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Unraveling The Complexities of Romantic Suspense

Unraveling The Complexities of Romantic Suspense

Romantic suspense is one of the hottest subgenres in the market today and shows no sign of slowing. The subgenre is broad and encompasses a lot of different styles of writing, and one of the first questions that new writers ask is what exactly qualifies as ‘romantic suspense?’

In my opinion, a romantic suspense is a novel with a story that is driven equally and simultaneously by the threat of danger and the promise of romance. There are as many variations on this theme as there are types of writers — from hot, erotic love stories with a hint of danger to a cozy mystery with a mere allusion to a possible romance. In a week, I can’t cover all those variations, nor do I have the reading/writing expertise to try. And even within the tightly defined subgenre, romantic suspense can vary with the types of plots or settings and be even more genre-specific, such as military r/s or police procedurals, or classified by the type of hero/heroine, such as FBI, bodyguard or Navy SEAL romantic suspenses.

In a good romantic suspense, at least one of the protagonists is in danger (or someone she or he loves, like a sibling or child, is in danger) and the love story builds at the same time that the hero and heroine confront escalating jeopardy, until both the suspense and romance reach a crescendo that leaves the mystery solved, the villain defeated and the main characters ending happily ever after.

Sound simple? Well, my friends, if you’ve read a good one, it does seem simple. But if you’ve attempted to write one, finished one or sold one, then you know it is NOT EASY. I’d venture to say romantic suspense is the most complicated subgenre in romance writing, but no novel is easy to write. At least, not one that’s easy to read!

The first thing you need to do (no surprise here) is read some of the classics and top selling authors in romantic suspense. I cut my teeth on Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. If you’ve read these authors, you’ve already been exposed to brilliant characterization, tension building, mood and danger. But, quite honestly, the genre has changed. There are a few great gothics out there now, but the most popular romantic suspense novels now are contemporary stories with technology playing as much a role as a butt-kicking heroine and real life terrorist villains.

Today, there are some really terrific romantic suspense writers at every level from rookie through midlist to international best-sellers. The ‘biggies’ are Nora Roberts (I’m not talking about JD Robb, since those books do not necessarily give the ultimate HEA, but her long romantic suspense novels like NORTHERN LIGHTS and BLUE SMOKE. She has dozens on the shelves and every one is terrific.), Linda Howard (my number one personal favorite for unparalleled skill in blending sexual tension and mounting danger), Suzanne Brockmann, Sandra Brown, Julie Garwood, to name a very few. At the risk of accidentally omitting dear friends, I’m not going to name specific up-and-coming authors, but, trust me, there are some great ones out there and reading their work is the first, most important thing you can do.

The reason I say this is not to sell books. I say this because if you read a lot of romantic suspense, you will begin to organically absorb everything you need to know. The pacing, the plotting, the villains, the red herrings, the characterization, the mood, the crimes, the procedures, the clues, the resolutions and the romance is all there. In fact, all that you need to know is so embedded in the work of the great romantic suspense writers, that I find it nearly impossible to pluck out the elements, discuss and describe them and suggest ways for any writer to incorporate them in her work. It’s a little like sitting down to a gourmet meal and trying to explain to someone that the chopped fresh rosemary made one dish, but it would be all wrong in another, similar dish, but it might be okay if you deglazed with brandy instead of port and threw in a dash of you get the idea. The process of writing a romantic suspense is organic to me, and, I suspect, to most people who write within the subgenre.

Why should you write romantic suspense? The market is hot ‘ has been and should stay that way, almost every publisher has room for a good, new r/s writer. The external plot of an r/s really drives the story as much as the internal plot, so it is a great subgenre that really works for writers who are as plot-driven as they are character-driven. If you are a writer who loves a puzzle, who thrives on a mind-boggling challenge, and who thoroughly enjoys research and putting your characters in physical as well as emotional danger, romantic suspense just could by your subgenre. If you read it, you might very well like to write it.

