Key Points:

A great beginning, a big-bang ending and high stakes in between - is that all it takes to turn out a romance novel?

Romance writer Tessa Radley has never opened her door to a stalker but she knows someone who has.

"She answered a knock at her door and discovered a strange man standing there. He had all kinds of preconceptions as to what a romance writer would be like."

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A sexy negligee and an invitation to visit her boudoir? "Probably," Radley laughs. "But he was misinformed."

The only glamour in romance writing is dressing up for the odd awards ceremony if your book gets nominated, says Radley's critiquing partner, Karina Bliss, a finalist in this month's Australasian Ruby Awards, which recognise contribution to the arts.

Bliss, yes it is her real name, and Radley met six years ago on a writing course tutored by one of New Zealand's most successful romantic fiction writers, Robyn Donald, and another top writer, Daphne Clair. The pair clicked and, with fellow writing students Abby Gaines and Sandra Hyde, decided to meet regularly to talk about their work.

The group's chats over coffee morphed into monthly full-on critiquing sessions that have finally paid off: of the four only Hyde is unpublished, but after a category nomination for one of the romance worlds top prizes - the Golden Heart Award - last year, she reckons she's close. The other three have 15 Harlequin Mills & Boon published books between them, which is no mean feat when you look at the odds: of the 8000 unsolicited manuscripts Harlequin editors receive a year, 4 to 5 per cent are published.

So, with the odds firmly against them, what sparked the desire to write? "For a start you have no idea about how hard it is going to be to get published," says Gaines, a former business journalist.

She told her husband it would take three months tops: it took her five years. The realisation that being a good writer just wasn't enough really hit home during a critiquing session at a romance writers conference in the United States.

"The session was on Regency stories [which are set in England in the 1800s] and six of the 10 pages read out for critiquing had the hero drinking a glass of brandy in his study in the first page. I was amazed, it really came home to me that no matter what you're thinking, there's always someone else out there thinking along those lines too."

Bliss was also ignorant about how the industry worked. Having always wanted to try her hand at romance, she took a week off work to write the required three chapters and a story synopsis and sent them to romantic fiction publisher Harlequin Mills & Boon. It was rejected and Bliss, also a former journalist, shelved her dream until a "significant birthday" (she turned 40) forced the issue.

It took her five years to get published, and she reckons it was the hero crying in the opening paragraph that sold the story.

"I wanted to push the boundaries and to test the myth that heroes don't cry. I hadn't seen [a blubbering hero] in any romance before."

For Radley, a former lawyer who had quit her city law firm where she was a partner to stay home with her children, romance writing progressed from her attempts at penning thrillers in her spare time. She found developing a romance between the protagonists interested her more than having them catch the villain.

It was the chance to try something different that lured Hyde, a diehard fan of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, into writing romantic fiction. She'd left her job in market research to have children, and hadn't written fiction before. She enjoyed writing romance, but found it hard to "come out" to family and friends.

"It took me quite a while, partly because I'm a private person and partly because I was something of a literary snob. But I have always thought it peculiar that it's somehow more acceptable to read and write about murder and serial killers than about falling in love."

Bliss had no problems telling people what she was doing.

"My family and friends all think it's great; they know I'm a writer and I'd always wanted to write romance. You hear people calling some journalists hacks. Well I'm a writer, trying to earn a living."

Romance writers are well aware that in popular culture Mills & Boon is a joke, says Bliss. But it's an old joke.

"Who doesn't look at a picture of themselves taken 15 plus years ago and laugh? If [Harlequin Mills & Boon] didn't keep up with the times, it wouldn't still be around."

Yes, she says, there are some bad covers, cliched plots and bad writing. But it's the same with any genre.

"There are also brilliant books and incredible writers pushing boundaries. But for some reason romance, probably because its market is predominantly female, gets most of the mockery."

Which is unfair, says Radley, who reckons that even in its early days the scoffed-at genre was a nod to feminism. For a start it was about women and things women were interested in. And they were generally women with careers - governesses, teachers, nurses or secretaries, she points out. The only difference today is that she's more likely to be a busy professional with a soaring career who fiercely guards her independence.

The sex scenes have kept up with the times too: in some books characters practise safe sex. But although descriptions in some books are much steamier than they used to be, the sex scenes in romantic fiction must be integral to the story and the development of the female character, says Bliss. "There has to be real emotion there. It's not just about whether she gets laid or not. [The sex scene] shouldn't be the end of the story or the end of her journey."

Bliss doesn't mind writing the sex scenes, but she finds writing female characters difficult, probably because women are hard on their own gender.

"You can write as many bad-boy characters as you like and women will let him get away with anything. It's not the same for the female characters though." Bliss hasn't yet got her head around why, but the heroine is supposed to be a "better" form of the author, so the theory goes.

Whether you like your romances super-steamy or towards the tamer end of the scale, category romance has something for almost everyone, says bookseller Barbara Clendon.

Clendon's Manukau shop specialises in romance and science fiction. On the face of it, the two genres appear strange bedfellows, but paranormal romance, where the hero is a timelord or a vampire, is becoming increasingly popular. Those who prefer the traditional romance can choose from historical romances, medical romances, romantic suspense and intrigue, inspirational romance, where religion is a theme, and the sweet and super-romance category lines where the sex scene is often replaced by an emotional climax instead. Then there are the Sex and the City stories which are sold under the aptly named Blaze, Temptation and Desire lines. Having different category lines works because readers like to be able to choose what they're going to get, Clendon says.

