The world is on fire.
Maybe even more on fire than it was last year at the same time… and when I sat down to write a post about category romance and comfort reading last summer, it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse. This morning I woke up to a report of a mass shooting in the city next to me, where things like that almost never happen. It’s exhausting.
And if hearing this kind of news exhausts you day after day as much as it does me, maybe you’ve also begun choosing your entertainment and your creative pursuits a little differently. Maybe instead of a new book, you’re choosing comfort reads. Or re-watching your favorite shows on Netflix or DVD box sets, rather than trying a new TV show that’ll probably get canceled by the network after half a season anyway, leaving your emotions on a perpetual cliff-hanger.
There’s a common thread that runs through this type of approach to entertainment in an uncertain world, and that’s the search for a sure thing. For certainty, for comfort, for an assurance that everything is going to turn out the way you expect. No sudden let-down, no shocking disappointment or hurt or sense of betrayal by the creators. After all, we get enough of that from the nightly news.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not about to say that romance novels will fix the world, mend our emotional upheaval, or cure the common cold, but let’s face it—there’s a definite value in having entertainment options at hand that provide a guaranteed experience, a knowledge that you’ll come out the other side feeling comforted and renewed.
Category romance novels offer that certainty because that’s the whole darn point.
With category romance, the stories are a given length—shorter and fast-paced—so you can dive in knowing how long your personal investment will be. The plots are tight, so there’s no time to deviate from the heart of the story. The twists and turns will come at approximately the same point in each book because there’s only so much real estate on the page for each category novel. The romance is blazing from start to finish, regardless of the heat level, and you can rest assured that each and every category romance novel will end with Happily Ever After or at bare minimum, Happy For Now.
With single-title romance, the stories are longer and—admittedly, yes—more intricately woven, because there’s room for the author to take their characters on a twisty, multi-layered journey. The author has the freedom to explore secondary character paths, and add in drama and fluffier details as desired for the sake of story. The romance might be a slow burn or blazing, though the happy ending is still guaranteed… whereas at first glance, it might seem like writing a category romance novel—and reading it afterward—is a constrictive effort, designed to whittle away at the creative process and turn every category romance author into a drone writing carbon-copy stories.
The good news is that this is one hundred percent false—in fact, the amount of creative freedom in category romance is surprisingly high, provided the author stays within the boundaries of the category they’re writing for.
Writing a category romance is like walking a straight path in a forest. You can see your destination, you know where you’re going and you know you’ll have to pass that tree over there, that fallen log, and that raspberry bush before reaching the end… but what if you wandered up that little hill for a moment first? Or stopped to observe two squirrels playing tag? Or crept down to the creek on a little shortcut before coming back to the path?
Category romance writers have the freedom to improvise between their given checkpoints, whereas single-title romance writers might ignore the path altogether and instead decide to follow the creek the entire way to the end.
Both approaches are fun and exciting for different reasons, for both writers and readers. But when it comes to category romance, the creative certainty of those checkpoints and having the end in sight means that a reader knows exactly what they’re getting into when they choose a category romance as their form of entertainment. It’s comforting, it’s reassuring, it’s certain.
Above all, a romance reader knows that when starting a romance novel, there will be a Happily Ever After by the time the last page is turned. But not everyone loves the same types of romance stories, or the same settings, or even the same types of plots. For example, I’ve written a category romance featuring a “secret baby” trope, but to be quite honest, I don’t actually enjoy secret baby novels. True Confession: I have never chosen to read one on purpose. A secret baby book would not be a comfort for me, so I might instead choose to read a “friends-to-lovers” book or a romance that features a “brother’s best friend” trope. (What is a trope? The simplified answer is that it’s a nice way of saying cliché, without the negative connotations.)
Or maybe you don’t have a preferred trope, but you’re not into Western romances. Maybe you absolutely adore stories set in hospitals or medical clinics. Maybe sexy vampires are your thing, but you’d never consider reading or writing a book about royalty.
Part of the magic of category romance is that you can choose a specific line to write and read that focuses specifically on these storytelling angles. It’s familiar and comforting for you as the writer to immerse yourself in situational stories that you love, and it’s perfect for the reader who knows what they like and can choose to read based on those preferences… almost guaranteeing that their entertainment time will be satisfying and well-spent at the end of a long day.
The assurance for writers and readers is that the experience they crave is the one they’ll receive when they pick up a particular category novel.
