Friday, July 06, 2012

A Date With Kate - It's All About Rules - Isn't it?

With the announcement of the upcoming So You Think You Can Write Contest,  I thought I'd take a look at points about the craft of writing romances so as to help those of you who are going to enter that contest prepare as you  get your entry ready.  So  to start, I thought I'd take a look at the vexed topic  that always seems to raise its ugly head when talking about writing romance - and that's the one about all those rules that everyone seems to believe are etched in stone.

Some years ago, I received a letter from a would-be romance writer that threw me into confusion.  Now I often get letter from would-be writers. It goes with the territory. I wrote a ‘How to Write Romance’ book – Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance - so naturally people think I have all the answers. But the question in this particular letter had me stumped.

Could I please, the writer asked, tell her exactly how many times a writer could ‘head hop’ in her book.
Head hop?  I admit that I was totally lost. I’ve been writing romances now for over 25 years. I’ve worked with more editors than I care to remember (I think the last count was 15)  but at that point I’d never ever heard the words ‘head hop’ in any conversations, discussions or letters from any of the editors  - or authors – I’d worked with.

So I looked up the term. It took some doing. No one mentioned it. None of my author friends ever used it. Eventually I found one comment – in Vanessa Grant’s Writing Romance.  There, under the heading ‘Guidelines for viewpoint’  was the simple comment that if a  writer  frequently hopped back and forth from one character’s thoughts to another, the reader could lose their sense of involvement with the story. That was it.

Now for me the important word in that book, and in the paragraph above is this: guidelines. A guideline is a suggestion, advice. What the person who wrote to me wanted was an exact rule. She had been told that there are strict and formal rules about ‘head hopping’ in romance writing. That an author must only ever change POV at the end of a scene, never in the middle. That the POV that is shown must be with one character and one character only.

Well, if that’s the case, no one ever told me. I’ve managed to write 60 published novels without ever finding out the ‘rules’ about head hopping/changing POV in any scene. And it’s not just that rule I’ve managed to avoid. When I started to investigate the subject of these ‘rules’ – I found there were dozens of them, all of which had totally passed me by. There’s the one about the fact that there must be no sex before chapter five. The hero and heroine must never be  separated  for more than 2 pages. Paragraphs must be no longer than  3 – or at very most – 4 sentences long. (Apparently this one was created by Dame Barbara Cartland who believed that the reader’s mind could only concentrate for that short space of time!)  You must  get rid of all ‘he said/she said’ tags. Equally, there is apparently a ‘rule’ that says you must always always add a ‘he said/she said’ tag – and preferably with  an nice adverb to go with it. So ‘she said angrily’  and ‘he riposted savagely’ are both perfectly right and perfectly wrong in the same moment. Sweet Romances must have no sex in them at all. Sexy romances must have  a minimum of 2 – or 3 – or 4 – sex scenes or they wouldn’t even be considered.
My head was starting to spin. I’d never known about these rules before but now that I did I was having a struggle to remember them. And I was having even worse problems deciding which ones I should follow. Should I add a dialogue tag or not? Should I never ever change POV  because that was ‘head hopping’ or should I follow the rule that said I should always show the POV of the character who had the most to lose at this particular point in the scene? When I tried to write, I questioned every word that I wrote. Had I done this enough – or that too much – would I be penalised for one thing if I put it in, or criticised and derided if I left it out?

Luckily for me, trying to ‘write to the rules’ was only an experiment. I’d never done it and I never will. Why? Because the truth is that there are no rules. There are only Guidelines. And the guidelines are suggestions, examples of ways that have worked well in the past and could work for you but aren’t hard and fast commands, written in gold on blacks of stone, to be followed – or else!

But once I became aware of those rules, I found them everywhere. I recently read a post on a message board where the writer wanted to ‘eliminate all garbage words’. Huh? What, exactly, is a garbage word – Rubbish? Recycling? Compost? Litter?  Another asked  how they should  ‘remove the "was" verb and all its little cousins: be, is and were?’ Apparently there is a new rule that these words are  “slowing to the reading”.  Are they? The answer to that question is surely the one that the editors are always quoting when someone asks ‘Can I do this or that?’ or ‘Would XYZ be forbidden in a romance?’

That answer is always – “It’s all in the execution” – a phrase that editors have had to use so many many times that it has become abbreviated and is simple known as IAITE.

I once read in an article on writing romance that  claims there is a long and detailed ‘rule book’ for sex scenes and any sensual content in the books. Apparently there is a list of which body parts may be touched – whether they can be clothed or unclothed  - what sort of kiss is allowed and when. Can you imagine the problems that would result if this was the case?  - My hero and heroine’s first kiss must not be open-mouthed – second kiss they can part their lips  - no tongues, next . . .  It would be like those ‘painting by numbers’ kits where the picture was mapped out for you and you painted the right colour where the appropriate number was found. We’d end up with exactly what the uniformed members of the public believe we write already – books that are so much the same they are actually produced by a computer that is fed the names and nationalities of the hero and heroine and it does the rest.

