Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel

As a rule, I don’t like rules. But, when I read Karen Stivali’s post that explained her perception of the rules of romance novels, and why her books did not fit that mold — I was smitten. I don’t write romance — and I know that. What I wasn’t sure of was what constitutes that line between some women’s fiction and some romance novels.  Let us know what you think in the comments.

And please welcome Karen Stivali to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel

When my debut full-length novel, Meant To Be, released a few weeks ago I got a lot of questions from curious friends. There’s one conversation that I’ve been having over and over. It goes something like this…

Friend: What kind of book is it?

Me: It’s a love story.

Friend: Oh, it’s a romance novel?

Me: No, it’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements.

Friend: So, it’s a romance novel.

Me: No, it breaks too many romance rules.

Friend: But you said it’s a love story.

Me: It is. And it’s romantic as hell, but it’s not a romance novel in the traditional sense.

Most readers, and even many writers, are not aware of how strict the rules are where romance novels are concerned. I’ll admit, as a reader and a writer I always thought the rules were a bad thing, but now that I’ve written both romances and women’s fiction I can see why the rules are in place. And why I sometimes break them or cross genres.

Back when I first started writing I remember reading an interview with Nicholas Sparks where he vehemently denied writing romances. That floored me. Has he ever written a story that wasn’t romantic? Not to my knowledge. But technically the vast majority of his books can’t be considered romances. Why not? The most common reason is the lack of a happily ever after ending. He writes love stories. His fiction focuses on love and romance but is classified as either mainstream fiction or, as women make up the vast majority of his readers, women’s fiction.

Romance novels are popular. There’s no denying that.  For decades they’ve had a huge, always-growing audience of devoted readers. Part of the reason for that is those readers want to know what they can expect from the stories. That doesn’t mean they want the same story churned out over and over again, but it does mean they want certain elements to be guaranteed. Romances guarantee the reader that they’ll find a story where the hero and heroine only have eyes for each other and where, no matter what obstacles they face in the course of the book, they’ll wind up with a happily ever after ( or at least happy for now) ending. They’re also guaranteed that the romance will drive the plot. Sure, there may be sub plots or side characters that aren’t romantic, but the focus of the story will be on the path the hero and heroine take to becoming a couple.

Women’s fiction is far harder to define. Some define it simply as books that will appeal to a primarily female audience. Others say it’s fiction written by women, for women, with a female main character (which would mean Nicholas Sparks doesn’t actually write women’s fiction either, as he’s clearly not a woman). Women’s fiction can have a romantic plot, but it certainly doesn’t have to. It can be a story of sisters, of friends, of mothers and children, husbands and wives, careers, losses, achievements, or any combination of those. Sometimes, however, women’s fiction does focus on a man and woman falling in love, or on the trials of male/female relationships. That’s the kind of women’s fiction I write.

Wait, you ask, then why don’t you write romances instead? The answer is sometimes I do. I have published several erotic romances that are all sweet, sexy love stories involving a man and woman falling in love and having great sex as they work toward their happily ever after ending. I just signed a contract with a new publisher on a (non-erotic) contemporary romance that’s a friends-to-lovers/second-chance-with-an-old-crush story in which the heroine has to decide if she can juggle having a career and the man of her dreams. I loved writing those stories. I love those characters. But sometimes the stories I have in mind don’t fit the romance mold. That’s the case with my women’s fiction, like Meant To Be (and its sequel, Holding On).

As a writer I stay very true to my characters and insist on telling their story. I don’t worry about rules or genres while I write, I write the story I have in my head. Period. Meant To Be is a friends to lovers tale with a an unusual twist. My main characters, Daniel and Marienne, are both married to other people when they become neighbors in a small New Jersey town. (Romance rule breaker number one—hero and heroine MUST be single at the beginning of the story.) The two couples become friends, sharing meals at each other’s houses, commuting to work together—normal things neighbors do. (Romance rule breaker number two—story must focus on the romance between the hero and heroine, not on other relationships.) Daniel and Marienne discover they have a lot in common. Similar likes. Similar histories. As their marriages begin to unravel they rely on their friendship.

