Radclyffe is head of the publishing company, Bold Strokes Books, and a highly respected and prolific author of award-winning romantic fiction. Her Yahoo group (Radclyffefirstname.lastname@example.org) recently discussed different perspectives on "What makes good lesbian romantic fiction?" The following excerpt from that discussion presents Radclyffe's view of lesbian romance and the elements that make for a good story. Refer to the Yahoo group for a complete archive of the discussion that includes input from multiple authors and readers.
These replies were written from my perspective as an author/romance fiction reader. Also, bear in mind that we are speaking about a specific genre of fiction. There are lots of books about life and relationships that don't fall into the romance genre category that have very touching, satisfying relationship stories in them (Sweet Creek comes immediately to mind), but these answers refer to stories centering on the inception and evolution of a romantic attachment.
A "romance novel" is different than a novel with a romance in it. Let's be honest about the fact that genre fiction has recognizable elements (in terms of storyline in particular). Why romance gets such a bad rap for being fluff or predictably formulaic, I'm not sure. No one takes issue with the fact that a mystery novel centers around some event caused by an unknown perpetrator for unknown reasons that the protagonist, and hence the reader, wishes to discover or solve. That's a formula.
So, what is a romance novel? Let's ask one of the people who has published THE most in the world - Isabel Swift, editorial vice president at Harlequin Enterprises (I heard her whole discussion, and I quote directly from the text of her talk): A romance is "a fiction novel where a relationship is developed between two people, usually in the form of a meeting, attraction, barrier, destruction of that barrier and a declaration."
That's the formula, and it has lots of variants. There are now over thirty categories of romances (historical, erotic, paranormal, etc). The translation of that basic formula in lesbian fiction has evolved from the "girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl back" during the last 50 years, which is when the bulk of lesbian romances have been published. That particular variant still works just fine, but you won't see it in every book as you once did in the 70's and 80's. Now one sees— meeting/attraction/conflict/conflict resolution/ relationship without the necessary "loses girl" in there. Along the way we (Bold Strokes Books) also want to see character growth and change so that we have a developing relationship as well as vital characters. That gives the author lots of room to play with issues that affect lesbians today—family pressures, societal prejudices, interpersonal issues such as trust, betrayal, fidelity, etc. To me, two key elements are critical to the romance novel - attraction and conflict. These elements play against each other to create the sexual and emotional tensions that drive the plot.
Q: Does lesbian romantic fiction have to have a happy ending?
Unequivocally, yes. At the end of the book, the reader needs to know that the characters are together or intend to be.
Q: Must the girl get the girl in the end?
See above. Yes.
Q: Is it obligatory to have a certain number of steamy sex (with or without the aid of a bath) scenes?
This is hotly debated. Some informal polls I did on my Internet group suggested that 75% of the respondents liked or specifically wanted physically explicit love scenes as opposed to the "fade to black" off-screen love scenes. How many scenes in each novel and how graphic each scene should be depend on the plot and the author's style. The sex should intrinsically make sense for the particular characters as to when, where, how, and how often sex occurs. I personally like to see the characters consummate their relationship on the written page, and our Bold Strokes Books readers expect that in our books. The language and degree of explicitness is up to the author.
Q: Must the characters be idealized or can they be more realistic?
They need to be believable, which is not the same as realistic as far as fiction goes. My characters are often idealized. I like heroic imagery, and I love writing about "love as we dream it might be." I have no idea how many readers read one of my books and say, "Oh phooie, these people aren't real," and never read another. My Honor series is about the most popular thing I've written, and Cameron Roberts is pretty idealized. She's brave, self-sacrificing, sexy, and devoted to her lover to the point she would "literally" die for her. (For those who don't know the series, Cam is a Secret Service agent, and her lover is the president's daughter.) Cam is impossibly honorable. She also started the series emotionally repressed, guilt-ridden over a lover's death, and behaving in a fairly self-destructive fashion. So maybe she isn't all that "ideal" after all.
Q: Must the romantic plot be woven into the other threads or can it be quite independent?
In a romance, it "is" the plot and the majority of scenes should further the development of the main characters and their evolving relationship. A romance within a mystery or speculative fiction work should be an integral part of the plot - another "thread" in the events taking place.
Q: What do you like in a romance when you read it?
I'm big on angst and redemption. I like darker romances with a lot of suffering (think Jane Eyre). But I just read Saxon Bennett's very humorous romance Back Talk and enjoyed it very much, because she creates vivid characters, writes good sex, and retains the romantic structure.
Q: What do you put in the romances you write?
Awakenings, desire, and sex. If I'm writing an action/romance, I'll have danger and physical peril.
Q: What proportion of a mystery or fantasy story needs to be the romance as opposed to the mystery or fantasy plot in order to be romantic enough to satisfy lesbian readers?
That varies widely. "Pure" mystery readers don't care if there's a romance subplot or even a romantic pairing. I don't think there are a lot of readers who seek out lesbian-themed fiction who fall into this category. I personally like to see the romance as a strong subplot, maybe 30% if I had to put a number on it. I get frustrated if I have to read a whole book and get three paragraphs with the characters together in a personal way. Obviously, if done well, the romantic elements are always there, not just dropped in. I'll leave the rest to the mystery writers among us to answer.
One of my all time favorite lesbian speculative fiction novels is Chris Anne Wolfe's Shadows of Aggar. I think she does romance within a non-romance genre perfectly. I read the book back to back three times the first time I read it. The romance is about half the book, which is long and complex and totally exciting.
Q: By what page number do the two women need to first meet?
This is pretty standard - within the first two chapters, preferably at least some hint in the first. How much time do the two women need to spend together in the story? How much is it acceptable to have them apart following the non-romance portion of the storyline?
In a romance, as opposed to another genre with a romance subplot, you do not want to keep the characters apart for more than a chapter or two (and I try never to keep them apart for even a whole chapter unless that is part of the conflict - I used to do that a lot more). A romance reader reads the book because she or he wants to revel in the emotional connection between the characters. You need them together almost all the time to do that.
Q: Are there any taboos or known factors that turn readers off? (Mismatches in: age, race, level of physical attractiveness?)
The only near absolute here is infidelity after the two have declared a commitment. Diversity in character attributes helps avoid the tendency toward "character confluence" that can occur in same-sex pairings, and it makes for more interesting and relevant stories.
Q: What advice would you give to someone about writing a romance?
First: Don't write it if you don't get excited about writing about people as opposed to issues. It's the characters and their emotional struggles and triumphs that define the work. Second: Know the genre. Read a bunch of good, current ones. The oldies are great, too, but the romance genre has changed some over the years and you'll find much more flexibility and diversity in the modern romance novel.
Thank you, Radclyffe.
Sandra Barret lives in New England with her partner, family, and more pets than are probably legal to own. Her first romance novel, Lavender Secrets, has a tentative publication date of February, 2007 from Regal Crest Enterprises. She can be reached at http://www.sandrabarret.com
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