Wednesday, February 12, 2014

To Romance or Not

The earlier posts this month focusing on romance have been quite interesting, and one thing that I have been getting from them, and the comments, is that there is room for any kind of romance novel you want to write, or read, from sweet to sexy.

Many moons ago when I had a top NY agent, Denise Marcil, I had just completed my first mystery, Doubletake, which I wrote with a coauthor, Margaret Sutton. Denise worked hard to market the book, but this was the late 70s when romance was trumping all other genres and mysteries were a hard sell. So Denise suggested I try my hand at writing a romance. She suggested some titles to read in a new contemporary line that Harlequin was launching that featured modern women who were strong and spunky and had interesting jobs. The editors were also looking for smart, sassy dialogue and lots of humor.

I could do that.

What I couldn't do was meet the guidelines that called for intimacy by a certain page and a requisite number of sex scenes.

Not that I'm against sex scenes. I have some in my one and only romance novel, Play It Again, Sam. However, I will not put one in a story just because sex sells and millions of readers like to be titillated by reading a steamy sex scene. If I could get over that attitude, I would probably make a whole lot more money, but...

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For me, whatever is in a story, whether that be sex or graphic violence, has to serve a purpose. It has to be there because the characters need it to be there for their story. I had to work hard to convince my editor of that during the edits of One Small Victory when it was first published in hardback. There is an attraction between the two central characters - a woman working as a CI for a drug task force and the officer she reports to - but in my mind, and theirs, they would never act on that attraction primarily because of professional boundaries that should not be crossed. The attraction between Jenny and Steve is strong as the story progresses, and there is one passionate kiss, but my editor kept pushing for me to add more intimacy. "Couldn't they go to bed just once?"

I did not know until we were well into the editing process that the publisher intended to release the book as a romantic suspense. ARGH! No wonder the editor was asking for a sex scene. I thought the book was going to be released as a suspense novel, period. The acquisitions editor, who read the manuscript and accepted it for publication, certainly had to note that there was not the typical romantic angle to the story to make it romantic suspense.

Still, I wanted to be cooperative, so I considered the request for a while and looked through the story to see if there were ways to beef up the romance. There were places where the sexual tension could be ratcheted up a bit, but they still could not do the deed. Partially because of the professional boundaries, but also because the characters were both wounded people who needed some distance from emotional entanglements.

When I wrote the love scenes for Sam and Frank in Play it Again, Sam, the scene evolved naturally out of the story and it was almost like the characters were directing me on how to write it. Trying to put Jenny and Steve in bed for One Small Victory did not have that same natural feel. The scene I attempted to write was awkward, forced, and held no magic. I knew it was not going to work, so I told my editor that I couldn't add that scene, and if that was a deal-breaker, so be it.

Luckily, it was not, and the book has pleased thousands of readers. Some have asked whether Jenny and Steve ever got together, so I am considering a sequel. They have started talking to me again, and love is part of that conversation.

As Cairn Rodrigues pointed out in an earlier post Let's Write About Sex... or Not, writers have to be true to their stories and their characters. And it has to be about love for most of us. Cairn wrote in her blog piece:
It took me some time to realize that I shouldn’t approach the sex scenes as being about sex, but rather relationships. Not necessarily long term, committed relationships, but the relationship between two people in that moment. Those small, intimate moments do propel the story because they inform the characters, give them context and provide more storytelling possibilities down the road.
Dear reader, what is your response to this? Do you like the sex scenes to be there for sheer titillation, or is the relationship more important? Would you ever read a love story that did not have a graphic sex scene?

Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent release Boxes For Beds is an historical mystery and has no sex scenes. Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series, also minus any sex scenes. The first book in he series, Open Season, does have a sex scene and is available as an e-book. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. She believes in the value of a good walk and a great dog companion.


  1. The reason I call my current WIP a "suspense" is because I'm not required to include a revealing sex scene. Interestingly, my first novel was declared a "love story" by a lady who guides writers through the book journey from beginning to end. Note that she did not say "romance," so she seems to see a hair of difference between the two.