"Sometimes you feel like chocolate cake and sometimes you feel like a roast dinner."

Radley writes "intense and emotional stuff" for Desire. Hyde targets sweet, and Gaines and Bliss the super-romance lines. With its slightly longer wordcount, super-romance also allows more of a subplot, says Clendon, who adds the number of local romantic fiction authors on her shelves has grown "hugely" in the past five years. Five years ago there would have been about five local authors lining her shelves. Now there are up to 25.

Far North writer Robyn Donald, who has more than 70 books published with Harlequin Mills & Boon, is probably the country's most successful romance writer. Auckland author Susan Napier who has been writing for more than 20 years has had her 32 books translated into 20 languages. Meanwhile, paranormal romance writer Nalini Singh was recently listed as a writer to watch in influential US magazine

Publisher's Weekly

.

Also, the quality of entries for the Clendon Romantic Fiction Award, sponsored by Clendon and husband Peter, has improved markedly.

However, its no surprise local authors are looking offshore for publication when you compare the readership and potential market. In New Zealand, between half a million and one million category romances (certain types of story such as historic, medical, or romantic suspense) are sold each year, compared to three million in Britain. In the US, romance has the biggest market share of all consumer books, raking in about US$1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) a year. In the UK, Harlequin Mills & Boons 74 per cent of the paperback romantic fiction market tallies up to more than 54 million ($142 million) a year.

It pays to keep an eye on what's going on in the market, as Gaines discovered last year. When Harlequin signed a product-licensing deal with Nascar (the National Association For Stock Car Auto Racing) in the US, Gaines jumped to get in on the act. She's not a petrolhead, but she'd been co-editing Auckland's Western Springs Speedway magazine for some time and reckoned she could pass off a story proposal and follow up with some on the ground research. The Nascar industry has tens of millions of fans, she says, and about 40 per cent of them are women. Her first two Nascar books are out this year and another two next year.

Surely the research trips abroad are a hint of glamour? Yes, Gaines concedes, she had a great time visiting Nascar headquarters, meeting drivers and watching a race at Daytona. But my husband's airpoints are going to run out soon and I'll be stuck.

Hyde sets most of her stories in the US, but she tries to keep those set in New Zealand and Australia accessible for US readers. Radley has featured Greece and Australia in her published books as well as New Zealand and a fictional country in the Middle East. Bliss is unusual in that her three published books have had local settings: first the Hauraki Plains, then the Whanganui River, and then she renamed the Coromandel township of Tairua as Beacon's Bay. It's unusual because few categories take non-US based books and she's not sure how they'll sell. New Zealand is hot right now, she says, probably still because of Peter Jackson and

The Lord of the Rings

.

Inspiration for plots springs from anywhere, says Radley - a stray thought, a throwaway comment, but her favourite way of lighting the imaginative fuse is by leafing through survival guides. "Who wouldn't be fascinated by the notion of surviving a death roll with a crocodile?"

Hyde asks "what if?" When she saw a woman taking a photo of a shopfront, she wondered what if someone didn't want that photo to be taken, and spun a tale of suspense set in Chicago featuring an FBI agent protagonist.

Readers often come up with plotlines, too, says Bliss, or want you to write a story about a sideline character they liked.

The four agree that when their market is so far away, feedback via websites is a boon, the four agree. And it's interesting to know who's reading your books, says Bliss, whose fans include an elderly male romance writer from Las Vegas.

Naming heroes is not a problem. Gaines keeps a copy of

Name Your Baby

handy for christening her characters, though sometimes characters stay un-named all the way through or get changed by editors. Romantic heroes should have easily pronounceable names, she says, while the heroine can get away with something more exotic.

Gaines' own name is a nom de plume, one she wants to be known by for the interview. Authors often use a different name to ensure they're not near a more prolific author where they could get overlooked, she explains. A short name fits on the spine of a book. Names that are easy to pronounce and spell are easily remembered when searching for authors online and on the shelves.

The four women, who have become close friends, are giving a seminar on tips for critiquing groups at this weekend's Romance Writers of New Zealand conference.

Radley says having someone who'll tell you when something isn't working and who knows what you're going through, keeps you going through the hard slog of writing a book.

Has the process of becoming a romance writer, minus the stress of deadlines and rejection letters changed them?

Apart from learning to write faster and having a sharper nose for what ideas will work, Radley doesn't think so.

"They say to write the story from the core of your heart and I don't think the core of my heart has changed."

Gaines reckons she's become more introverted. "You're living in your own mind and sitting at home not talking to people. I also find it hard to say what I mean the first time because I'm so used to being able to edit my words."

For Hyde, who is still waiting for The Call, the process so far has been about not giving up.

The hardest thing for me is that I don't know when [I'm going to get published].

The rejection letters are getting longer though, and she says this is a good sign. "The longer a rejection letter shows they were interested enough to make suggestions on where you could improve."

Bliss reckons she's become stroppier and braver, and worries less about other people's opinions.

"You can't [worry what other people think] if you're a romance writer, otherwise you'll be an apologist for it. But I've finally found my passion and I'm following it."

Writing also unearths hidden strengths, she says. "I knew if I put my mind to it I'd do it, but writing a book, it's the crucible. It certainly puts childbirth into perspective."

She's also a lot less cynical. Have the happy endings affected her?

"Yeah, they did. I guess writing uncovers all those layers of being grown up and takes you back to some earlier face."

And she doesn't see herself stopping any time soon. "I think most people have a secret dream, but who can actually say I've achieved mine?"