Although it becomes clear to the reader that they’re beginning to fall for each other, there is never even a hint of cheating. In fact, they both stay loyal to their spouses, trying to make their respective marriages work way past the point where they’re truly viable relationships. Even when they both wind up single and available they struggle with the decision to risk their friendship to see if the romantic feelings are returned.

Since I write books that focus on relationships and since, in my opinion, sex is an important facet of most adult relationships, I write open door sex scenes. Sex is not just a physical act, it’s an emotional one. The interaction between characters during a sexual encounter can be far more telling about the relationship than a conversation or even an argument. For that reason, both main characters are shown having sex with their spouses. It’s very telling about the state of their marriages. It’s also romance rule breaker number three—the hero and heroine cannot be shown having sexual relations with anyone other than the hero/heroine (except in the case of consensual ménages, which I don’t write in any genre).

Romance rules aren’t the only ones I break with this story. By some definitions of women’s fiction I break a major rule of women’s fiction writing. Meant To Be is a story about Daniel and Marienne. As individuals, as friends, as two people falling in love. It’s about the journey they both take. They are each point of view characters and are equally important to the story. Although they both grow, mature and change throughout the course of the book, in many ways this is more Daniel’s story. In other word’s it’s by a woman, for women, but not just about a woman.

I often say this story is one long prelude to a kiss. Readers have told me they waited, breathlessly turning pages, dying to see if Daniel and Marienne would eventually find their way to each other at the end of this story. As I said, it’s a love story. It’s romantic as hell. But it’s not a traditional romance novel. It’s women’s fiction, with strong romantic elements. And a happily ever after ending. An ending that told me I wasn’t done with these characters and their journey yet, which is why there’s a sequel releasing at the end of November.

The sequel, Holding On, explores how even when you marry the person of your dreams, and have everything you ever wanted, relationships still aren’t easy. When you have everything you ever wanted the hard part is holding on. Is it a romantic story? You bet. Is it a romance? Nope. (Romance rule breaker—the hero and heroine cannot already be married to one another as the plot must focus on them falling in love and a married couple is, in theory, already in love.) It’s women’s fiction with strong romantic elements, because I like my women’s fiction with a lot of love and a lot of heat…and a happy ending…but not the traditional romance novel path.

So, it’s your turn to tell me. Do you like your women’s fiction with hearty doses of romance? Do you enjoy having dual point of view from the hero and heroine in your women’s fiction? Or do you prefer if romantic plot lines are left in romance novels and women’s fiction focuses on the woman’s journey?

Karen Stivali is a prolific writer, compulsive baker and chocoholic with a penchant for books, movies and fictional British men. When she’s not writing, she can be found cooking extravagant meals and serving them to family and friends. Prior to deciding to write full time Karen worked as a hand drawn animator, a clinical therapist, and held various food-related jobs ranging from waitress to specialty cake maker. Planning elaborate parties and fundraisers takes up what’s left of her time and sanity.

Karen has always been fascinated by the way people relate to one another so she favors books and movies that feature richly detailed characters and their relationships. In her own writing she likes to explore the dynamics between characters and has a tendency to craft romantic love stories filled with sarcasm and sexy details.

You can find MEANT TO BE on AmazonAllRomanceEbooks,Barnes & Noble,and Turquoise Morning Press.

You can find Karen on her website, on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon.

In case you’re curious about Meant To Be, here’s the blurb:

Sometimes you’re already committed to the wrong person when fate finally brings you the right one.

When NYU professor Daniel Gardner’s career-obsessed wife convinces him to move to the suburbs, he hopes it’s a first step toward starting the family he longs to have. Instead of domestic bliss he finds his neighbor, Marienne Valeti. She loves her freelance design job, but must contend with a growing sense of isolation created by her husband’s indifference. A penchant for good books, bad movies, and Marienne’s to-die-for brownies sparks a powerful bond between them. Passion simmers, but they resist its lure, surrendering only in the seclusion of their minds. Their friendship helps them weather every hardship, from divorce to widowhood, leaving them both secretly wondering if it can survive a first kiss.


