World of Words: “Bodice Rippers” Evolve to “Flak Jacket Rippers”

Chasing trends is a tricky game for writers, says Selina McLemore, editor of Grand Central Publishing’s Forever romance line.

“Some can use trends to their advantage, some buck them successfully,” she told delegates to the recent San Diego Writers’ Conference. The key is to understand the trend and what makes it work.

She uses examples from both traditional and mainstream romance, which she edited at Harlequin and HarperCollins Publishers before moving to Grand Central, a sister company to Little, Brown Book Group.

“Romance is primarily focused on developing relationships,” says McLemore. “If the relationship is only part of the story, it’s women’s fiction.”

Inside romance, there are sub-genres, and currently paranormal romance is flying off the shelves.

“What makes it work is the vulnerable outsider, the vampire, shunned by everyone.”

Vulnerability is not necessarily a weakness, but something the character has at risk, McLemore explains. Vampire-human pairings “highlight shared commonality such as that found in Romeo and Juliet, opposed lovers who are brought together.”

She advises writers to bring their individuality to the paranormal stories they write.

And what if you don’t have any vampires flitting through your manuscript? Romantic suspense is gaining strength, even though originally “it had the least favourite plot line, the helpless woman in jeopardy.”

New romantic suspense has far more independent heroines. “She’s still in danger, but now she has to reach out for help, in spite of her independence.”

In “sweet” romances “physical emotion, chemistry and tension form the backbone,” said McLemore.

By contrast, steamier romances, such as those written by Jennifer Haymore, are popular because they feature passion and intensity. Haymore’s website describes her as a writer of “wickedly seductive historical romance for jaded romance readers.”

McLemore notes these work because “the heroines aren’t pining away. They’re active and intense. It reflects a desire in readers to get what they want.”

So, what’s a trend killer? When it becomes more important than the romance, says McLemore. “Graphic romantic suspense is big in the UK, but when violence started to overtake the romance, [North American] readers turned away.”

Chicklit, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary, is also on the wane, mostly because “it’s for women of a certain age who would rather not be reminded of it,” says McLemore.

Likewise, she suspects a “cougar” heroine wouldn’t work well in romance because of the predatory nature of an older woman chasing a succession of younger men. McLemore suggested it could work if the writer explored the questions, “Does the cougar feel vulnerable?” and “Does she feel for the young men or are they objects?”

As much as editors try to predict what will appeal to the market, readers will decide for themselves. “What’s coming up now is books with parallel relationships developing within the story, a daughter’s relationship building at the same time as her mother finds love.”

She reminds writers to “find elements driving the trend and use those as it applies to your work.”

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