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Writing Category Romance - Guests Ingrid Weaver and Brenda Harlen

October 23, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (9)

Today we have two guests - Ingrid Weaver and Brenda Harlen - to talk about writing category romance. I've never written category romance so thought this was the perfect opportunity to bring in some experts! Category romance comprises a large percentage of the romance book market, and it is where many authors begin their careers. That said, I think it is also the most difficult niche in which to sustain a career - but we'll let our guests talk about that.

As usual, we'll indicate who said what with initials: Ingrid will be IW, Brenda will be BH and I'll be DC in the discussion below.


Ingrid Weaver is a USA Today bestselling author of more than 25 books and has been published by Silhouette, Harlequin and Berkley/Jove. She is the recipient of a Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Romantic Suspense and the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. Currently, she lives on a farm near Frankford, Ontario, where she grows organic veggies and Darwinian flowers when she isn't working on her next book. Her website is HERE

BrendaPromoPhoto Brenda Harlen gave up a career as a family lawyer to be a stay-at-home mom and pursue her dream of writing romance novels. She soon learned that there isn’t much staying at home for a mother of two busy children, but she has no regrets about the choices she made. Sometimes she even finds time to write.

The award-winning author lives in Southern Ontario with her husband and two sons, whom she credits as the inspiration for all of her happily-ever-afters.

DC - What is category or series romance?

IW -  When people refer to a "Harlequin Romance," they're probably talking about series or category. These are the little paperbacks with the clinch covers you'll see racked in grocery stores, drugstores, Walmarts and bookstore chains. The number of titles published per month is staggering, from four to six in each of more than a dozen separate lines. The downside for authors: these books are on sale in stores only for the month of their publication - once the month is up, the books are stripped, tossed and the next batch takes their place. The upside: these books have a guaranteed distribution. They're not sold to stores on an individual title basis. If an outlet sells a category, they must take all the titles in that category.

BH - Category or series romance books are usually numbered sequentially and released under a common imprint—ie. Silhouette Special Edition, Silhouette Romantic Suspense; Harlequin Intrigue; Harlequin Historicals, etc. A certain number of titles are released under each imprint every month, at which time the previous month’s titles are removed from the shelves (similar to the distribution of magazines).

DC - What makes category romance distinctive as a sub genre of the romance market?

IW - Category romances are by definition specialized. Each line/imprint/series targets certain reader tastes or interests. For example, Harlequin Presents has "traditional", sweet love stories, Harlequin Blaze books are full of hot sex, Silhouette (a subsidiary of Harlequin) Special Editions are highly emotional, and Silhouette Romantic Suspense books contain, well, suspense. Consistently. Month after month, title after title. The theory is that if a reader likes one type of story, she'll be able to find a particular line that provides it.

BH - I believe what makes category romance distinctive is a combination of its format and its readership. Each particular line has specific guidelines with respect to word-length, providing a consistent read for its dedicated readers. Category romance novels are undeniably ‘fast reads’ and that carries tremendous appeal for readers who are already trying to cram too much into the twenty-four hours of a day and just want a quick escape.

DC - Are there key story elements expected by readers, or particularly popular with readers?

IW - Editors often encourage us to include certain popular "hooks" in category stories, such as cowboys, secret babies, runnaway brides, marriages of convenience and heroines in jeopardy. This is reflected in the titles you'll see on these books, which often contain the hook. The objective is to engage the reader and get her emotionally involved in the story as quickly as possible, necessary because of the short length of these books.

BH - There aren’t any story elements specific to category romance in general but there are definitely expectations with respect to specific lines or imprints. For example, a reader of Silhouette Romantic Suspense is looking for a combination of romance and suspense, a reader of a Harlequin Blaze novel wants the love scenes to be hot and explicit, and a reader of any of the Steeple Hill lines expects the Christian faith to play a role in the story.

And yes, there are definitely story elements that are popular with readers, as a quick survey of the titles on the category romance shelves at any time will reveal. Some of the most popular ‘hooks’ are secret babies, marriages of convenience, and reunion stories. And for some readers, the type of hero holds special appeal, as evidenced by the popularity of cowboy, royalty and military stories.

