The distinction between a bad and a good romance novel, those who lust after the genre will tell you, is the difference between sex and seduction. And to make that distinction as palpitatingly palpable as possible, romance writing, like any trade, has its tricks. The setting, for starters, has to follow the trend. Lust in suburbia is currently in. (What’s out, alas, is the old medieval milieu with turrets for trysting, hot-blooded steeds for sublimating and bodices for ripping.) But to make a romance novel truly throb for the reader, one needs something known in the trade as tags: descriptive phrases meant to heighten sexual tension. Instead of saying, for example, “they kissed,” a savvy romance author might write: “His mouth swooped down to capture hers.” Not pretty, perhaps, but true.
Until recently, the only way to conjure up such phrases was to use your imagination. But now romance writers and those who aspire to the game can flip through a thoughtfully cataloged paperback containing more than 3,000 tantalizing entries. The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book (Perigee Books, $6.95), by Jean Kent and Candace Shelton, lists tags in such categories as body (the “moist satin of her breasts”), anger (“her nostrils flared with fury”) and, naturally, lovemaking (“his lips traced a sensuous path to ecstasy”).
This pulsating prose sprang not from lasciviousness or libido, but from cravings of a more commercial sort. Two Ohio women—Candace Shelton, 39, a serious-minded high school teacher with a B.A. in English from North Texas State University, and Jean Kent, 50, a retired owner of a food vending machine company—yearned to write romance novels. Joining three other women with similar cravings, they participated in a writers’ group in Akron four years ago and critiqued one another’s work.
Eventually both Shelton and Kent got the message that their writing lacked romantic tension, and each set out compiling random lists of tags. Without knowing what the other was up to, each spent many a steamy afternoon devouring the writings of such authors as Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Taylor Caldwell and Omar Khayyám (“… in the fire of Spring/The Winter garment of Repentance fling”).
At first they used their gleanings for inspiration. But one day Shelton and Kent discovered their mutual lists and conspired to get them published by a small Ohio house under the title One Liners for Romance Writers (only 300 copies were printed). Later, with the help of a New York agent, the authors sold a manuscript for a revised and expanded version to Perigee. By that time Shelton had moved to Abilene, Texas with her schoolteacher husband, James, 39, and their daughter, Ashley Melyn, 17 (“I dreamed her name one night,” says Candace). Hence, the rest of the work on the book was done via Ma Bell.
Now that their opus is in bookstores, the authors are, to use one of their tags, “wrapped in a silken cocoon of euphoria.” Kent, a divorced mother of three and grandmother of four, had churned out 14 unpublished manuscripts, including cookbooks, mysteries and Gothic novels, after she retired from the vending machine business five years ago. But with the help of a private list of tag phrases (“I don’t think it’s right for me to use ones from the book,” she says), she rewrote her first novel, Precious Possession, and it was published last fall. Since then, the prolific Jean has sold seven more well-received romances under her pen name, Kathryn Kent, and two under her real name.
As for co-author Shelton, The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book has inspired her to finish her first romance novel, tentatively titled Gardenias and Love. When she isn’t writing, Shelton teaches in a special program for troubled adolescents at the local junior high school and directs a children’s choir at a Methodist church. “I live a very middle-class life,” allows Can-dace. Nevertheless, her next opus may be a historical novel, set in Russia, about a fictitious illegitimate brother of Peter the Great. “Shining with a steadfast and serene peace” (as they say you-know-where), Shelton and Kent are going their separate ways as writers full of confidence—no, make that “pulse-pounding certainty.”