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On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells

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Sweep Readers Off Their Feet With a Romance They'll Never Forget

In On Writing Romance, award-winning romance novelist Leigh Michaels talks you through each stage of the writing and publishing process. From the origins and evolution of the romance novel to establishing a vital story framework to writing that last line to seeking out appropriate publishers, everything you ever wanted to know about writing a romance novel is here.

In addition to a comprehensive breakdown of more than thirty romance subgenres, including such categories as historical, inspirational, Regency, and sweet traditional, you'll discover how to:

Steer clear of cliches and stereotypes by studying the genre
Craft engaging and realistic heroes and heroines readers will adore
Convincingly develop the central couple's blossoming relationship
Add conflict by utilizing essential secondary characters like the "other woman"
Use tension and timing to make your love scenes sizzle with sensuality
Get your characters to happily-ever-after with an ending readers will always remember
lus, read a sample query letter, cover letter, and synopsis, and learn how to properly prepare you romance novel for submission to agents and editors. On Writing Romance has everything you need to leave readers swooning!

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 16, 2007

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About the author

Leigh Michaels

343 books162 followers
Leigh Michaels is the pseudonym used by LeAnn Lemberger (b. July 27 in Iowa, United States), a popular United States writer of over 85 romance novels. She has published with Harlequin, Sourcebooks, Montlake Romance, Writers Digest Books, and Arcadia Publishing. She teaches romance writing at Gotham Writers' Workshop (www.writingclasses.com) She is the author of On Writing Romance.

When Leigh was fifteen she wrote her first romance novel and burned it. She burned five more complete manuscripts before submitting to a publisher. The first submission was accepted by Harlequin, the only publisher to look at it, and was published in 1984.

Michaels was born in Iowa, United States. She received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, after three years of study and maintained a 3.93 grade-point average. She received the Robert Bliss Award as top-ranking senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and won a national William Randolph Hearst Award for feature-writing as an undergraduate.

She is married to Michael W. Lemberger, an artist-photographer.

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5 stars
194 (34%)
4 stars
218 (38%)
3 stars
110 (19%)
2 stars
25 (4%)
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12 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 78 reviews
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,190 reviews1,077 followers
Shelved as 'hell-no'
November 13, 2013
Page 168 of this book has succinctly explained why I cannot read m/f romance:

"Here's how to make your heroine's dialogue more realistic . . .

Check for bragging: women tend to talk about their accomplishments and themselves in a self-deprecating fashion . . . can you rephrase her comments in order to make her laugh at herself?

Check for aggressiveness:women tend to be indirect and manipulative . . . add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions.

Check for details: Women notice styles; they know what colors go together (and which don't); and they know the right words to describe fashion, colours, and designs. Can you ramp up the level of specific detail?

Check for emotions: women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they're generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive . . . manner."

Fuck this shit.
Profile Image for Marian Perera.
Author 13 books20 followers
September 13, 2014
A good starting-point for someone interested in writing in this genre, but it also has a few problems that make it a book I can’t recommend.

The book begins with a description of the various sub-genres of romance—and includes gay and erotic romance, which I liked. Michaels goes into detail how to research romances, and I enjoyed reading this.

The chapter on characterization didn’t offer anything new, though I didn’t disagree with it until I read the list of questions at the end, intended to help writers “get to know” their characters.

What astrological sign was he born under? What kind of music does he enjoy?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found this kind of “what’s her favorite color” list useful, unless the story will involve colors in some way.

The chapter on conflict was great; I especially liked how Michaels differentiated between the short-term problem which brings the hero and heroine together, and the larger picture which keeps them apart. Not to mention the ways a writer can (inadvertently) sabotage the relationship.

What sank the book for me, though, was the section on dialogue, titled “The Battle of the Sexes”. Well, at least it gives fair warning. This is how you’re supposed to “make your heroine’s dialogue more realistic if you’re a male writer”, because us female writers have that down pat, so we get the section on how to write the hero’s man-talk instead :

Check for aggressiveness. Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Can you add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions?

When I read this, I turned to the start of the book to check if it was published in 1980. Nope, 2007.

But apparently, what’s self-confidence and competence in a man is aggressiveness (such an unattractive quality!) in a woman.

