Columns > Published on February 12th, 2021

Lessons I Learned Ghostwriting Romance (as a Non-Romance Writer)

Images via Katie Salerna & Karolina Grabowska

I don’t consider myself a romance author by any stretch of the imagination, but I have written a lot of it. As a ghostwriter, I've produced a lot of content, far more than under my own name. The vast majority falls into two broad categories. I’ve written a ton of business/autobiographical/self-help nonfiction. I’ve written even more tons of romance in all categories, from Christian themed to Erotica. This probably says something about what is selling out there. It also probably says something about me as a person.

There are a number of publishers both big and obscure that pump out romance novels as fast as they can be written, edited, and formatted for print and ebook. In the industry, these are sometimes referred to as millhouses. Some of these romance millhouses own a list of invented author names. These imaginary authors are quite prolific, because there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of ghostwriters producing stories to be published under their names. I was one of those ghosts.

I’m not sure if this revelation about publishing is a shock to you or a confirmation of what you already knew or suspected. To be fair, there are even more romance writers who produce every single novel themselves and have loyal followings. Not just the biggest names with the biggest publishers, but self-published romance authors who sell enough books to do this full-time. I’ve met many of them at conventions and they are as talented, creative, and serious about their work as any other genre greats.

Anyway, here are some secrets a non-romance writer learned ghostwriting romance. 

Romance is the Indulgence of Fantasy

Romance relies on fantasy no matter how grounded it may be in reality. I don’t mean that as an insult to the genre or its readers. Every story, even the most gritty and realistic, is a form of escapism. Stories meant to tell us the truth about something still transport us somewhere we would not have wandered on our own. Romance more than many other genres seeks to elevate us above the ordinary—ordinary life, ordinary experiences, ordinary emotions.

Reading romance does not mean a person is dissatisfied with their own life anymore than the non-romance reader. We all read books to experience lives different from our own. To meet people whose paths we would not otherwise cross. We all want to take risks on adventures we would not have the opportunity to experience on a random Tuesday. To safely partake in the extraordinary, the intense—that which does not conform to the normal patterns of life. Romance provides this in many, many different styles.

Heat Levels and Audience Expectations

All genres have rules based on reader expectations. Fantasy, science fiction, the many sub-genres of horror. The romance millhouses I wrote for had very specific formulas and outlines they wanted followed. They wanted something creative done with the stories, but the stories and characters had to hit the beats and meet the requirements provided. Writers don’t want to believe they are conforming to rules or following a formula because “formulaic” is an insult, but these publishers know what readers want and intend to deliver every time. Story and audience are connected and that connection creates definitions.

An important defining characteristic that differentiates romance stories according to taste is "heat level." These levels are described different ways and are called different things by various individuals and groups within the industry, but there is a general consensus between authors, publishers, and readers. Heat levels are defined by the intensity and expression of the love or lust between the characters within the focal relationship of the story. This includes how intimacy and sex are presented in the story—what is shown or concealed on the page, how it is described, how far it goes, and how close the reader is to the action. Sometimes this is broken down into a numeric score from zero to four, or zero to five. These levels sometimes define how much cussing and what specific swear words are allowed as well.

Many heat scales begin with Wholesome Romance, but there is a level below that called Christian Romance. In a Christian Romance, there is nothing more intimate than handholding. This would receive a score of zero, containing no sex on or off the page. Christian/ Biblical values are maintained throughout. Even antagonists can’t do anything truly profane or swear upon the page. The main characters do not sin in any overt ways, even during conflict. It almost always ends in a proper marriage, but even then, no implications that there is going to be sex. They are planning to have a family, of course, but no sex as far as we can tell from those last few pages. Old West settings are common and Pen Pal/Mail Order Bride stories are plentiful—but no sex.