But why *shouldn’t* you write romantic suspense? I don’t want to discourage anyone, but don’t take it on if you aren’t ready for a serious challenge in writing. All of the other challenges are there in every other genre: creating compelling characters, telling a breathtaking story, manipulating emotions, building sexual tension to the breaking point, and crafting a believable, satisfactory ending. (And then, ahem, finding an agent, editor and contract. Let’s not go there.) But add to that the complexities of crime, danger, red herrings and a villain who is as important as the hero and heroine, all woven together at a breakneck speed that never lets the suspense or romance outweigh the other. And you have one very challenging book to write.

To Reveal or Not Reveal that is the Villainous Question

In a story that braids love and suspense, sensuality and danger, good and evil, life and death you might very well have a triangle of characters. Although many will argue that there is ALWAYS an ‘antagonist’ in every story, that character in a suspense is generally the villain. And in a romantic suspense, the villain not only threatens the lives of the antagonists, he or she represents a threat to their love, as well. So that overcoming the villain is doubly satisfying and creating the villain is complicated and challenging and, as most romantic suspense writers will tell you, really fun.

When you start a romantic suspense, you have to make one all-important decision: to reveal the identity of the villain or not. This choice does have a significant impact on the story ‘ and both routes are correct. There are GREAT suspense stories where you know from page one exactly who the bad guy is, and you’re still on the edge of your seat watching your hero and heroine figure it out or fight him to the death. There are also GREAT suspense stories where you are handed a cast of characters and while you are reading, given clues (and fake clues ‘ called ‘red herrings’ and someone out there is going to tell us why) to figure it out. This is a different kind of game, and a wholly different kind of writing challenge. I call it ‘who knows what’ and the reader is as important in that list as the characters. Some people believe that it’s a ‘mystery’ if the reader solves the crime/identity of villain along with the characters, and a suspense if the reader knows but experiences the characters finding it out. I’m not entirely sure I buy that. I do know this: when I start a romantic suspense, I make a conscious decision to reveal or not reveal the villain and that decision has a profound impact on the book. I lean toward NOT revealing, just because I like to read those books. Either way, my publisher considers it a suspense.

Whether or not you reveal the villain to the reader (or the characters), you have to give your bad guy/girl just as much GMC (goal, motivation and conflict) as your good guy and girl. Meaning, the villain can’t be bad just for the pure joy of being bwa-ha-ha-ha moustache-twirling dastardly. Something has caused that evil soul to hatch — or something has caused a perfectly nice person to do something very bad ‘ and you really should have a pretty good idea what it is before you start. The villain’s goal needs to be clear and believable ‘ but if you are writing the type of suspense where you have chosen NOT to reveal the villain until the end, the villain’s goals cannot be SO clear as to make him/her the obvious choice because the reader will feel cheated. (I told you this was hard.) When you have a group of villains (a terrorist cell, for example) you will probably have to choose one or two to embody the evil.

So when you sit down to do your character charts, map out your GMC and decide the course of your hero and heroine’s backstory, if you are writing romantic suspense, you’ll have to do the same thing for the villain. And you should do this for the people who pepper the plot who are not the villain, but might be. There should be enough of them to keep a reader guessing, but not so many that you’ve created a world of confusion. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard in every lecture on romantic suspense, don’t drop the villain in for the first time in the end of the book. He/she should be there from the beginning. My test: when you finish a book where the villain is not revealed until the end, you should be able to go back to the VERY BEGINNING (if not page one, then pretty darn early) and see the first clue to the true identity of the villain. And the clues should be there (buried, buried, but evident) all through the book.

If you have a villain who is revealed from the beginning, I urge you to consider scenes in his/her point of view. This really helps a reader ‘connect’ with the villain and understand his or her motivation. Plus, it’s just so much fun to let yourself be that bad!

