Ten Books You Must Read Before Writing a Romance Novel

They say you can never stop learning, and if you really want to hone your craft you must research, study and learn. Throughout this week we have done our best to offer you tips and advice on how to write a romance novel that you can submit to Harlequin. However, we cannot that before you can write a romance novel, you must learn how to write a novel period. So our editorial team has compiled a list of books you should pick up to sharpen your writing voice. Check out the list below:

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale

The perfect read for those who find pleasure in the finer points of grammar and putting words together. This is not “beach reading” unless you love how language works and are a consummate grammarian. Still, it is recommended because writers need to stay strict about writing effective sentences. The author has a biting wit and uses examples from the classics, which will remind readers why great authors are great. This is one of those books that will encourage the reader to avoid common mistakes and think strategically about crafting sentences.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is one of those books that carefully lays out the plot points each story should contain. Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the author takes the reader through each step the protagonist must face to reach the end of his journey. While the writing process can be vague and unpredictable, this book helps the writer plot in a methodical manner. In many ways, it provides the light at the end of the tunnel for the writer who has no idea how her/his book should end. Like McKee’s Story, The Writer’s Journey is an essential book for the story crafter.

On Writing by Stephen King

For any writer, Stephen King’s On Writing is a fun read and quite useful. Not only does King reveal an interesting story about his struggles and triumphs, but in the second half, he gives useful “nuts and bolts” advice to writers. This is truly a book that will sweep you away.  It is inviting, succinct and full of charm. By the time you finish, you’ll realize that King has given you valuable tools of the trade and insight into his life.  It is both a story and a guide.

Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay by Syd Field

It may not seem like a must-read for those involved in book publishing, but when the editorial department at Harlequin read this book, it spurred a valuable discussion on the importance of structure and character development in every story.

Mr. Field’s discussion of Thelma & Louise is a welcome reminder of what good character portrayal is. We are instantly connected to these two women, we believe them. Not because they tell us who they are, but they show us—through their actions, dialogue, relationships. Whether a movie or a book, more showing and less telling makes for an intriguing story!

For movie buffs it’s a bonus look at how a few of our favorite movies came together. When I went back and watched Terminator 2 after reading Four Screenplays, I saw it in a different light—no longer was it just an action adventure movie with fantastic special effects, but also a very carefully structured story with an android we could cheer for!

So please do pick up this book if you get the chance—it’s a good read on the art of telling stories.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon

In less than 150 pages and in an easy-to-read style, Dixon has written a how-to book that explains the key elements to any story. First, you must have characters the reader can identify with and care about. Those characters need to have goals or a call to action (or else what’s the point?) and clear motivations (the why). Finally, if your characters are skipping along and happy with their lot in life… uh-oh. You’ve forgotten conflict! This last element is non-negotiable. As Dixon states: “People with perfect lives are boring, and…well…frankly, they’re irritating.” Darn right. And no reader wants to be bored or irritated!

If you want to learn about the craft of writing, start with Goal, Motivation & Conflict, and “go write!”

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

As an editor for Harlequin Books I’m always captivated by a great title.  Save the Cat! is one book title that stirs your curiosity.  But even more it provides another take on the creative process.  True, the book is aimed at screenwriters, but there is much to be learned if you are writing a novel.  It covers key things such as structure and scene development, never mind how to describe your book when you pitch to an editor—the infamous logline.

As for “saving the cat” — it’s the critical scene where we meet the hero and he does something—like saving a cat—that defines him and endears him to the movie audience.  Or in the case of a book his actions endear him to the reader.  Snyder’s book is chock-full of great advice and common sense.  His premature passing has left a gap in the world of screenwriting.  Check out www.blakesnyder.com for more information!

Story by Robert McKee

Though intended to help screenwriters, this in-depth, well-thought-out guide covers many topics that directly cross over to writing fiction.  Conflict, characterization, scene and act structure, as well as problems and solutions, are some of the relevant subjects that are analyzed.

The editorial department at Harlequin has spent a fair amount of time reviewing McKee’s work and how it applies to the challenges that we face with manuscripts from time to time.  Recent discussion groups have focused on chapters 8 and 9, The Inciting Incident and Act Design.  We’ve also attended his three-day seminar, which is quite a show—a lecture spiced with Hollywood anecdotes and rules to be adhered to!  Check out www.mckeestory.com for more information.

