After choosing which sub-genre of romance novel you want to write, the next thing you have to decide is your heat level. In some cases like Inspirational Romance and Amish Romance, you’ll have no sex scenes at all and the closest you’ll get is hand holding or maybe a chaste kiss at the end. If you’re writing erotic romance, your sex scenes will be detailed and frequent.
But what if your book falls in the middle of those two? How do you decide what to put on paper and what to leave to the reader’s imagination? That depends on what you’re comfortable with writing and reading about. If the thought of leaving marks from a whip or spanking makes you cringe, you’re not going to write a successful BDSM book. However, if you’re also not comfortable describing body parts and inserting tab A into slot B, you can fade to black and have it all happen off page. One minute your characters are falling into bed, and the next it’s the next chapter and morning after.
A romance novel isn’t a sex novel. That’s erotica. The emotional journey and the sexual tension leading up to the big act is what the readers are craving more than graphic descriptions of the Kama Sutra. That being said, you have to know your audience. If you’re going to have closed door sex scenes, you can’t market your book as steamy or erotic.
Steamy and erotic books sell extremely well, but Amazon and Facebook have been cracking down on advertising them. So you have to rely a lot on word of mouth and reader reviews to get your book out there. If you’re going to call your book sexy, it better deliver. Otherwise you risk tanking your career.
There are a lot of markets for sweet, closed door fiction. Some people market them as “clean” romances. I don’t like the adjectives clean and dirty to describe romance heat levels because it implies that having a healthy sex life is “dirty.” This is where the descriptions get a little confusing. For example, my book The Cowboy’s Daughter is a sweet tale about a family coming together, but the sex scenes between the heroine and hero are frequent, detailed, and on the page. It’s a high heat romance with a sweet story in the background.
Most romance publishers have detailed descriptions on what they’re looking for, heat level wise. Some even have different lines you can write for and each has their own specific trope expectations in addition to how much sex they want on the page.
For example, here are a few of Harlequin’s requirements from their submission guidelines on their website:
• Harlequin Desire line: The chemistry pops! High sexual and emotional tension pushes the reader through the twists and turns of the story. The anticipation sizzles, and the sex is hot but not graphic.
• Harlequin Heartwarming line: Heartwarming romances feature a low sensuality level. Hugs and kisses only. Still, lots of romantic attraction and tension is required! No explicit or behind-closed-doors sex, nudity, pre-marital sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of violence. No explicit religious or Christian content. No paranormal. No heavy suspense.
Entangled Publishing requires this of their romance book submissions:
• Teen Crush (teen category romance) line: M/F, M/M, and F/F are all welcome, and we’d love to see diverse characters. Sex is allowed in the stories, but nothing graphic. Heat level can range from sweet to suggestive.
M/F means male and female love interests. M/M means both love interests are male and F/F means both are female.
• August (40 heroines) line: Heat level can be mild to steamy but not erotic.
Riverdale Avenue Publishing has these requirements for their Desire line:
• Riverdale DESIRE is our Erotic Romance and Erotica imprint. We are looking for works of fiction from 50,000 to 65,000 words that explore either the erotic journey (erotica) or the quest for satisfaction with a happy ending or at least a happy–for-now ending. We are actively looking for erotica and erotic romance in the following sub-genres: contemporary, historical, male/male (m/m), female/female (f/f), ménage, paranormal (especially vampires, werewolves, and zombies), and BDSM (especially novels featuring dominant women).
Ménage means a threesome which is sometimes written as M/F/M, which means the two men don’t touch each other, only the woman. Or M/M/F meaning all three partners actively engage with each other. BDSM stands for Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, and Sadochism & Masochism. This sub-genre has its own rules and tropes that if you fail to understand them can enrage and insult practitioners in the lifestyle. As always, do your research before writing.
Tule Publishing has several lines, but their guidelines are more open ended:
• Muse line (historical, paranormal, and fantasy): We are especially drawn to stories filled with alpha heroes and strong-willed women who can hold their own. At this point, we are not looking for sweet heat level stories for Muse.
• Montana Born/Texas Born line: Sexy or sweet, small town Western romance.
• American Heart line: The perfect escape for readers who love heartwarming contemporaries and sexy happy ever afters. We are looking for diverse stories that celebrate all cultures and voices currently present in America. New adult romances with some heat.
No matter what heat level you choose, that has to be secondary to the love story. It’s the icing on the cake. Once you have chosen your “icing,” now it’s time to build the characters relationship. They need to go on a journey. The characters’ goals in a romance novel cannot just be to fall in love, have sex, and/or get married. They have to go on a journey and be changed by the end of the story, whether you write their sex scenes down or leave it up to the readers’ imaginations.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud was a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.