Check for emotions. Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, can you give her a really good reason for yelling?

Just finding these sections to quote annoyed me all over again. Which was a pity, because the last chapter, on revising a manuscript, is helpful and I didn’t notice anything too sexist there. So if you can ignore the part on dialogue, or if it doesn’t bother you, this book could be useful. For my part, though, On Writing Romance won’t be joining my keeper shelf.
Profile Image for Stephanie Bibb.
Author 12 books18 followers
August 17, 2015
I don’t typically read straight-up romance, but I borrowed On Writing Romance from a writer friend because I feel that it is a good idea to learn tips and trips from multiple genres.

Overall, this book has a lot of useful advice and suggestions that can help to strengthen your writing. For example, On Writing Romance goes into detail about how to create tension between your hero and heroine, how to ask “what if” to inspire believable back story, and how to use sexual tension to build suspense (having a love scene too soon could actually lower the amount of tension). The book also breaks down the difference between various categories of romance, from sweet traditional to general fiction.

I wasn’t fond of the suggestions for sexist dialogue, however, and the suggested ‘typical’ things that men and women might say or do. However, I realize this may be what some people enjoy reading, but I don’t agree that all female or male characters should behave one way or the other.

I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t much of a mention about self-publishing romance in this book, but this appears to have been written in 2007, which might be a bit before self-publishing got its boost. There is some decent information about queries, cover letters, and synopses (the suggestion to write a synopsis like a book review, rather than a report, stood out here), which could be useful to those who intend to seek the trade route.

However, be warned that some of the querying information is now outdated, and that a few of the publishers listed in the back are no longer considered reputable.

Overall, this was worth the read. If nothing else, it offered some good reminders and got me interested in attempting a romance story of my own. (We’ll see how far this actually gets, but it’s worth a shot). In the meantime, I imagine this could be a useful resource to writers who are interested in how to make their romance novel stronger or who want a beginning guide into how to write romance.
Profile Image for Laura Oliva.
Author 8 books61 followers
August 24, 2012
Overall, I liked this book. However, while it does contain some original tips, many if not most of them are also covered in the (myriad) other romance writing books I own. And the sections on characters and story development seemed aimed towards less-edgy, more inspirational-toned authors. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever, I just don't write in that voice, so there wasn't much for me there.

The big selling point for me? Her section on endings.

It's actually why I bought the book, because despite searching through my (again, myriad) other romance writing books, it was a topic that was not covered in any of them. At all. Since at the time I was nearing the end of my first novel, and was struggling with that ending, I was relieved to find a book to help walk me through the mechanics of it.

I didn't necessarily follow all the advice she put forward, but reading that section really helped me get my head around the process, and proved to be just what I needed to get un-stuck. Four stars for covering something no one else (that I've found) has!
Profile Image for Jeannie Faulkner Barber.
Author 7 books160 followers
July 18, 2008
Ms. Michaels' advice is so savvy and clear. It was one of the first books I purchased because I'd heard great reviews about her work. It gives the novice writer, as well as any published writers, a great starting point to develope your skills. I love the way she offers specific instruction for creating the perfect romantic couple.
Profile Image for Rebekah Ganiere.
Author 61 books308 followers
April 17, 2013
Awesome book. Great help, fast moving with awesome examples. I wish all how to books where this good. I actually found myself looking forward to reading it, as opposed to dreading it like I do most help books.
56 reviews
May 6, 2022
I found a copy of this book on the clearance cart in front of Half Price Books, in good condition but lightly annotated. I do, in fact, know a gift from the Heavens when I see one, so of course it went home with me. Let's see what we can find out about the previous owner's project:

1) Annotation on the title page: "need to say something about how she's not calculating at all is she?"

So we meet our heroine, She. She is naive, maybe a little too quick to trust. But if our aspiring author followed Michaels's advice, She isn't stupid. She still thinks and acts for herself, even if She's a little sheltered.