39 thoughts on “Author Karen Stivali Tells Us Why Women’s Fiction With A Love Story Is Not A Romance Novel

  1. I like my women’s fiction straight-up! I don’t mind a romantic interest, or some threads of a love story, but if romance is the central plot line, I don’t consider it women’s fiction. I also have trouble (and this is just me) using the terms hero and heroine when talking about women’s fiction. I don’t mind a male POV, but the whole idea of a hero rubs me the wrong way because it implies the female main character needs to be rescued. I do know that those are literary terms used by many writers — just not by me. I have loved learning those rules of romance writing, Karen. Thank you for your thoughtful post!!


    • That’s how I used to feel before I realized that what I was writing was such cross-genre fiction. Hero and heroine now feel like balanced terms to me—they rescue one another equally and are equals in the story—plus I just get tired of saying male main character. Thanks for having me as your guest!


  2. This is where I am feeling such discombobulation with my new novel. My publishers had encouraged me to write a “romance-ish” kind of novel for 2 years – and I resisted, because I don’t write “romance” and am the most unromantic person around *laugh* — my novels are more like family sagas, or about friendship and family.

    But, this time I decided to give it a go. They said, “Write as you write, Kat, don’t try to fit into the mold.” — So I’m sure I’m breaking rules all over the place. I think the “women’s fiction with romantic/supernatural elements” thing does fit much better than “supernatural romance.”

    The funny thing is when, mostly men, ask me about my writing, they always assume I write romance, as if that’s all women can write. I’d always felt like rolling my eyes and saying “geez!” *laughing* — but, I think romance is changing, evolving, becoming something more, at least from the books I’ve read lately. So, here’s to breaking the rules with abandon!


    • Ooh, Kat. Can’t wait to read it! I’m reading Donald Maass’s new writing book and it seems that cross-genre books are the ones that really soar! So go for it. (How I wish someone would have told me that a few years ago! LOL)


    • Absolutely write what you write. I can’t emphasize that enough. Meant To Be is, as I explained, totally rule breaking and genre crossing—but I stuck with the story that I knew I had to write, and I’m so glad I did.

      I had always assumed that mostly women would read whatever I was writing and have been very surprised to find that it’s actually male friends and even husbands of female friends who have been the ones to read (or read first) everything I’ve written—the romances and the women’s fiction—and they’ve enjoyed it. I think more men read (and like) stories about love and relationships than will generally admit to it. I’m just happy when anyone enjoys something I’ve written and “gets” what I was trying to say.

      Cheers to breaking rules!


  3. I love reading everyone’s definition of women’s fiction in your blog, Amy. Looks like we’re all going to have to agree to disagree. But, I think only writers and folks in the publishing industry “get” or even care that there is a difference between women’s fiction and romance novels and that there are several shades of grey (pun fully intended) that exist within those categories. I struggled to define the novel I was writing for quite a while. It has a strong romantic element that runs throughout, but there’s death, betrayal, suspense (I hope), and a happy ending muted by events in the characters’ lives. In critique groups, the guys think it’s a romance, but the women seem to get that it doesn’t fit the mold. Whatever…now, if I could just get an agent. 🙂

    P.S. I’m a Donald Maass groupie. Reading the same book now as well!


    • I probably think more about categories than the average reader, Densie! I don’t like when I think something is women’s fiction and it’s really romance, even “strong romantic elements” make me feel misled. I like to know what I’m getting. I like some of those books, but sometimes I am just not in the mood for the mush. 😉


    • That sounds exactly like the dilemma I had while querying Meant To Be. After 100 agent queries, around 25 requests for fulls and partials, and a few near misses I wound up taking the small press route to publication. It can be tough to find an agent willing to take a chance on a genre-crossing work from a first time author, but I know people who have done it. I’m happy with the path I took. I respect what agents do, and may even try to get one again some day, but right now I’ve signed 10 contracts with 3 publishers in the past 17 months and that makes me ecstatic. Stay true to the story you want to write—I couldn’t be happier that I did.


  4. The reason I’ve always identified with literary fiction is the lack of rules. Besides literary fiction, the closest genre I’ve ever been able to relate to is women’s fiction, which seemed to also come with few rules. Rules make me feel itchy.