You know what I dislike? When my characters try to go on random tangents, or a secondary character turns out to be more interesting than my heroine, or I’m stuck for three weeks trying to figure out how to interlink the main plot and the subplot in a logical way. You know what I love? When I have guidelines for a project that doesn’t leave room for being sidetracked.
The category romance novels I write are inspirational romantic suspense. This means that the book must include a strong romance arc, perpetual suspense from start to finish, and a quieter spiritual arc. All of these elements must work together to create a cohesive whole—just like a jigsaw puzzle. Within the framework, I can put those pieces together however I want, so long as the story is written within the style and conventions of the line I write for. Certain lines don’t make use of certain tropes and hooks, and that’s okay—because readers come to each line or category to find a specific reading experience, a specific comfort in their entertainment, and it’s my job to provide that for them.
And at the end of the day, as an author, isn’t the reader’s enjoyment my ultimate goal?
As a reader, I am happy and content when the entertainment content I choose gives me the experience I’m craving at a given moment. I’ll pick up a category romance because I know there’ll be a happy ending, I know how steamy the romance will be (based on the category I choose to read), and I know the author is going to work hard to surprise me and create a compelling story within the framework of the category I’ve chosen to enjoy.
I believe I’ve shared this story before, but it bears repeating and it still holds true: one of my most memorable and heartwarming reader letters came from a 91-year-old reader who sent a handwritten note to tell me she’d sat down with one of my books and was so gripped by the story that she missed her afternoon nap! This reader loves the category I write for because of the content—she can identify with the characters, the line fits within her worldview, and the stories provide the kind of entertainment experience that leaves her comforted and content. What a precious gift and a weighty responsibility we have as writers!
That said, it can definitely be intimidating to stand in front of the racks of category romance at your local bookstore, grocery store or department store. There are so many choices, where do you start? Which line is right for you as a writer? Which line is right for you as a reader? You want a book that will provide the experience that fits your interests (and leaves out those that you’d prefer to avoid).
A starting point is to look at the titles, the way each line is presented up front. Category romance titles tend to range from incredibly vague to ridiculously cheesy (all part of the charm!) and everywhere in between. Often, the titles will actually identify up-front what tropes or hooks can be found between the pages—if you see the words “secret mistress” or “surgeon’s amnesic ex-lover,” you’ve got a pretty good hint what kind of story is going to be between the covers! Choose some that reflect your interests and check out which category or line they’re written for. Historical fiction? Thriller? Americana? If you’re not into historical fiction but love foreign settings, put that one down and pick up a contemporary story instead. Then check out the synopsis on the back—it’ll give you a pretty good idea of what the heat level is going to be like.
Category romance is all about knowing what you’re getting yourself into, finding entertainment that leaves you comforted and content, that doesn’t exhaust you by the time you reach the last page—and that goes for readers and writers. For writers, your storytelling experience in category romance is a challenge to keep the story fresh, exciting, and engaging—to build strong characters and a compelling plot—all while keeping within the boundaries of reader expectations. If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to work deeply on that magic combo of Goal-Motivation-Conflict, there’s truly no better place to do so than within category romance.
If you’ve considered writing category romance but have felt daunted or uncertain about where to start—or which line of category romance novels is the right one for your storytelling preferences—why not join me next month? My course Crafting the Category Romance will take you through category romance writing step-by-step, using a from-the-ground-up approach. First, we’ll identify the types of categories that interest you, then study how they’re put together, and finally tackle first pages.
It’s my hope that you’ll come away from the course experience with a better understanding of and a new appreciation for category romance novels… and maybe even well on your way to writing your own!
Michelle Karl is an unabashed bibliophile and romantic suspense author. She lives in Canada with her husband and an assortment of critters, including a co-dependent cat, an unflappable rabbit, and an opinionated parrot. Her latest release is WILDERNESS PURSUIT (April 2018), with ACCIDENTAL EYEWITNESS forthcoming in August 2018.
When she’s not reading and consuming copious amounts of coffee, she writes the stories she’d like to find in her ‘to be read’ pile. She also loves animals, world music, and eating the last piece of cheesecake. Come say hi on Twitter: @_MichelleKarl_
[box] Latest Release
His mission: keep his ex-love safe
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Sam Thrace can’t believe the woman he’s rescued from certain death is Kara Park—his former sweetheart. Once brokenhearted, now he’s protecting the courageous archaeologist from someone out to sabotage her controversial pipelinefindings. And as he and Kara escape into the remote Canadian wilds, neither is safe from their emerging feelings—or the threat to their lives.