2) The book naturally falls open to "Chapter 10: Creating Sexual Tension and Love Scenes." Super valid; it's one of the better chapters in the book. Scribbled at the top of p.134: "have them hold off sex until after the [unintelligible] scene? + then have him disappear early morning + she sees the article?" At the top of p.135: "have him have some doubts about her in Chapter 5 Lv scene" and "have them withold [sic] the kiss in Chapter 4"

Now we know our hero, He. Page 135 contains the section on "Delaying the Love Scene." Says Michaels, "A delayed love scene is nearly always a more effective love scene." Michaels also recommends delaying the reprisal so that the UST has time to get it up again. We can deduce that our aspiring author has delayed the first love scene by withholding the kiss in Chapter 4, instead pushing the sex to Chapter 5. But our couple's troubles don't end there—He gives She the slip the following morning. Not only that, but She sees an article that throws a wrench into their budding relationship. What is the article about? The clue lies in the next annotation...

3) p.136: "compare lovemaking to food, more sensual detail in the Chapter 4 love scene"

You may be asking, "But I thought they don't bang until Chapter 5?" According to this page, "The Satisfying Love Scene," a love scene doesn't need to contain sex. It doesn't even need to have a kiss, as is the case with our dear author's Chapter 4 scene. What it does need to contain is the character's experiences and reactions—"A gymnast will think in physical images, while a chef may compare lovemaking to food."

She's a chef!! Remember that article? Is it a restaurant review? A celebrity interview?? Is He a columnist, out to tank She's culinary empire???

4) Stretching a bit here, but p.187: "The Convenient Coincidence" is dog-eared. Now we enter the realm of pure deduction: I say She and He meet by chance, say at a party or something. Maybe He smirks at her from across the room, offers her a drink. She is instantly enamored by He's suave confidence—He holds himself in a way that draws people towards him, sets him apart. He's an alpha, no doubt about it.

Little does She know, He's a columnist for the nation's biggest food magazine, and He immediately recognizes her as the owner of Restaurant—a Michelin-starred establishment that was once at the top of the city's food scene, but has been plagued by management issues and gone into decline. Sensing an opportunity to get the full scoop, He gets close to She, pitching himself as the man of her dreams. Remember, He's an alpha, She's overly trusting. Predator... prey... chomp.

Lol why did you read all the way to the end. Don't you have things to be doing
Profile Image for Erika Williams.
163 reviews4 followers
February 22, 2012
This is a great book for beginning romance authors who need some helpful hints on how to craft their story. I picked it up for free on the Nook, and I'm glad I did. Michaels gives advice on crafting the perfect heroine and hero, how to get your plot moving, how to keep your plot from being too contrived, and even ends with tips on how to sell your manuscript.

I don't write a lot of romance novels, but I found this book extremely helpful in other aspects as well. For one thing, it will also help if you have a romance subplot in another book. I'm currently in the middle of a massive overhaul of the one romance novel I've written so far, and I'll be keeping the tips in mind while I'm doing it. Only time will tell exactly how useful this information is in a practical purpose.

However, the most useful part for me was an entire portion of the dialogue section dedicated to how men and women speak differently. There's even special attention dedicated to if you're a man trying to write a woman or a woman trying to write a man. This has far-reaching implications beyond the romance novel. For instance, I'm planning a historical trilogy where the middle book only is told from the perspective of a male, and was worried how I was going to make the voice sound like a male since I don't have a lot of experience in that matter. With Michaels' book as a reference guide, I believe I'll have no problems in making his voice unique.
Profile Image for Mike Duron.
Author 7 books10 followers
October 10, 2012

The language and layout of this book make it fun to read, yet, by reading this, a person could spare themselves a thousand headaches if they plan on writing any sort of fiction -- not just romance.

While still covering everything from Show Don't Tell to POV, this book goes beyond the basics and includes helpful advice on how to recognize and avoid First-Meet Cliches no editor wants to see, good ways to ruin a great relationship (too many secondary characters, to busy a background plot, &c), how to build a plot that's believable, what sort of secondary characters typically populate a romance novel ("The Significant Third," "The Villain," "The Other Woman," "The Wrong Man") -- and it goes on, and on, and on.