    But I too often write *about* romantic relationships in my women’s fiction (I’m not sure if that’s different than writing with strong romantic elements), but I usually blow most “genre romance” rules clear out of the water. (Marriage, cheating, divorce, children out of wedlock, love-triangles, drama, bittersweet endings… you know, the juicy stuff!) And yes, it’s funny that most people used to laugh at Nicholas Sparks for “not being a romance writer” but the truth is, he’s totally not! And I always got that.

    And I also often write male leads along with the women, and have always found multi-POV stories appealing. I’m not sure if that disqualifies me from “women’s fiction” either, lol! I don’t think it has to. Nor do I think that men are excluded from writing women’s fiction. Though I AM irritated when men do write women’s fiction and it gets labeled literary fiction just because they’re men. <– but that's another story. 😉

    Also @ Amy, agreed! I loathe the terms hero and even heroine.

    Thank you for this discussion, Karen! I'm intrigued by the idea of two people (soul-mates, perhaps) meeting while they're already promised to other people. (I have a WIP somewhat similar.) I think it's a shame that the most honest and beautiful love stories I've read would probably be disqualified as actual "romances".


    • Sounds like you write stories a lot like mine. I’d love to hear your comments if you ever read Meant To Be. I am fascinated by relationships so I try to write story lines as real as possible. Real life includes romance (if you’re lucky) but it includes all the messy stuff as well. You need the bad to appreciate the good, in my opinion. I’m clearly a rule breaker when it comes to genres, but I write the stories I want to write (and they’re the kind I prefer to read as well). I agree that it’s a shame that some of the most true and realistic love stories can’t be called “romances”, but in the writing world that’s the reality. At least for now. The “when men write it, it’s literary, when women write it, it’s WF is a whole other debate.” I’d need to have breakfast before attempting that conversation!


  5. This is a fascinating discussion. I’ve always thought of romances as “lesser” novels, because they DO tend to follow a formula, and yet some of the best writers pen romances. Meanwhile, I gravitate to books that would surely be defined as women’s fiction by most of the writers whose books I read about here. For me, the key difference is simple: the romance is secondary to the main plot in women’s fiction, and other elements may be just as strong as the romance, such as the setting, the imagery, etc. One of the best non-romance novels with romance at its core that I’ve read recently is The Discovery of Witches, a paranormal novel by an historical fiction writer that breaks pretty much ever fiction rule there is. Another is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn–reads like a mystery, but romance-gone-wrong is definitely at the heart of it. Thanks for this post, Karen–you really got me thinking!


    • The key difference is often that romance is secondary to the plot….except for when the romance or, more accurately, falling in love, is what causes the character’s lives to change. That can happen in women’s fiction but without turning it into a romance. It’s having all the other factors of the character’s lives be equally important that keeps it women’s fiction (and prevents it from being romance). Today’s romance novels are changing to include much more depth of character than they used to—readers expect more than they got when they swiped their mom’s romance novels. And I think women’s fiction is open to a wide enough variety of subject matter that love stories have become acceptable as the focus. But genre crossing is still the most accurate description for some books—like Meant To Be. And I’m okay with that! Glad I got you thinking!


  6. Strong romantic elements? Yes. Some suspense, to varying degrees in each story? Yes. Multiple POVs–as in women, children, men, bad guys? Yes. My agent calls mine women’s fiction. One editor dubbed the most suspenseful “suspense” — fine, except the bits of suspense have too much humor to fit well there. Do I care? Well, I’ve never been a niche person, so why would I imagine I’d fit neatly now? .

    I say we write the stories that are in us to write. And then we hope there’s a market for them all.


    • Exactly. Write what you want to write. Hope that someone wants to read it. If you’re not happy with it or you’ve turned it into something it wasn’t supposed to be, then no one will be satisfied. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself!


  7. Thanks, Karen, for clarifying for me the perspectives of romance vs. women’s fiction vs. love story. There’s probably overlap there, as well, but your rule breaking helped me see the differences. I like to read such a wide variety that I enjoy romances at times (though some are too dang hard to believe) and women’s fiction, and literary fiction. Thanks again for the beautifully written post!


