What I Learned from Writing Steamy Romance Novels as a Man for 5 Years
The (dis)advantages of writing romance as a man
Warning: This post contains spoilers for novels you will probably never read.
If you’re male and you write romance novels, you’re already at a disadvantage. I know, because I did it for over five years. Some of those novels were surprisingly successful. Others, not so much.
Nicholas Sparks gets around the eternal question of “Can men write Romance?” by skirting the question entirely and saying he doesn’t write Romance, he writes “love stories.”
Was I making money as a self-published Romance author? Actually, yes. Except I made the mistake of assuming that anything short of five-digit earnings a month was a failure, rather than realizing that I was in the process of building a business — and all businesses start off slowly.
Knowing a ton more about self-pubbing now than I did in 2013, I realize I was doing phenomenally well for someone with only three books out. I was cutting a middle-crust level of earnings enjoyed by only a very few self-published authors. Not enough to quit my job, sure, but enough to pay for a few small vacations with my wife. If I had played my cards right, I have no doubt I could’ve increased those earnings slowly and successfully over the years so that I could be making a living out of those novels now.
But I didn’t play my cards right.
Maybe you can learn from my mistakes.
Getting lucky once doesn’t mean you know the Romance genre.
I succeeded best at writing steamy romances. I wrote them under a woman’s name, and never revealed my identity until a few weeks ago.
That reveal was a non-event. I think maybe four people read the blog article, of which two signed up for my new newsletter. By 2020 I had lost whatever momentum I had gained in 2013 after penning a 40,000-word steamy romance in four days which, believe it or not, sold well and gained gushing, raving, hyperbolically positive reviews.
(It also collected its fair share of stinking one-stars which were either full of shit — or too full of the truth for me to stomach them.)
I knew nothing of Romance back then. Nothing. I was a desperate writer who had been trying to crack it at Young Adult Fantasy, Young Adult Romance, and Science Fiction, but failing miserably (and spending far too much dough on covers while at it). In sheer frustration (I was tight for cash at the time, and I had bought thoroughly into the Marketing Blah-Blah-Blah which touted self-pubbing as the latest and greatest way to “Get Rich Quick!”) I wrote that 2013 novel as a joke, full of sexual tension, featuring — wait for it — the utterly original protagonist of a mega-billionaire Englishman who was in his early twenties, a bad boy, broken inside but strong on the outside… You know, all the stuff I thought people wanted to read.
Damn, and did they! The first review I got was a cracking whip of a one-star. But I don’t even remember what it said because a few hours later I got the most incredible five-star review I had ever seen in my life, replete with flashing gifs and tons of smileys.
And the good reviews just kept on coming.
I had no website, no Twitter account, nothing. I had a mailing list, and people signed up by the dozen.
I said that the book was going to be a trilogy, even though I had no freaking idea what book number two was going to be about. I designed the cover myself — it looked awful by today’s standards, just a muscular dude and nothing else — but it sold. (I have just had all four covers — yes, the series did so well I even wrote a fourth book — redesigned by a pro. I’m curious if it will boost sales at all for this seven-year-old series.)
More importantly, it showed me that I didn’t totally suck as a writer. People liked what I wrote. It did a world of good for my self-esteem. It gave me joy writing. I garnered fans. They wrote me emails. I was praised.
Damn, it was a hell of a time.
But I let that praise convince me that I knew Romance as a genre. I didn’t. And writing one good book in a genre doesn’t mean you’re automatically an expert in that genre.
Romance is not Erotica. And Romantic Erotica is more romantic than erotic.
Note, I wrote Romance, not Erotica. (I did write some Erotica later, although not nearly as successfully. Not even close. My biggest bucks came from that first romance series, and it was fairly mild on the sex compared to other novels being written at the time.)
Some folks — usually those not interested in either Romance or Erotica — think there isn’t much of a difference between today’s New Adult / Steamy Romances and Erotica, but there is. There is a world of difference. And you need to know that difference if you’re going to write Romance.
I sailed into this genre thinking all you needed to do was stick in a few detailed sex scenes, plenty of angst, a mega-rich bad boy and a likable female lead and you were A-for-away.