Still, because of Leigh Michaels' great skill, all of this is a very pleasurable read -- no cucumber puns or references intended.
108 reviews4 followers
February 18, 2014
An excellent book for anyone interested in popular writing, not just for romances. It has great advice on common problems for the amateur writer: e.g. shifting scenes, handling point of view, plot development, etc. (Even my son has started reading this book, and presumably he will not be writing romance novels -- although he has read The Fault in Our Stars 5 times, so who knows.) I'm trying to write a YA romance, which is less formulaic than the traditional romance novel, and I still found it quite helpful. I'll be making a few changes based on its advice. I thought I already knew a lot about romance writing -- what with my guilty habit of reading 40-50 yearly at least (I don't have cable and I travel a lot, a girl needs her entertainment) -- and I still found this book very informative.
106 reviews18 followers
July 22, 2009
I'll be keeping this book on my desk. As a beginning writer, I found it quite helpful. It provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject of writing romance novels: from descriptions of various romance sub-genres to the elements of salable romance novels to information on how to go about getting a novel published. The revision checklist, which lists a number of points to consider when revising a manuscript, seems particularly useful - I expect that the pages with this checklist will soon be well-worn.
Profile Image for Kristina.
546 reviews66 followers
August 17, 2011
For whatever reason, I enjoy reading books about writing books.

I thought this book was full of a lot of useful information. At the end of each chapter (and in some areas within the chapters) there are questions to sit down with and use to either study other people's books, or to critique your own writing. In the appendices, there are examples of cover letters, query letters, and other items editors might ask for when requesting information about your book.

If I ever sit down to write a book, I will probably check out this book again to review it.
Profile Image for Lisa M.
330 reviews13 followers
March 5, 2012
4.5*s Covering the writing of romance novels from prologue to epilogue, this is the go-to book for those aspiring to be romance writers. While there are books that cover characterization and plotting in more depth, On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells explains these topics--and more--as they relate specifically to romances. It's required reading.
Profile Image for Laurie Evans.
79 reviews24 followers
May 20, 2012
Great book for this beginning writer! Very specific how-to info. I found the sections on conflict, point of view and dialog especially helpful. Lots of great examples from a variety of romance writers. I loved Chapter 13, Building a Believable Plot. Fantastic information about motivation, creating suspense, pacing and foreshadowing. I borrowed this book from a friend, but I'm going to buy my own copy, and read it again.
Profile Image for Juno Ross.
Author 3 books5 followers
April 12, 2013
This is an exceedingly well-done book by one of the (few) romance writers I enjoyed reading years ago when I began to toy with the idea of writing romance books, but stuck with literary for a while. (And of course, I may as well have done it back then . . . I would be so much richer.) But a very good book on writing by one of the best romance (or otherwise commercial) authors around.
Profile Image for A.L. Stumo.
Author 1 book7 followers
June 29, 2011
A truly useful book for beginning and intermediate writers of romance novels and novels with romantic sub-plots. By useful, I mean that the book has both the theory and practical advice to write a tight, well-plotted, well-characterized novel.
Profile Image for Kimberly Kincaid.
Author 60 books2,646 followers
October 15, 2011
This was a great, comprehensive guide for anyone starting out writing romance. Clear, easy-to-understand, and spot-on. A nice resource!
Profile Image for Ann Ross.
39 reviews2 followers
December 19, 2015
It's cool, really interesting, I learn to write on this book. It's very fun.

I love to write, so I need a book for learn well. I find it!!
11 reviews
June 15, 2018
Helpful for beginners on romance, but very formulaic in other parts.
I'm not discrediting this woman's writing skills, but there were parts that felt really preachy:
“Heroes and heroines are unfailingly kind to those who are less powerful then they are. . .Heroes and heroines don't gossip. . .They're only rude to each other, and even then, they're not hateful or vicious. . . Heroes and heroines don't lie.”

Where did the author get this information about writing couples? This is totally untrue. There are characters out there with bad morals and rotten choices, yet people still root for them (which is hard to achieve, but still). My point is that this book has a lot of generic, formulaic ways to write a romance.

The author preaches that the characters or situations or plot always have to be this and that.
But on the other hand, there were parts in this book that were very helpful. She went into detail about complimentary long term problems and short term problems, which was very easy to comprehend. There were other parts were she gave tips on developing relationships.