    I love it when characters take my hand and share their story with me. However, that sharing stops at the bedroom door. As that door is closing, I may glimpse a hint of what is unfolding, but I'm not there for the big scene.

    My mom had a collection of novels written, I think, in the 30s and 40s by an author named Kathleen Norris. They were wonderful stories, albeit a bit naïve by today's standards, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. I didn't miss the sex scenes because those were very rarely seen in books during that era — and I read the stories for the sheer joy of being invited into the lives of the characters for a moment in time. Maybe this makes me a dinosaur, but I still love to read and write a great story.

    This is a thought-provoking post, Maryann. Thank you for giving me pause to consider my position and reinforcing my determination to write what works for my characters...and for me. :-)

    1. One final comment: I totally agree that relationships are a must in any story. We are not a species that normally lives in isolation, so we rub shoulders with others in our various activities. Whether casual, intimate, or adversarial, relationships are part of our lives.

    2. I'm glad you found the post helpful, Linda. I remember my mother reading books by Kathleen Norris, too. Even though my mother only had a 3rd grade education, she loved to read, and I'm sure that is where I got my love for stories.

  2. Maryann, I think you know my attitude about sex scenes in books: whatever works for you is fine ... just not gonna see much of the dirty dancing in my stuff. But a comment about the sexual tension thing ... my wife and I have an on-going discussion about the relationship between Gunsmoke characters, Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell (don't say it, 'Gunsmoke?' ... let it go) ... she claims they were intimate ... I say it was platonic ... would we be talking about these characters 40 years on if we actually knew?

    1. Excellent point, Christopher. The same goes for Rhett Butler and Scarlet, and many other classic couples. As for Matt and Kitty, I don't think they were completely platonic. Too much obvious sexual attraction when they looked at each other. Now whether they acted on that? That was left to the viewer's imagination.

  3. I am not against romance novels at all. It is one of the largest selling genres and they vary from sweet and simple, even religious, to erotica. I read my share of historical romance as a teen. And they do tend to be formulaic, but so are mysteries. As I've written about on my blog and in SBB II: Crafting believable conflict, there are different types of characters and romance and love to those characters have very different definitions. Writers have a whole toolbox of mannequins to play with. The challenge today is to keep to the spirit but make the plot points believable instead of required or forced. Gratuitous scenes are weak writing.

    1. Love your comment, Diana, about gratuitous scenes. I'm going to post that on Twitter.

  4. I don't think I've ever written a sex scene. I've been writing for so many years that I may have forgotten what I wrote in my college days. 'Course, those days I was more into poetry. For me, a sex scene would be okay as long as it's not graphic.

    1. It would be interesting to explore the differences between a sex scene and a love scene. Does a love scene have to involve physical intimacy?

  5. Readers and writers have to be comfortable with what they read and write. I write sex scenes, but they have to be natural to the story, never forced, and it's always a loving relationship scene. What irritates me more is forced conflict in a romantic suspense. There has to be a logical reason why the protagonists are apart or at each other's throats, and when they get together, it should ring true, whether it ends in a sex scene, behind closed doors, or not at all.

  6. I agree with the problem of forced conflict in a romance or romantic suspense. I'm also not fond of those immediate intense attractions just because it is expected. It seems more natural for an attraction to build over some time. One book I started to read recently had both characters fall immediately into love/lust when they first met. I know there is an immediate reaction when you meet a person you could fall in love with, but it is not as strong as portrayed in some stories.

  7. Hi, Maryann,

    I believe the romance should be organic to the story and grow out of the relationship, not publisher guidelines. Readers are smart. They know the difference. Sometimes sex scenes are appropriate for a particular novel. Sometimes inappropriate the writer needs to make the call.

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, Jacqueline. I think most of us are thinking the same way about this. Would love to hear from some readers.


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