Wholesome Romance can be told in most any setting including historic, modern, fantasy, and more. You’re not as likely to see Billionaire Romances, bad boy stories, or MC romances (Motorcycle Clubs/Biker Stories) at this level or the next level up, (which is Sweet Romance). Nothing more than hugging or kissing is shown. This receives a zero score on the numeric scale, too. There are no love scenes shown or suggested on or off the page. These first two levels are typically about soulmates finding each other (although this can be true in some of the higher heat levels, too).

Sweet Romance allows for a little more intimacy and even a little sexual tension. This definition has slid a bit in recent years. Used to be that love scenes occurred off the page. Now there can be a careful scene or two on the page. These are described in euphemistic detail and not in any extended play-by-play. The focus is on the emotional intimacy between the focal characters. This would receive a 1 or a 2 on the numeric scale. Off page sex mentioned or one closed door sex scene, typically. This is where cuss words might start to appear. Definitely not the F word.

Sensual Romance is where almost any trope of a romance can begin to be explored. The chemistry and tension between the characters is essential and there will be consummation of the relationship which will be described on the page. There likely will not be as many love scenes as found in the higher levels of heat. This would rate a 3 on the numeric scale, with at least one open door sex scene. Sometimes this level is called Middle Romance, but some people define the term Middle Romance as a step between Sweet and Sensual, in which case allowing on-page petting, but nothing more.

Sexy Romance is about the sex and the love, but there will be a lot of sex. It will be illicit and not usually about the commitment. The characters are playing out fantasies and the sex is explicit on the page. More graphic terms are used and sex scenes are longer. This rates a 3 or 4 on the numeric scale, with open door sex scenes and often graphic detail. There is some debate about which levels should include the F word and how many occurrences. By this level, authors are pretty much on the unlimited plan when it comes to F bombs.

Erotic Romance is all about the physical. The titles and focus of the stories themselves may center around a specific sexual act or sexual fantasy category. The sex is described in graphic detail and the reader is right in the action. This is a 4 for sure, or a 5 on scales that separate out erotica as something different from erotic romance.

Keywords are used to inform readers what they are getting in terms of heat. Whatever the highest heat level scene is in the book, that dictates the book’s overall heat level. If one scene is graphic in nature but the rest of the story is sweet, then the story is not going to please either audience. A romance only works if the author understands what it is and what the intended audience desires out of it.

Building Up, Delivering, or Disappointing

Authors don’t typically write with the desire to meet expectations. There is something that feels false in that way of thinking for many creators. At the same time, authors don’t typically want to create stories people hate, particularly when writing in a genre they love. Even the most niche writers want a niche audience that truly appreciates what they publish.

The skill that goes into describing intensity and intimacy in a sweet or wholesome romance is incredibly powerful when applied to non-romantic relationships.

Readers often want a story that defies their expectations, or they at least think they do. Being surprised is a good thing. A confusing plot or tone is not. The one expectation readers want met for sure is for the story to be “good.” The structure of romance stories is intricately designed around building up and delivering for the audience. At all heat levels, romance stories consistently end with happily ever after or happy for now. Happy for now allows for a little bit of ambiguity. But on the whole, romance readers want resolution and a sense of victory. Much of the success within the genre comes down to a focus on delivering what the audience desires.

Romance fans tend to be voracious readers. I’ve seen readers at romance conventions walk away with hundreds of books. I’ve seen it at other conventions too, but the difference is you don’t see as many romance readers talking about their to-be-read pile. They buy a hundred books, then they read a hundred books, and they come back for more. They are fiercely loyal to the tropes and authors they like.

Romance readers will cross over into other genres as well. Paranormal Romance readers will start exploring horror. Others will dabble with crime fiction. Regency Romance and Fantasy Romance readers will read fantasy subgenres.

I was invited to a few romance conventions where readers requested to have a some horror authors on hand. I had one woman come up to my table, read the book descriptions, and decide she wasn’t sure she was going to like my horror series, but she said she’d give the first three books a try and she bought the first three books on the spot. If you deliver what the audience wants to readers like this, you have a career. I even experimented with some success at targeting my horror books to romance readers through Amazon ads.