    • You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about genre issues and definitions over the past several years and there is tremendous overlap at times. I’m not a fan of labels and (clearly) I’m not always good at following rules. I, too, enjoy a wide variety of books—the main thing I want when I read is a book that leaves me feeling like I know the characters. If that happens, regardless of the genre or the type of plot, I’m a happy reader.


  8. This is a wonderful post with such rich discussion. I`m on train to Montreal and enjoying this reading. I`ve been reading and writing WF for years (writing more recently) and as someone mentioned, my characters are all equals helping each other through life`s ups and downs. There is suspense in my 2nd and 3rd but it`s still the characters driving the story for sure. Like Amy, I want my WF straight up. Thanks Karen and Amy. Great discussion!


    • I always like characters who are equals and who have equal impact on one another and I’m definitely a character driven writer. I love a good story line but without stellar characters I care about, nothing else matters. I can forgive almost any writing flaws if I fall in love with the characters. Glad you’re enjoying the discussion!


  9. I’m a total genre rule breaker. I consider myself a writer of women’s fiction/chick lit filled with family drama and some smokin’ hot love scenes. But from everything I’ve heard/read, steamy scenes aren’t compatible with women’s fiction or family drama. My debut novel will be published next year. It was acquired as an erotic romance. I’m excited and nervous as I prepare for revisions and marketing of the book.

    I have another completed project that also breaks all the rules. There is family drama. Hot bedroom scenes. The character is on a journey of self-discovery. And…gasp!… we see her in more than one relationship during the course of the book before she finally ends up with Mr. Right.


    • Yep, you’re a rule breaker! Nothing wrong with that! Women’s fiction actually has no official guideline regarding sexual content or heat level (whereas romance has fairly set standards defining the books as sweet, sensual, hot, erotic). In WF the sex can be fully described, closed door or non-existent. Because of that it can also be anything from meh, to mind-blowing, to downright awful—-whereas in romance the sex is always supposed to be pleasurable. I’ll be honest, though, the downside to genre crossing is that it does make marketing more challenging and you do have to “warn” readers somehow that they’re getting a book with adult content. It may seem that should be assumed, but it isn’t and readers do want (and need) to know what they’re getting when they buy a book. Good luck with your upcoming debut!


  10. I once saw an agent’s blogpost where she railed at queriers who sent “love stories instead of romances”. She wasn’t articulate enough to say how the two were different, and made a lot of people mad. But you’ve done a very nice job here of describing the difference. A “romance novel” as defined by the publishing industry must have a plot as stylized as a sonnet. If you stray, or–Venus help you–don’t end with a wedding, you’re not writing “romance.” Luckily “women’s fiction” allows for almost anything your imagination wants to dish up as long as it’s about a woman on a journey.


    • I did a seemingly endless amount of research when I was querying Meant To Be, trying to figure out exactly what/where the boundaries were. For me, the reason I couldn’t ever figure out exactly where my novel fit was because I was straddling both romance and women’s fiction (and bordering on some people’s definition of upmarket fiction just to muddy things further). I understand what agents mean when they say “know your genre, know your market”, and that’s true, you should, but that includes knowing that some books cross genres. And that’s okay. A lot of readers enjoy books that are a little different.


  11. I so get this. I write what I call “Crime Fiction with a Kiss” – always a crime and always a love story. Not a romance. The love story does not drive the plot, but there are strong romantic elements. Instead of blending with women’s fiction, my novels are blended with mystery and suspense. Very nice to meet you. Good luck to us both!


    • Crime Fiction with a Kiss—what an awesome way of referring to your work. I have to admit, I like a bit of love/sex/romance in pretty much any kind of story. It’s like a touchstone for me. It helps me connect with the characters on that emotional level. Best of luck with your books!


  12. I totally agree that we need to write what we want to/feel the need to write. Rules are made for breaking.

    I write what my agent calls “humorous commercial women’s fiction.” How’s that for a mouthful? Try finding a book-blogger who reviews “HCWF” or a contest with *that* as a category. My book that is out now and the one I’m working on both have romantic story lines, but those aren’t the main story lines. It’s definitely not romance. It’s not Chick Lit either, although I’ve had good reviews from chick lit-bloggers.