Detailed sex in Contemporary Romance took on unprecedented frequency after FSOG. People wanted to read about sex. But there is a difference between Contemporary Romance and Erotica. And there is a difference between Romantic Erotica and, say, Taboo Erotica. You need to know that difference very clearly if you wish to succeed as a Romance writer.
Romance has some of the toughest rules around. Romance readers are professional readers. They are hungry for new content. They want to see certain things in their books. They are willing to put aside a lot of mediocre stuff in the book for the sake of a great story which was written sincerely. You have good chances of making it in the Romance genre if you know the differences between the different romantic subgenres!
By the time I learned (some of) these differences, I had already let too many of my fans down to keep them interested in my stuff.
Romances end happily. Always always always always!
Trust me. I learned this the hard way. And I was raked over the coals for it by my fans. Raked over the coals!
They were upset, man. They were downright angry that they had put the time into three books (this was another trilogy, not the one I mentioned previously) only to see the main dude end up with another woman. I had someone emailing me telling me she was pissed off with how the story ended!
I think that series did more to ruin my budding career than anything else. And that series sold well when book three wasn’t out yet, when there was still hope of a HEA.
Contrite af, I finally desperately penned a Book Four where the woman who did get the guy turned out to be a harlot and, finally, the female lead and male lead did get their HEA.
Yay yay hooray. Urgh. It all read like a soap opera.
It was too little too late. The readers were not impressed. I did receive some mails saying they were happy I did the fourth book and that the two characters finally got together. But the reviews speak for themselves. And the reviews were bad.
I mean, they were really freaking bad.
If you break this rule, you are not writing Romance. You are writing something else.
You will hold back on your creativity.
You will always hold back on your creativity as a male writer in the Romance genre, and that’s a bad thing for writing. When writing, you need to let loose, let the words flow, not constantly check yourself.
As a man writing Steamy Romances for women, I was constantly holding myself back.
Let me explain:
I was raised to treat women with respect, to talk to them courteously, to open the door for them, stand up for them, be kind, etc. In short, I was raised to be a gentleman. (I haven’t always lived up to this, but it’s how I was raised.)
I was raised to be the quintessential “Good Boy” in the Romance novel.
But Romance readers tend to prefer the Bad Boy.
Heck, once I was sitting around with some ladies in their fifties talking of the types of men I wrote novels about, “Bad guy with tattoos who rides a motorcycle and is on the other side of the law,” and their unanimous response was to widen their eyes and say, “Oh, yes, sign me up now!”
“Yes, Paulo, but a bad boy doesn’t mean he has to be a chauvinistic prick,” I hear you say.
You’d think, right?
Yet when you read Steamy Romances being written today, when you look at the teasers going up on social media and book blogs, you find the constantly repeated theme of the bad boy not only being a bad boy, but a condescending dudebro douchebag with no respect for women at all.
And then you go and read the reviews on Goodreads for these books…and they’re freaking hits!
It’s very confusing to me. And it’s a confusion I have never fully come to grips with. I couldn’t reconcile my upbringing with what a seemingly enormous quantity of readers were eager to read about: An Alpha Male with zero respect for the heroine, who treats her like shit and — if this were not fiction — would likely end up in county for beating her senseless on their wedding night.
So, I skirted the issue instead. And that’s just bad fiction. You either write what people want to read, or you’ll fade into obscurity.
I skirted it this way: I made him “tough” through innuendos and misunderstandings, but ultimately always a gentleman in his dealings with the heroine. I don’t know how much this affected the general acceptance of my books or not. It’s something I still haven’t entirely figured out.
You’re going to get the sex wrong, so just try not to be a klutz about it.
My advice? Talk to a female friend you trust. Or, hell, go read that reddit thread on “What do women feel when they get horny?”
But it’s not only about arousal, it’s also about the physical sensations during the act itself.
Apparently Patrick O’Brian never did any major sailing. Reading his novels of the Royal Navy, however, you’d think he had been plucked straight out of the 18th century. The dude really knew his stuff.
Research, yes, and that goes for all novels. But you’re writing about sex, brother. And when researching sex, the internet is not your friend. You’re a click or two away from the porn sites, and the sex on there is about as true as that promise you read about finding a $60K writing job on Fiverr.
Besides, porn sites are all about what you see and hear, not what the person feels.
If you’re serious about writing in this genre, you have to find a female friend who is comfortable with describing the very specific physical sensations that go on during the act. Then you have to add emotions to it. Because Romance is more about the love and less about the sex. (So is Romantic Erotica, by the way.)
