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Turn Up the Heat: Tips for Writing Erotic Romance Novellas

Crafting an erotic romance novella can feel daunting. How do you fit all the elements of a fully developed romance into a short format while including several love scenes and introducing them early in the story?

For the purposes of this article, I'm focusing on "erotic romance" rather than erotica. For an explanation of the differences, please visit my Article Archives.

Consider word count. For most publishers, a novella ranges from 20,000 to 40,000 words (computer count). Over 40,000 words qualifies as a novel and a word count of below 20,000 takes you into short story territory. Novella writing tips can be adapted for stories below 20,000 words. Just think "condensed." In simplistic terms, a novella is a condensed version of a short novel, and a short story is an even more condensed version of a novella. My novellas range from 23,000 – 30,000 words. The following guidelines allow me to explore my characters' sexual relationship while ensuring a well-rounded romance:

1. If you're not a plotter (I'm not), it helps to think of novellas as very short category romances. Short romance novels generally run between 50,000 – 60,000 words and feature approximately 9 to 12 chapters. The number of chapters varies according to author. However, I like to keep the above in mind and then structure my novellas for an average of 10 chapters. In other words, the same approximate number of chapters I would write for a category romance.

2. Jumping off an average of ten chapters, the amount of plot or story I would write for one 5000-word chapter of a category romance now needs to fit into a 2500- to 3000-word novella chapter. If you think in terms of pages rather than words, 2500 – 3000 words roughly translates into 8 – 11 pages per chapter, depending on your choice of font (a chapter written in Courier New 12 point consumes more pages than the same chapter written in Times New Roman 12 point, however, the computer word count remains the same). Because I'm not a plotter, as I write I pretty much tell myself "8 – 10 pages" over and over and then put my trust in my muse. She likes boundaries. Would that she liked plotting!

An erotic romance or erotica "short" may or may not feature chapters. A 7000-word short story, for example, might split into scenes. A 15,000-word short might feature scenes and/or chapters. The chapters might then run more like 5 - 7 pages, depending on the author and her story.

3. A novella typically doesn't have space for sub-plots. If one tries to weasel its way in, thump it upside the head!

4. Focus on your characters. Specifically, the hero and heroine. Limit the number of secondary characters. By all means, include secondary characters if they're relevant to the story. Ensure they serve a purpose—to further the romance between the hero and heroine. For example, the heroine's best friend might intrigue you, but in a novella you don't have the luxury of giving her too much story space. If she serves as a sounding board for the heroine, great. But if she starts jabbering in your ear about herself, her needs, her story, reel her in. If you’re writing connected novellas, it's helpful to plant seeds about a secondary character in the first story. Just slap an imaginary gag on her if she gets mouthy.

5. Focus on one romantic conflict, issue, or problem between the hero and heroine. The hero and heroine still need their own goals and motivations, their own internal and external conflicts, but if you think in terms of “What is the romantic conflict?”, it's easier to focus on your characters as a developing couple (or as an already established couple who need to work through an issue or grow in some way). The conflict needs to be a problem that can be resolved within 20,000 – 40,000 words.

For a short story, think in terms of a snippet of conflict, a minor issue your characters can address and resolve in a format between 5000 – 19,000 words. The greater your word count, the more room you have for a deeper conflict.

6. Open the story with the hero and heroine interacting. Doing so not only helps to hook the reader but forces you to focus on the characters' relationship.

7. Keep the hero and heroine together. This tip works in conjunction with tips 4 and 5. If your hero and heroine are together in every scene or nearly every scene of your novella, you’ll find yourself naturally zeroing in on their romance. If your story requires a scene that features either the hero or heroine but not both, I find it helps to keep that scene as short as possible. I wouldn't recommend including a scene that doesn't feature at least either the hero or heroine. If it's vital to your story to write a scene that doesn't include either the hero or heroine, keep the scene as short as possible. Get in, make your point, get out. Return to the romance.

8. In a similar fashion, restrict the time span (duration) of your story. I've written novellas that occur over days, and I've written novellas that occur over a few weeks. However, I have yet to write one that occurs over several months. The extra "story time" would distract me from focusing on my characters and their one big conflict.

An erotic romance or erotica short might focus on a few hours to several days. Condense!

9. Allow the hero and heroine some sort of pre-existing relationship rather than having them meet as strangers. This is especially helpful for an erotic romance novella, which requires several love scenes as well as a fully developed plot and characters. How do you get two characters into bed at an early point in the story? The pre-existing relationship. Or the pre-existing conflict. Maybe they're ex-lovers, or they work together, or their paths have crossed in some manner. One or both characters is already attracted to the other. If your characters are already familiar with each other, you'll find it easier to get to the meat of their romantic conflict. It then becomes more believable that they would quickly progress to a sexual relationship.

10. Don’t skimp on the love scenes. By that, I mean make them count. Gratuitous love scenes don’t belong in an erotic romance novella any more than they belong in a sweet novella. Each love scene, no matter how hot or exciting, should further the story, characterization, or conflict in some way.

Remember, these are guidelines, not the dreaded "rules." Your mileage may vary, but the above works for me.

© 2010 Kate St. James

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