Don’t Forget the Love Story

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few words about our hero and heroine. The hero and heroine of a romantic suspense are no different than the h/h in any other romance. All the same qualities are important plus, it helps if they have one or two tricks up their sleeve that make them extraordinary. Rhonda Pollero, who writes for Intrigue as Kelsey Roberts, calls this the character’s ‘superpowers.’ The character needs to be able to do one thing better than the average Joe, and you should be sure the reader knows it so that when you hero pulls his superpower from his bag of tricks to foil the villain, it’s not a surprise to the reader. Whether it’s the heroine’s computer hacking skills, the hero’s night vision, or their ability to interrogate someone without them knowing it give your good guys an ber power that will take them out of the ordinary and into the heroic.

For some reason, the TSTL heroine has a permanent home in romantic suspense. (Too Stupid To Live.) How often have you heard the TSTL heroine described as the one who goes to the pitch black basement, unarmed, in the middle of the night, when there is a murderer on the loose and she heard a noise suspiciously like a knife being sharpened? Because the heroine in romantic suspense has to face life threatening danger, she has to be a risk-taker. Not necessarily by nature but in the course of the story, at some point, she has to take at least one risk, usually more. The way to avoid a TSTL heroine in this case is through MOTIVATION. If her actions are believably set up and motivated, either by the possible consequences if she doesn’t act (ie. her child will die) or by the backstory you’ve set up for her (ie. this is exactly how her twin sister died), then the reader will go along with her taking risks that we, mere mortal women, would not take.

Although the breakneck plot, the life-threatening danger and edge-of-your-seat suspense are critical to the subgenre, the art of characterization will speak to the most important component of all: romance, sensuality and sexual tension. Remember, they’re running to or from danger, but they are also running to or from love. And the outcome of the dangerous situation WILL impact the outcome of their love. Because of the impending danger, many romantic suspense stories will take place in just a few days or weeks. This is a REAL challenge ‘ to craft a believable romance arc that takes them from enemies to friends to lovers to life partners in ten days. Yet, it is done exquisitely well by many authors. There are a number of ways to speed up the falling in love process in a romantic suspense:

They may give into the sexual desire early (or earlier) in the relationship because of the danger of dying

Force the hero and heroine to be in close proximity (even in the same bed) in order to stay alive

Put them in situations where one character can observe the other character’s ‘superpowers’ to accelerate the falling in love process

Create a history between them as former lovers

Intensify their reactions to each other bordering on love/lust at first sight – no time for the slow build

Today’s Market for Romantic Suspense

Trust me, I’ve been out there trying to break in, trying to sell a single title romantic suspense to a mainstream publisher, and I know what exactly what frustration, rejection, disappointment, envy, self-doubt and misery feels like. I also know that persistence and tenacity are every bit as important as talent in this business. And you know it’s true. You have to have thick skin, patience, good friends, wine and chocolate ‘ sometimes daily ‘ to endure what it takes to sell a book.

Yes, publishers are looking for romantic suspense in all of its iterations. You can target a single title house like Pocket (my publisher), Berkley, Ballentine, Bantam, Kensignton, Medallion, NAL, Zebra I’ve probably missed one or two because I did that list from memory. The fact is, there aren’t many. You have more options if you’ll consider epublishing. And Harlequin/Silhouette publishes the Intrigue and Intimate Moments line, both considered category romantic suspense. (Although you should check the guidelines for specifics.) And you should take the time to find out who edits your favorite authors, or who represents them, because they should be at the top of your submission lists.

There are certainly ways to shorten the road to publication, including:

1. Write the whole book.

An unpubbed writer is probably not going to sell on proposal. Although, it happens. But rarely. Write the best damn book you’ve got in you and polish it until it shines to a blinding finish. When you complete it, stock up on tenacity, confidence, a couple extra layers of skin and supportive friends and family. You’re going to need them all.

2. Take advantage of RWA.

Especially critiques, conferences and contests. When I first started trying to sell my manuscript, I found a web site featuring dozens of interviews with first-time romance authors, conducted after they made their first sale. All of the writers were asked about their route to publication. I made a list of responses, seeking the magic formula, or at least a pattern for their success. I quickly found one. To an author, they all mentioned the role that critiques, contests and conferences ‘ one or a combination of all three ‘ played in getting published.