This is a major hurdle. When I wrote the sex scenes from the perspective of the male, I had no problem at all. From the woman’s perspective?
Hell. Sheer hell.
But it gets worse: Because there’s that whole aspect of possibly being judged for what you write because you’re a man. We’re back to the problem of the Bad Boy Asshole Alpha Male Dickhead “I Loves Mah Women Like Ah Loves Mah Dogs — submissive and lotsa lickin” Protagonist which I never managed to write because of my own personal reservations.
The honest answer is you just don’t know how it is for a woman, and the chances of you screwing it up because you don’t know are large.
If you acknowledge that you don’t know, you are less likely to make stupid (or disrespectful) blunders, because you’ll take the time to go find out.
I think I did a pretty good job on this overall. At least the reviews I received tell me I did. And I did a good job because I never ever took for granted that I knew what it was like for a woman. I knew, in fact, that I didn’t know, and so I researched the freaking hell out of it.
You’ll never be able to post a pic of your mug.
I’ve been told that people like seeing a face behind a book. But no one has ever shown me any stats on this. I have no personal experience as to whether or not this helps sales, or whether or not it’s the make-break when it comes to someone deciding to read your book. I eventually solved it by using an avatar I got at Shutterstock.
It’s not uncommon to do this in the Steamy Romance genre. It seems to be more common in the Erotica genre.
But I do feel there is indeed more of a personal touch when an author has her face on her profile. I sure hesitate when I see an author hiding his or her face.
So, should you write Romance despite all the barriers you’ll face as a male?
There was a reason I kept writing in this genre, despite the difficulties: People were reading my stuff!
And many were reviewing it, positively.
Hell, brother, nothing beats that feeling as a writer.
I wrote a Young Adult novel somewhere in the middle of all this and it tanked. Nothing nukes your desire to write like nobody reading your stuff.
I found the Romance crowd to be a welcoming one, willing to give a new writer a chance. Would they have given me a chance if I had revealed from the outset that I was a man? I think many of them would, but not all of them.
I’ve done an unofficial, fairly unscientific survey on this. The answer is not clear-cut. But there is bias in the readership.
Hell, even I’m biased when I look at who wrote a book. I can’t stand “romances” written by men! (Nicholas Sparks is the exception — oh, but wait, he doesn’t write Romances. Right.)
This isn’t (or wasn’t) only true of Romance. Look at Nora Roberts. She wrote the J.D. Robb novels for ten years before outing that it was her behind the ambiguously androgynous “J.D.” initials. Would people have bought those thriller / suspense novels (although, admittedly, there’s a ton of romance in them) if they had known that J.D. was a she?
J.K. Rowling used “J.K.” because she was writing for what her publisher thought was going to be, predominantly, young boys. Later she wrote a crime novel under the name Rob Galbraith. Why didn’t she choose a female’s name?
Bias, bias, bias. It does exist. It’s not in your imagination, and so I still recommend a female pen name if you’re going to write in this genre.
I’m doing it differently now. I “outed” my name, and now I put links between it and the Paulo da Silva name on Amazon and even in my books. I even share a mailing list and ask users to pick their genres when signing up (Horror with Paulo da Silva, Romances with this other name).
But I’m still conservative about it. I don’t go out and say, “Hey! I’m a dude! The book you just read was written by a dude!” And certainly not at the end of the book they’ve just read.
But I’m no longer obsessively hiding it anymore for fear of outright rejection as a writer because of my gender. And that feels good. Because nothing is stupider — when speaking of success as a writer — than splitting your efforts into two completely unrelated names when it’s hard enough trying to build a readership using only one name!
Embrace your pen names, share a mailing list for them and have users choose their favorite genres / pen names. There’s plenty of overlap in reader preferences and tastes. I frequently have people signing up for both my horror and my romance stories whenever they sign up for my mailing list.
This pleases me more than I thought it would. I think every sincere artist works hard to perfect his work, to produce something that pleases people.
And when I see folks signing up for more than one of my pen names on my mailing list, it tells me that they liked my writing, not only the genre I was writing in.
Every writer needs to be reminded every now and then that they don’t suck, in order to keep hammering away at this lonely keyboard.