novel, I want romance.
At this point, I stumbled upon the In Death series by J.D. Robb, who is Nora Roberts in case you didn’t know. The heroine is fashioned after Nora herself which really turned me off. I don’t want to read about a bossy, know-it-all redhead and hear about how gorgeous she is every two pages. Seriously? She has no femininity at all and spends most of her series trying to be a man, but I kept reading for a few more books until the heroine and the hero, after years of premarital sex, finally got married. Ta-da.
What I discovered quite by accident is that all of those sex scenes that I had skipped over in the novels where they weren’t married were suddenly entertaining in the novels where they were married, which is about book 4 or 5. Who’d have thought I was such a prude?
I sat down and went through all of my romance novels. I discarded the ones with sex before marriage. I discarded the ones with no romantic acts by the hero. I discarded the ones with more than two explicit sex scenes, even with a married couple, because if the book is entirely focused on the sex, there’s not much of a romance. At this point all I had left were the old romances with slow plotting. In 200 pages nothing happened. I’d read the first three chapters and then the last two chapters. I missed romance.
That’s when I came up with Betsy’s Rules for Romance Novels:
- Marriage before sex.
- At least one romantic event every 25 pages.
- There must be mess.
- There must be an antagonist.
- There must be a catastrophic event.
1. Marriage Before Sex
If the heroine and hero are in bed in chapter 1, they’d better be married and not sleeping with anyone else. Isn’t it pathetic that I have to add that last bit on about not sleeping with anyone else? For me, sex before marriage is not romantic at all. He can shower the heroine with all kinds of gifts and do all kinds of romantic things for her, but if he can’t wait to have sex with her, then he’s really just lame. Oh so lame. We call them heroes for a reason and this is not even remotely heroic. Which brings me to those idiotic first responder romances. He’s saving people by day but at night he’s a total jerk and usually has sex on the first date. Do you want your daughters thinking this is romantic? NO!
2. At Least One Romantic Event Every 25 Pages
Those really old romances of mine were slow because nothing happened. In the first 25 pages the hero did something really romantic. He followed that up with 200 pages of nothing. Nothing. So slooooow. There should not be 200 pages between the first romantic act and the second. Was he hit by a bus? Was he in the hospital unconscious? If he’s not busy being a hero and being romantic there’d better be a really good reason for it.
3. There Must Be Mess
Real love is messy. It’s not tidy and glamorous. It has whining and tears and mean conversations. That’s the roller coaster of love. Without the lows there won’t be the highs. If you’ve ever been in love, you know what I mean. I wish we all could look back on those moments and not wince at the stupid things we did, but we can’t. We’re all like that. Heroes and heroines are no different.
4. There Must Be an Antagonist
Even if the antagonist is a group of meddling relatives and friends, there must be one. I read this rule on a writer’s blog long ago and realized immediately what a gem it was. Read a few hundred romances where the only thing keeping the couple apart is stupidity and you’ll see what I mean.
5. There Must Be a Catastrophic Event
Many authors call this the life changing event. I don’t care where it happens in the novel, just that it does. If a couple can withstand a catastrophic event and still stay together, then they’ll have a happily ever after. That’s what I’m looking for.
I long for the day when I can pick up any novel in the romance section and it will follow these rules.