DC - What category authors do you think are must-reads? What writers are doing innovative and exciting work? What writers are consistently producing "keepers"?

BH - Those are all tough questions. I have my personal favourite category romance authors, of course, and this certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but I can’t resist mentioning a few of my local favourites. Ingrid Weaver, of course, who writes the most fabulously tortured heroes (all of her books are on my keeper shelves); Molly O’Keefe, who seems to have found her niche at Superromance, writing stories with a lot of depth and heart; Kate Bridges (I’m not usually a big historical reader, but I loved her Mountie series—great covers and great stories). Some other favourites are Catherine Mann, Joanne Rock, Jenna Mills, Kylie Brant, Karen Templeton, RaeAnne Thayne, Crystal Green, Karen Rose Smith—okay, I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself now. 

As for innovative and exciting work, there is a lot of that in category romance. Authors are consistently pushing the boundaries in new directions, which provides more variety and, I believe, greater satisfaction for readers.

DC - What are the challenges in writing category romance?

IW - It's tough to keep fresh ideas flowing within the category framework. I regard the elements that readers and editors expect as the compulsory elements of a figure skating program: the tricks have to be done, but the challenge is how to arrange them to make the biggest impact.

BH - The biggest challenge is probably that imposed by the word limits. Sometimes a character or storyline wants a lot more time or attention than can be given to it in the 55,000-60,000 words, which is the general guideline for category romance novels. (Of course, some specific lines allow for longer or require shorter stories.)

Another challenge is understanding reader expectations for specific lines and ensuring that you, as the author, fulfill those expectations.

DC - What do you love about writing category romance?

IW - Oddly enough, my answer to this one is essentially the same as my answer to the previous question. I enjoy challenging myself to find fresh ideas and plots that will entertain me, and hopefully my readers.

BH - I fell in love with category romance as a reader, before I was even a teenager. I would spend summers at my parents’ cottage and read two or three books a day and I became addicted to happy endings.

I love to write these stories as much as I love to read them and, as a writer, the expansiveness of the category romance market gives me hope that I will eventually have a chance to tell all of the stories that are swirling around in my mind—all of them destined for happy endings, of course. If only I had more hours in the day to write . . .

How is writing category romance different from writing single title romance? How is it similar?

IW - The main difference between writing category and writing single title romance is one of scope. For example, because most category books are between 50,000 and 75,000 words (as opposed to over 100,000 for single title) there is less room to flesh out secondary characters or to include more viewpoints than those of only the hero and heroine. Similarly, plots must be kept honed down to basics in a category book while they can be more complex in a single title. Crafting a memorable, emotionally involving romance within the word count and plot element restrictions of category still requires the same basic writing skills as for a single title, but the longer books give an author more elbow room - and much more creative freedom - to exercise those skills.

DC - Tell us a bit about your upcoming releases.

Dtag IW -  HER BABY'S BODYGUARD will be released next April and THE ACCIDENTAL COMMANDO will be released in June, both from Silhouette Romantic Suspense. They're part of my new miniseries, Eagle Squadron: Countdown, which features heroes from a team of Delta Force commandos that were introduced in my previous series, Eagle Squadron. Next up will be two romantic suspense single titles from Berkley, DELANEY'S SHADOW and PERCHANCE TO DREAM.

BH - This year, I was invited to participate in “The Foleys & The McCords” continuity series published by Silhouette Special Edition. My book, THE TEXAS TYCOON’S CHRISTMAS BABY, is the sixth in the series and will be available in December 2009.

In 2010, I’m launching a new mini-series of my own with Special Edition—Brides & Babies, which is actually a spin-off of an earlier stand-alone title (THE MARRIAGE SOLUTION, February 2007). The first book in the brides & Babies series, THE ENGAGEMENT PROJECT, will be on sale in January; the second, THE PREGNANCY PLAN, should hit the shelves in April, and the third, THE BABY SURPRISE, in July.

DC - Thanks to both of you for being my guests today. Now, let's take some questions. Who will be first?


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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