    It’s hard when you write things that don’t fall into neat categories – at least, hard when you go about trying to market it. People like nice neat labels. I usually, for ease, just call my book a romantic comedy, but I think it’s more than that. It’s about the MC’s search for herself, for a career she can love; it’s about her relationship with her family and her dog; and yes, there’s some romance there too. I wish we didn’t need to label our writing, but it really helps if you can!


  13. I like Karen’s definition of romance as a story where the romance is the focus/what drives the story. Even her take of Nicholas Sparks’ novels makes sense, if romance must have a happy ending. For me, I think of women’s fiction as synonymous with relationship novels. And that genre can also have male protagonists.


    • The most unbreakable rule of romance novels is the happily ever after ending—it’s a must have, no gray area. I agree that women’s fictions are synonymous with relationship novels…and sometimes those relationships are love stories, they just don’t have to end with a guaranteed happy ending. I personally like to at least hear from the male point of view in most stories so I have no trouble with shared point of view or even male protagonists in books that are still technically women’s fiction. Thanks for commenting!


  14. Yes!!!! 100 times yes!! This is a perfect description. That is exactly what I write. Mine do end up HEA, so qualify for that romance rule, but the stories are never just focused on the romantic relationship. That is happening, yes, and it’s a major part of the story, but there are family things and personal journeys and some other central driving force that my main character is going through besides whomever is making her crazy on the sidelines. I love this post. Well done!


    • Thank you! Sounds like your writing is along the same lines as much of mine. Sometimes the line between romance and women’s fiction truly blurs and it’s more a matter of opinion than fact. There are stories where even though none of the rules of romance have been broken, the book still has a more romance-y feel to it. And there are times when women’s fiction feels so romantic it’s impossible not to think of it as a romance, even if bends or breaks the conventional guidelines. For me what’s important is the story. If it stays true to the characters and draws the reader in, then it works, regardless of what label it earns.


  15. I think every story – at least as you look at it from Hollywood’s perspective – has an imbedded love story. In fact, it’s my understanding that the industry follows Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (adapted to fit writers by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey). Both of these ‘journey’ books include a love interest aspect. So – how can you go wrong?

    I loved Karen comment and advice to “stay very true to your characters and insist on telling their story.”


    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that bit of advice. I’m very loyal to my characters. It may sound silly, but it’s their story, not mine—I just get the pleasure of deciding how to tell it.


    • It’s a very strange but very fun place to be. You have to work a bit harder at marketing because no one is quite sure what to do with your book. What you have to keep in mind is that it likely appeals to readers of both genres. Do yourself a favor—blog and talk about how and why it’s different so readers know going in, so they’re not taken by surprise. If they know what to expect, they’ll be fine. Good luck!


  16. Great post, Karen. Yes, I’m tired of the blank stares when I tell people I write women’s fiction and then try to explain how it’s not romance. Now I have a better answer. I love a little romance in every book I read…no matter what the topic. Yet I also love following someone on a path through their life, where hopefully the romance supports them through problems or changes. Thanks for the wonderful insights!


  17. Pingback: Saturday Summation – 06 October 2012 | It'll All Work Out

  18. Just stumbled across this blog. This is a great blog, and I’m definitely interested in reading the book. It’s good to see that quality women’s fiction is still getting published. I’d rather read about modern, realistic romance than freakin’ zombies!


  19. I’ve come to describe Women’s Fiction as “women learning to live with their life choices”. If anyone needs any further explanation as to how that makes them different from the romance novels, I add on, “that they made in the romance novels”. Simple, and is easily comprehended.


  20. I am so pleased to find your blog! Karen’s post and the comments really resonate with me. My writing also crosses genres–romance, women’s fiction, and family saga with action, mystery and humor tossed in–depending on the story of the characters. Coming up with a label so readers know what they are picking up has been a challenge. More than once I’ve heard the comment, “Not what I expected…but I loved the book!” The “Crime Fiction with a Kiss” description is great. Guess I need to put on my creative marketing hat!


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