Could you sell without one or all of the three C’s? Yes. But, I recommend that you invest the time and money in all of them to increase your chances. But, in the very same breath, I URGE you not to get so caught up in the three C’s that all you do is hone and submit one manuscript that has had the voice and heart critiqued and judged out of it.

Hundreds of articles and workshop tapes exist on the finer points of the three C’s. There are a few specifics to consider when you are focused on the goal of getting published. With a critique group, find partners who read the types of books you write ‘ they will know the market, the tone, the voice, the style that is selling. Seek encouragement and suggestions, of course, but don’t let anyone change your “voice” ‘ it is the key element that editors love. If yours is fresh, don’t let someone tell you it won’t sell. Your voice is the number one talent that will sell your book.

When entering contests, start off with the goal of getting feedback. Good, bad or painful, it will help you when you start to see a pattern in the score sheets. Once you’ve honed your manuscript, then enter only those contests that include one of your target houses or editors as a final judge. It’s a great way to be read by an editor who might otherwise never see your work.

For unpublished writers, conferences are one of the most direct routes to publishing. Networking with editors and agents, either casually or through an appointment, opens doors that are normally closed, if not locked. Conferences offer the opportunity to learn, to hear other’s stories, to practice your pitch and to associate faces with names. In many cases, a conference will afford you the chance to send a completed manuscript to an editor or agent bearing the two weightiest words in the submission process: Requested Material.

3. Editor or Agent?

If you’re trying to sell a single title, some houses still say you don’t need an agent and some authors will assure you they sold without. But me? I think you need an agent to sell a single title romantic suspense. Oh yes, you will hear the stories of slush pile sales, but do the math. Editors are inundated with manuscripts. The agent acts as a trusted screening process and editors will tell you, they read agented submissions first. The key word in that statement is “they” not “first.” The editors who make buying decisions read agented submissions. Unagented submissions at some (not all) houses are often read first by individuals who have no buying authority. They may be perfectly capable assistants and readers. But they do not have the authority to march into the publisher and say, “This one sings.” They may not have the experience to recognize that the voice is there, the story just needs some tweaking. This is not to say an unagented submission will not sell but an agent drastically reduces the odds in your favor.

Again, the process of identifying, querying and signing an agent is the subject of a mountain of articles. My advice is this: Keep Five Alive. It will take many, many queries and submissions, so I recommend that you do your research, pick at least thirty you would be happy to have, and get queries in the mail five at a time. With each rejection that comes in, send another out. Personalize your query, do your homework on what clients they represent, respond to requests for full manuscripts immediately and don’t hound them. If your manuscript is publishable, you’ll click with someone eventually and then you will be ready for the next step.

And here is the number one thing you need to do after you finish your manuscript, polish it sufficiently, network effectively, enter it into a few select contests and keep it under consideration at no less than five places at a time: WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.

Good luck and happy reading and writing!


Roxanne St. Claire
Roxanne St. Claire is a bestselling, RITA-Award winning author of seventeen novels for Pocket Books, Silhouette Desire and HQN. She currently writes a popular romantic suspense series called 'The Bullet Catchers' that features a cadre of elite, fearless bodyguards and security professionals. In addition to the RITA, eleven of her books have won major industry awards, including the RITA, the Daphne du Maurier, the HOLT Medallion, the Maggie, Booksellers Best, Book Buyers Best, several Awards of Excellence, the Aspen Gold and the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. In addition, one of her novels, The Sins of His Past, was recently selected by Borders Group buyers as the 2007 overall 'Borders Top Pick' in the Book Buyers contest. Prior to launching a full time career as a romance novelist with her first release from Pocket Books in 2003, Roxanne spent nearly two decades as a marketing executive and public relations consultant. Visit her web site at www.roxannestclaire.com

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