The problem with the ‘rules’ of romance writing is that they are like the old game of  Chinese Whispers. Someone asks a question –  How do I write a scene, showing different points of view? – and the answer is like the one Vanessa Grant gives above – do it carefully so as not to confuse the reader. That is then reported somewhere else as ‘Don’t change POV too often’ – which then becomes ‘don’t head hop’ etc etc.

So I looked back at what editors had actually said to me that could remotely be considered ‘rules’.  I found just two  strong pieces of advice:

1.            The ratio of dialogue to narrative in a romance  should be around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative. (please note the word ‘around’ – no one had ever asked me to work out precisely what proportion of my book is dialogue and what narrative)

2.            Narrative slows down the pace of the story so in general it’s best not to write more than 2 pages of narrative. 

That was it. No other  rules – and I wasn’t expecting any. You see, the idea that there are such strict rules comes rather too close to that other misinformed belief about writing romances – and that is that there is the much famed ‘formula’.  Crack that and you’re published instantly and on your way to making a huge fortune.   I wish!

No, I don’t. I really don’t. Writing by rules or formulas is to lose all originality. It destroys an author’s voice, creates production-line books, all in the same mould, the same style – the same. It creates books written by committee and no reader is going to be satisfied with those for  very long.

So – what are the Rules of Romance Writing?  There’s only one. And it’s not just for romance writing but for all types of creative writing.

The only rule in writing - whether romance writing or anything else – the one  I always start off my writing courses/ workshops  with -   is that there are NO rules.

Would-be authors might talk about them, critiquers may make out that they exist but what an editor is looking for is a great story written as well as possible – written in the way that the author creates the most sympathetic and believable characters, and tells that story  in the best, most exciting, most vivid way possible. And so the only 'rule' is that the author writes a book in the best possible way that makes that story the best story it can be.

Remember - IAITE – It’s all in the execution.
Kate is looking forward to e rest of July  talking about writing. She's heading for the RNA Conference in Penrith  next week - and to Caerleon Writers' Holiday  the week after. At both events she'll be teaching about writing romance -  and emphasising the fact that there are no rules.
Kate's most recent title is The Devil and Miss Jones.
You can find out all her most up to date news on her web site and her blog which is also where she  gives details of all her workshops and courses coming up (including a fabulous week long course in Tuscany in October.) - You'll find those on the Events Page.


  1. Great post Kate. Different publishers have their own preferences (?rules?) but that's the closest I've come to rules.
    I've got your book, ‘How to Write Romance’ book – Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance - and would recomend it to anyone who want to know about the 'rules' of writing romance :-)

    1. Hi Sherry - yes, everyt publisher has preferences and of course each line in romance writing has its own atmosphere and type of story - levels of sensuality, etc but any real 'rules' would be too restrictive and curb an author's creativity.

      Thank you for the lovely compliment about the 12 POint Guide To Writing Romanc e. I'm always so glad to find that this has helped people learn more about the craft - after all, that's why I wrote it!

  2. Thanks for the reassurance, Kate. I've found plenty of great advice on forums, blogs etc, but also lots of conflicting rules. For an aspiring author like me it can be confusing. I'll have to put a post-it note with 'IAITE' on the window over my desk. Right under the one that says, 'Stop staring out of the window.'

    1. I'm pleaed you feel reassured, Tora. For every person who tells me that you can't do something , there will be someone who tells me that you can. And the truth is there in that IAITE. If you focus on the cans/can'ts - the 'rules' then you will become inhibited and it will stunt your creativity. And if there are any problems that an editor doesn;t like, she can always deal with those in revisions. So yes, IAITE - and defitely stop staring out of the window! If it's anything like it is here, all you'll see is rain!

  3. Great post Kate. I always worry I use he/she said too much. Now I will concentrate on writing a good story.

    1. Hi Sian - those he said/she saids are often no needed - but the trick is to write anyway, get the words down on the page - you can always edit them later. As Norah Roberts said, you can edit a bad page, you can't edit a blank one. So allow yourself to write a 'dirty draft' and then you can see if you really do use those tages too often.

  4. Great post, Kate. Thank you. I like it that you start your workshops stating, 'there are no rules.' As a first time novelist you almost hope for a set of rules/guidelines but you just have to get it written and learn as you go along.

  5. Hi Suzy - Ask anyone who's been to one of my workshops/writing weekends and 'm sure they'll mention Kate's List of Non-Rules - and the first item on the list is 'There are no rules'! I think we all hope there might be a list of rules so that we can get it 'right' by just following them - but what works for one person might be dreadful for someone else. And following a set of rules would be retrictive and end up with everything so much the same. It's the differences and the variety that make romance - well, any novel - unique and gives it the author's 'voice'. And of course that IAITE so that one writer's 'secret baby' story is a cliché and another's is innovative and amazing.