The book is organized efficiently and logically, and while some points speak to us more than others, overall we believe it’s a useful aid for reminding us of the key basics of storytelling, and feel it might be worth looking at if you’re in the market for the same.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Lerner’s book is subtitled An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and that’s just what you’ll find here—the kind of passionate opinion a sage mentor might proffer over lunch. You won’t find any checklists in this book, but you will get a peek inside one veteran editor’s mind.

Part one is a taxonomy of author temperaments—are you the self-promoter or the wicked child?—that will have burgeoning writers asking themselves some hard questions: Do I like the idea of being a writer more than the idea of actually writing? What does it take to be a “natural”? Can I promote my book and preserve a sense of modesty? Though these sketches may feel too sweeping at times, they do answer the questions so many authors must secretly ask themselves.

Part two looks at the publishing process from the inside. Ever wonder what editors are thinking when they read your submissions? Have you been trying to crack the code to discover what that form rejection really means? Well, here’s your chance to find out from someone on the inside.  You can visit Betsy Lerner at www.betsylerner.wordpress.com.

Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger

This is a must for every romance writer.  A veteran editor for Harlequin these last thirty years, Leslie Wainger knows everything about writing a romance novel—period, game over, end of story.  With her direct, witty and informative style, Leslie Wainger will give you all the goods you need to get started writing your romance.  She takes you through the entire process with such important points as researching the market, putting together memorable characters, and generating chemistry between them. All you need to do is use your new knowledge and write a great story.  Run, don’t walk to get this fabulous book!

In addition to the fabulous book recommendations, we also suggest that you search the blogosphere and look for smart, savvy writers in fields you don’t usually work in, and whose points might not be the ones you’d always agree with. Authors need to continually challenge themselves to break out and experiment, look beyond their own mind, and grow. So do look at the great blogs by romance authors and agents that are out there (because there are some fantastic ones!). But after keeping up on our side of the business, try a few beyond the romance world.  You can browse Copy Blogger;  Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds.com (be warned–he’s challenging!), Ask Allison; and Liz Strauss’s Successful Blog among others.

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Comments ( 13 )
  1. SarahT
    November 5, 2010 at 8:28 am
    Reply

    Great list! I already have several of them and I’m looking up those I don’t yet own.

    Two other books I’ve found invaluable are Kate Walker’s ’12 Point Guide to Writing Romance’ and Alexandra Sokoloff’s ‘Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’. The latter is only available as an ebook from Amazon Kindle.

  2. Jeannie Lin
    November 5, 2010 at 10:13 am
    Reply

    Good recs! On Writing by Stephen King and GMC by Deb Dixon are in my arsenal. I really liked “The First Five Pages” by Lukeman for mechanics as well.

  3. Tweets that mention Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. -- Topsy.com
    November 5, 2010 at 10:46 am
    Reply

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Harlequin Books, Dawn P, Lindsey Edwards, Olga Kwak, Silhouette Desire and others. Silhouette Desire said: RT @HarlequinBooks: Honing the writer's craft takes research. Here are 10 essential books to help guide you: http://t.co/iKV5Z9X […]

  4. Paula Eykelhof
    November 5, 2010 at 12:56 pm
    Reply

    Here are three additional books I’d like to add to the list:

    1. READING LIKE A WRITER: A GUIDE FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BOOKS AND FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO WRITE THEM by Francine Prose

    2. WRITE AWAY: ONE NOVELIST’S APPROACH TO FICTION AND THE WRITING LIFE by Elizabeth George

    3. BRYSON’S DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS by Bill Bryson

  5. Tales to Tide You Over » Blog Archive » Interesting links for 11-05-2010
    November 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm
    Reply

    […] For those on the lookout for some good writing books, here’s the ones Harlequin editors recommend, including some surprising additions that show there’s a lot in common between film and fiction: http://harlequinblog.com/2010/11/ten-books-you-must-read-before-writing-a-romance-novel/ […]

  6. Carla Conrad
    January 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm
    Reply

    While I understand the Dummies series is a brand, I think LW got stuck with an unfortunate title. I’m sure she would prefer to teach authors to write romance novels for smart women.

