Romance 102: Sexy, Sensual or Sweet?

Kathleen Scheibling @kscheibling

Kathleen Scheibling @kscheibling

Senior Editor Kathleen Scheibling has advice on writing romance at different heat levels and targeting the right Harlequin series for you. 

Sex doesn’t matter. There, I said it.

I better clarify something before we move forward. (Especially as the Senior Editor of Blaze, our sexiest line.) Ok, ok, sex matters. But if you are thinking of writing for one of Harlequin’s seventeen series lines, sex shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. (I assume some of you just stopped reading. Bye!) The first thing on your mind should be your story. What kind of a story is it? Is it set in a glamorous international location and features a stunning, feisty heroine and a bold and impetuous billionaire? Is it a suspense? Is it set in the Regency period? Does it feature a single mom who is moving back to her hometown to start over? Is your hero a werewolf? Let’s start here, shall we?

The first thing you can do to figure out what series is right for you is look at the covers. We’re pretty good at showing the type of story and setting the tone at your first look. Next, look at the Harlequin series guidelines  and read about what series may fit the kind of book you like to write. I’ve always said the best way to understand a series is to read it. And you can easily do that with Try Harlequin where we offer a free book from every line as an example of what we are publishing.

So by now you’ve figured werewolves only appear in Nocturne, billionaire heroes may only appear in Presents and Desire, and there are cowboys in a lot of places. Grr, this is difficult. Ok, now let’s look at what we call the “level of sensuality” in your story. Because we have a big range of hot to wholesome in our series and there is truly something for everybody, whether you like graphic sex or want to shut the door on sex, or whether you do not want to address a sexual relationship at all.

Our sexiest series are Blaze, Presents, Nocturne and Desire. In all of these books you could encounter a fairly descriptive sex scene, but even here there are differences. Blaze publishes our hottest editorial – there are several sexy scenes in each book and some of
them are quite graphic. The stories are very contemporary and are very much about the characters enjoying their sexuality. Nocturne, too, can have very sexy scenes but it’s the only place in these hot lines where you are writing paranormal characters (shapeshifters, vampires, etc.) Presents stories are very much about glamour –there is sex but the most important feature is the type of character, with their Alpha males and feisty heroines. And Desire loves sexy scenes, too, but they tend to be more euphemistic and not so graphic. In each of these series – in ALL of our series – the sex scenes are not meant to be gratuitous, or crude, or be the main focus of the story. Sex scenes are meant to show the developing emotional relationship between the hero and heroine and descriptions of the emotional and mental sensations of a coupling are far more important than the ol’ boom boom. But you do get boom boom, too, in these four lines. Because that’s why you are reading these books!

The series that feature a slightly tamer heat level are Kimani, Romantic Suspense, Historicals and Superromance. There’s not as much graphic sex here. But there can be a fantastic amount of sexual tension played out in highly sensual scenes, which may have more detailed description of the events leading up to the act (emotions between characters, description of clothing, mood) rather than the actual “deed” itself.

Just because you don’t have sex scenes in your book doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension and passion! We have several series where mostly the lead up leads to a closed door – and your imagination can get to work here. Intrigue, Special Edition, American Romance, Harlequin Romance and Medicals are part of this group.

Finally, there are wholesome romances that do not feature any sex at all. These romances have all of the wonderful emotional connection of our other books but do not address a thermometer_final_revsexual relationship in the story. There is no sex outside of marriage, and no description of a sexual act. Heartwarming and the Love Inspired lines are in this group, though the LI lines also feature a Christian worldview and Christian values.

One thing to keep in mind is that none of Harlequin’s seventeen series publishes erotica. To be very clear, erotica is written to explore the sexual journey of a character. It is about the sex. It is not romance.

Erotic romances, well, that’s different. These stories are about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual exploration. We also don’t publish this in our Harlequin series, but we do through Carina Press. You can see details of what they publish at Carina Press, and  you can chat with the Carina editors today at 1 p.m. for a Twitter discussion all about what they’re looking for. Follow the hashtag #sytycwcarina to join in.)

Sexy romance – yes, these we publish. These stories develop a romantic relationship between the hero and heroine, intensified emotionally by a strong sexual connection which is described in several love scenes. If you edited the book to take out those sex scenes, the romance would still be readable and make sense. But those sex scenes add something extra for readers who love to hear all the details! (See Blaze, Presents, Desire, Nocturne)

When it comes down to writing for Harlequin series, it’s not about the sex. It’s about the story. Harlequin series books are romances, and should always focus on the emotional connection between the characters over everything else. Whether there is sex is your book or not. Now, go forth and…write!

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #sytycw, and follow @HarlequinSYTYCW.

10 replies on “Romance 102: Sexy, Sensual or Sweet?”

In reading all three lines Presents, Desire, and Blaze, it appears that often the first hot sizzling encounter happens before Desire opens the story and then there is a long build up to a one or two sex scene toward the mid and then end of the book.

Presents seems to have a build up the same way with perhaps the 1 to 2 sexual encounters once the tension is beyond the characters ability to stand.

Blaze on the other hand seems to have a more varied structure with sex in the first third of the book, followed with deepening emotions to other encounters.

Would you agree with this assessment? What might you add to it?


Thanks! This is perfect timing for me since I’m working on my Blaze Blitz requested manuscript. I’ve read about a dozen Blazes and love them. All are a little different and the heroines are intelligent with great jobs. My heroine is a sensual person but is questioning her sex appeal due to a recent disability. They’re very attracted and rounding the bases but she puts the hero off for a while (like until the end of the third chapter or fourth chapter). Can you see that working? Is there a minimum number of sex scenes “required” for Blaze?

Hi Jade,

That’s a pretty fair assessment. 🙂 I’m glad you’re such an avid reader!

Blaze stories definitely vary in their structure more than Desire and Presents. Sometimes a sex scene kicks off the story and sometimes you have to wait… It depends on the type of story and the author.

Thanks for your comment!


Hi CathiJ!

I’m so glad you participated in the Blaze Blitz! I can definitely see the first sex scene coming later in the story — but definitely try to get that first one in the first half of the story. I don’t like to say there’s a requirement of a certain # of sexy scenes. But our readers do like it hot, so at least three scenes. And lots of sexy tension, even when the H&H are not in bed.

Looking forward to seeing your requested manuscript!


Incredible. What you were saying was really interesting, but (giggle) I was trying really hard to concentrate on your words and then well…the guys walked by and unfortunately, I got distracted. But I will definitely watch it again to get more info! Seriously, thanks for the inside look at what you guys do for the covers. And way to pick the models! Blaze and Presents are my favorite books.

I have a question. I started a book about a girl from a small town who was a librarian. I did research and visited a small town library, but I recently found a book that had a small town girl who was a librarian. My heroine had a past and changed her ways, but I’m wondering if that’s not a good career now that a book is out there like that. Is it redundant? Thank you.

Hi Karen,

I’m so glad to hear you love reading Blaze. Enjoy the video when you have more time!

I wouldn’t worry about your story featuring a character that has a similar background to a book you saw. There are many small-town librarians in the world, so I figure there should be many books who feature that type of character. You’re talking to someone who publishes many books that have cowboy heroes every month! That’s a lot of cowboys, but I don’t worry.

Thanks for writing!

A cool twist on the small time librarian might be a mobile library service. I never saw that in a romance.
Good luck with your story.

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