I'd advise to focus on the chapters where she gives advice on conflict and tension and developing the relationship. Take note of the helpful things, but take everything else with a grain of salt.
It's a good book, just some parts are lacking.
Profile Image for passeriform.
334 reviews
April 26, 2020
This book helped me put together some observations I've made as a romance reader and as a writer, which is great. And its questions for reflection on a story idea and on the planned conflict (pp. 44 & 72), as well as its comments on short-term and long-term problems for both characters, seem useful. On the other hand, much of the non-romance-specific writing advice will be too 101 for readers with any writing experience at all.

I differ in many ways from the 'typical romance reader' that this book imagines, and the assumptions that come from imagining that reader often leave me feeling alienated (if also sometimes fascinated in an anthropological sort of way). The most obviously problematic section of this book is the one on dialogue, which focuses on encourages people to write dialogue based firmly in gender stereotypes: the author argues that speaking habits outside what she sees as "normal" for men/women are simply not believable. I think one of the good things fiction can do in the world is push people to question our assumptions and cruelties, and writing to stereotypes doesn't do that. I also think the question "how would *this character* speak/feel/etc.?" should be more important that "how would A Man / A Woman speak/feel/etc.?" But I guess that's tied up with the "novel that sells" bit of the subtitle.
Profile Image for Angela.
778 reviews19 followers
June 18, 2019
ON WRITING ROMANCE is a must-read romance-writing manual that appears often on recommended books for writers or all genres. It is a fabulous breakdown of the romance genre, and is useful for authors writing within that genre or wishing to add a little romance to another genre. The book is somewhat dated and doesn't account for the current interest in LGBTQ+ romance stories, but its advice can still be applied to any love story.

I found this manual detailed and well-organized, but still readable. Concept-by-concept, it breaks down the romance genre into its most elemental basics, providing many examples from romance novels and an extensive bibliography. Each chapter includes exercises for readers to apply to their current manuscripts.

It's clear why this book is so often recommended to writers, as it will appeal to both novice and experienced writers. No matter what kind of fiction you write, you should spend some time with this book.
Profile Image for Dani B.
143 reviews1 follower
November 14, 2017
4.5 stars. This is an excellent read for anybody who wants to learn more about writing, regardless of genre. Broader topics include POV, dialogue, conflict and plot building, and submitting your manuscript. For romance writers (or those just wanting to include romance in their stories), Michaels discusses building tension, acceptable sexual action for different subtypes within the genre, and building a believable hero/heroine set.
This is a book I will buy and keep handy. There is a plethora of information I can go back to repeatedly for each writing project to help me stay on track or revise.
Author 31 books
March 23, 2018
Since I have never written anything remotely like a romance novel this book was very informative. Not unsurprising, many of the concepts are the same or very similar to writing any work of fiction. But there were some definite romance only tips and suggestions. I enjoyed the book and if I decide to write a romance story I will certainly take this one back off the shelf. Her success speaks for itself.
Profile Image for Roxanne Howard.
Author 12 books747 followers
February 18, 2022
I've kept my over-highlighted and margin-graffitied copy of this fabulous book beside me for the last seven years throughout my writing career. It is so chock full of powerful advice and great insight into how to hone your craft as a romance author and dig a little deeper. I greatly appreciate the care Leigh took in researching this and the advice within it has paid off. Thank you. I highly recommend this.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
155 reviews
May 20, 2017
This had a lot of the same advice and process that I've learned previously in other books and writing classes. But it's been a long time so I appreciate a book that reviews those lessons well. Additionally, there are a couple hints that do apply specifically to romance writing that will be helpful if I can ever find the time to dive into a full manuscript.
Profile Image for Nicole.
Author 1 book1 follower
December 27, 2019
This book was most helpful to me when describing the different types and categories of romance novel (the front end of the book), and the manuscript and publishing details on the back end of the book. The middle sections may be able to be scanned if you have some existing experience with writing, especially with plot and character development.
Profile Image for Nicohle Eaton.
15 reviews4 followers
June 29, 2017
An amazing book filled with good advice for any writer. This book makes writing a romance novel seem like the adventure of a lifetime, and it puts in the hard work to tell you all you need to know. Definitely give it a read!
Displaying 1 - 30 of 78 reviews

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