All Relationships Can Use the Tools of Romance

After ghostwriting romance, I was better at developing characters and creating relationships between characters in other genres. Characters love each other in horror stories, just like romance! If you do a good job of building that connection on the page, it means more when bad things start to happen to these characters. Romance is designed around building tension, creating intimacy, and guiding readers to imprint themselves upon characters and relationships. That is true of romantic connections within other genres, but also with any type of relationship.

I have used the toolbox I’ve gained by writing romance to create tension between enemies in a story. I’ve used it to describe nonsexual friendships. Readers respond to this without realizing it is romantic in nature because it works and it works well. The erotic has its place in other genres, but the skill that goes into describing intensity and intimacy in a sweet or wholesome romance is incredibly powerful when applied to non-romantic relationships. Readers care about these characters because the characters really care about each other.

Improving Formulas and Breaking Rules

This is one of the dividing lines between stories that work and stories that don’t, great writers and struggling storytellers. How skillfully can you break the rules? The conventional wisdom on grammar and story craft is that the best way to successfully break the rules is to fully understand the rules first. If you don’t know the rules as a creator, you’re not breaking them. You’re just wandering around them accidentally.

People who are not keen on romance as a genre often see these stories as being empty cookie-cutter copies of each other with slightly reworked covers. They despise the formulas without fully understanding why the formulas work.

It would sound odd if a writer spent all their time railing against every story that followed a three act structure or disparaged any tale that utilized a rising and falling action. Oh great, here comes another novel with a climax followed by a denouement. So formulaic and expected.

There is risk in breaking rules. It’s not always the wrong choice, but you as the author must deliver better on the broken rule than the formula can deliver with that rule observed. It requires real skill and wisdom. There is also great power in truly understanding and accepting the value of the formula while finding what hasn’t been done with it yet.

Learning from What You Don’t Like

Ghostwriting is not my favorite thing. I do it less often now, but for more money than I did in the past. The more I make from my own work, the more and more I say no to ghostwriting. The fact that I write so much romance as a ghost and almost none for myself probably indicates it is not a natural interest of mine. I’m a non-romance writer at my core. I’ve written it (many titles which have sold well under other people's names), I read it in connection with jobs, and I appreciate what it offers in terms of story craft, but it is not really my thing. Not really.

One suggestion I found interesting as I started livestreaming on Twitch was to watch successful streamers you don’t like to see why what they do works. The goal is not to copy someone you don’t enjoy, but to separate yourself from the familiar things you respond to in order to be able to analyze what is working in another presentation. Once those details are understood, they can be applied to what you do to improve your outcomes without compromising your voice or vision. Most of the craft advice available on Twitch is centered around videogames. While I’m not streaming videogames, I can still learn the principles being discussed and figure out how to apply them to what I do.

There are authors who are more successful than us that we would like to dismiss if we could. We call them hacks and accuse them of following a formula to trick people into buying and reading their books. If we take a beat to study them, we might learn something that could be useful to what we are doing. There are always missing elements to our own approaches. Clues that might make a big difference are there to be discovered in the work of people achieving things we are not.

The same is true within genre. If the millhouses want romance, then it must be because it sells. You can find the millhouses repugnant while still understanding that readers are responding for a reason. You can dislike the genre while still understanding there is something there and it may be something you can use if you take the time to understand it. Talk to successful romance authors and read some books. If you can’t stomach a romance book, find some books on the craft of writing them and glean what you can from those discussions.

The more tools you have at your disposal the better equipped you are to break down the rules and formulas to then successfully build your own way. If you really want to do something new with horror, crime fiction, or thrillers, figure out the tools of poetry, romance, and fantasy. If you want to boost tension or conflict in another genre, figure out how good horror achieves that. Break readers’ expectations and surprise them by using tools from other places that work well without letting on how you did it.

Get Not Until Forever at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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