Michelle Rowen

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The Deadly Sins of Romance Writing

I wrote this article for my RWA chapter newsletter, but thought I’d share it here as well….


I know I still have tons to learn about writing, and romance writing in particular, but I also feel as if I’ve managed to get a decent grasp over what editors and agents are looking for over the last six years. I have also judged quite a few RWA-related contests over the years and have observed the same issues over and over again in pre-published authors. Issues that I believe will prevent the writer from finding an agent or editor, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of entering these contests.

These are just my opinion, really…and your mileage may vary… if it helps, then groovy. If it doesn’t — it’s your book and you should write it however you think it should be written!

That said, let’s begin with some of the things that have made me dock points for the contest entries I’ve judged……


She’s a shrew, a bitch, sometimes an actual unapologetic whore who exudes greed and deception. Um…why should I care about her, again? Oh, because she’s going to have an amazing character arc that leads her to see that her behavior and actions have been wrong in the past? No thanks. I won’t be reading that far unless you show me something about her from the very first page that I can connect with.


My favorite type of heroine to write is what I call the “everygal.” She has a normal job and a normal life (at the beginning, anyway). The heroines I’m seeing in contest entries are very normal. But they’re not particularly witty, or have dreams, or flaws that set them apart from anyone else. They’re just there. Not terribly attractive. A bit plump. With a job they like. Friends they like. And it all leads me to a big fat…so what? I like that the everygal heroine will inevitably land the deliciously hot alpha hero, but it really isn’t all that believable unless you show me some sort of spark in that average-girl heroine that sets her apart from the pack.


They’ve never met before but omg he’s so hot, she’s so hot, their loins are on fire before they’ve even uttered a word and they must have sex. Soon!! The sooner the better!!! OMG!!!!11!!!!1  No. Just no. Let’s delve a little deeper or have a bit more of a thought process when it comes to dealing with this “lust at first sight.” It’s definitely not enough to build an entire plot upon. This can work, and does work in romance writing, but there needs to be more to it than simple lust.


An example: The heroine has gone down into a dark, scary basement and the hero, whom she’s never met before, is waiting there. With a knife. And he’s an accused serial killer and/or shapeshifting monster. But you know what? He’s really, really attractive. He’d never hurt her. He’s so handsome…I mean, his eyes are so dreamy, how could he be evil? Why is this particular writing error so prevalent? Because the author knows the hero isn’t evil, so that magically transfers to the heroine’s knowledge. Umm…. NO.


A book should start with some sort of hook, some sort of action, or dialogue, or really anything other than: 1) a character waking up and thinking about the day ahead of them, 2) a character driving and thinking about their life and problems, 3) a character alone and thinking. Because? That’s boring. It’s to make things easier for the author to do set up of the plot coming up. But by the time that plot actually starts, the reader has fallen asleep.


I’ve seen the “looking in a mirror and describing one’s looks” done two ways — the right way and the wrong way. The wrong way includes observations of eye color, height, hair, beauty-level. No. It’s not realistic. If you look in the mirror you don’t casually observe your looks. You might think that you’re having a bad hair day. Or, oh, look at that zit. The kind of person who looks in the mirror and thinks — wow, my ocean green eyes are truly as stunning as everyone says they are — is not someone I want to read about. For the most part, character description is overrated. With just a few casual mentions, the reader will fill in the blanks. Another no-no for character description is comparing them to a Hollywood actor, eg: “People had always told her she could be Angelina Jolie’s twin.” Or, “he was so good looking, he reminded her of Brad Pitt.” This is LAZY WRITING, pure and simple. Unless, of course, there’s a valid reason for the character to look like a known celebrity.


This, quite possibly, is my biggest challenge in my own writing. I even coined a term for it with one of my friends. It’s the “La la la, I like cheese” syndrome. The world is ending, the heroine’s life is in dire jeopardy, fire could be literally raining from the sky, and her response is something like “Hey, I’m kinda hungry. I feel like some cheese.” Because we, as the writers, have never (or rarely) experienced true life or death situations, it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like. But let me tell you…we wouldn’t be thinking about our appetites.


Well, he’s tall, gorgeous, and alpha, and uber-powerful, and uh…that’s about it. He’s a big, good-looking machine with no interesting flaws. Flaws rock. Flaws make the character interesting. He might be gorgeous, but he’s a control freak. Or he has daddy issues. Or…there are so many different ways to give your hero some layers that will make him more than just a chiseled hunk and have your the reader (or judge or agent or editor) wishing there were more sample pages available.

Okay, so that’s it for today. If I think of more I will certainly share them…. :)

Happy writing!


5 comments to “The Deadly Sins of Romance Writing”

  1. Krystle Jones
     · September 12th, 2011 at 4:58 pm · Link

    Haha. The “loins on fire” part made me laugh. Funny, insightful article. I haven’t tried my hand at a true romance novel yet, but these are some good pointers to keep in mind for any story, really. Thanks for the advice!

  2. alber
     · September 12th, 2011 at 5:00 pm · Link

    The shrew heroine! Yes, I hate her!!!!
    But I also hate the asshole hero, who treats the heroine like shit, belittles her, insults her, manipulates her, etc, etc, but it’s ok but somewhere along the line will see the error of his ways? WTF, seriously what kind of woman takes that kind of shit.

    P.S: you rock Michelle!

    • Michelle Rowen
       · September 12th, 2011 at 5:40 pm · Link

      Sadly, the asshole hero really seems to sell, even if he’s a complete jerk — the heroine has to be more relatable. I’m not a big fan of the uber alpha, myself.

      • alber
         · September 14th, 2011 at 2:37 pm · Link

        I know, WHY is that?
        Why do women like stories where the leading lady is treated in a way that in real life you would be calling the cops for, just because it’s under the justification that the hero is “just protecting her” or whatever? It makes me want to throw said book at a wall, but that would be bad for my kindle. I now read both the top positive but also the negative reviews before I buy a book, since a ton of these style of heroes get rave reviews and mislead me into buying it. Like, it’s OK for a hero to be both Alpha AND nice!

  3. Darcie
     · September 15th, 2011 at 12:34 pm · Link

    “La, la, la, I like cheese.” That is great! As an aspiring writer, your comments are extremely helpful! I will definitely be keeping them in mind as I write and edit.



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