  7. Billy Coleman
    February 27, 2014 at 1:13 pm
    Reply

    Where is book number 10?

    THE HARLEQUIN 10 ?
    1.) Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
    2.) The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
    3.) On Writing by Stephen King
    4.) Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay by Syd Field
    5.) Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon
    6.) Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
    7.) Story by Robert McKee
    8.) The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
    9.) Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger
    10.) ??????????

  8. Mary-Theresa Hussey (Exec Editor, Harlequin)
    February 27, 2014 at 6:22 pm
    Reply

    Billy–

    Not sure who wrote the article years ago, but you could probably take Paula’s suggestions as gold!

    I know we did read the WRITE AWAY by Elizabeth George in the NY office, and we just finished discussions on Walter Mosley’s THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL.

    We also read and appreciated aspects of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maas and THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by Jessica Page Morrell in past years as well as other ones.

    But good eye for spotting it! What book would you recommend for the tenth spot?

  9. Billy Coleman
    February 28, 2014 at 11:45 pm
    Reply

    First, thank you, Ms. Hussey, for your prompt and informative reply and your generous answers. I get it now, how clever! Leaving out the tenth book is a kind of dramatic device in itself. I guess there is no way to end a list like this so the author has left it open-ended to make that point. I’m getting the feeling that there are a great many things to learn from your website – … very interesting … (but I forgot to laugh.)

    I am the proverbial middle aged amateur in the fields of writing and especially romance, but I anticipate fully enjoying the learning curves involved in the field research. I am the perfect target market for the, “How To – DIY – Dummy – Wannabe Writer” genre.

    BTW, Has anyone written a book examining the popular dating websites as a source of research for romantic characterization? You don’t need Mel Gibson’s psychic powers to know what women want anymore because thousands are writing complete volumes online in their dating profiles. My version will be titled, “Getting two Birds with one Stanza.” (I’m copyrighting that title, lol.)

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comments,
    Billy

  10. Mary-Theresa Hussey (Exec Editor, Harlequin)
    March 3, 2014 at 10:02 pm
    Reply

    well, I’ve seen many books with dating themes and made up sites and references to real sites, but not a non-fiction book for dating site characterizations.

    Still, we do recommend all sorts of things–even looking at astrology profiles, the Myers-Briggs types, the tarot, the enneagram, the journey of the hero, the Big Five, the and there’s a bunch more on my shelf. Even the Writer’s Brainstorming Kit, complete with a deck of cards to give some ideas of conflicts and motivations and dark moments and strengths.

    I promise not to take your title! (Though titles are not copyrightable–unless you’re in the movies. :))

  11. Sharon Penney
    July 19, 2014 at 7:30 am
    Reply

    Thank you for this fantastic list! 🙂

    I’ve got a few of them, but I definitely agree with Sarah T that Kate Walker’s 12 Points to Writing Romance should be on the list. It’s a great read!

  12. sumit
    August 23, 2014 at 8:01 pm
    Reply

    amazing list

  13. Tara Lee Reed
    December 13, 2014 at 2:07 am
    Reply

    I write interactive fiction, like choose your own adventure books, and while the last was themed around dating advice culture, the sequel polks fun at favourite romance tropes and cliches.

    I read a lot of craft books because I needed to learn discipline to plot something with so many concurrent story lines and endings, but it was a bonus to develop a hybrid style that creates cinematic imagery and dialogue.

    There are a lot of great books on here, particularly Save The Cat (which now has two additional books), Story, and On Writing.

    For 10, I’d suggest Anatomy of Story by John Truby, which is more detailed than STC, but less dense than (and a 1/3 the size of) McKee’s STORY. It made so many principles I never quite grasped crystal clear, and it’s amazing how well I can identify these principles while watching and reading stories now. It seems impossible at first. Now I constantly accurately guess plots, much to my husband’s joy.

    Thanks for the list!

    By the by, if anyone had recommendations on adapting from page to screen, I’d appreciate it!

    TLR

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