SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - It's pin-drop silence in the room as the women, all budding or published romance novel writers, listen to tips on how to create a believable, yet irresistible, hero.
Annie West, an author for publishers Harlequin Mills and Boon, is leading the "Unleash the Alpha Hero" seminar, one of a dozen workshops at the national conference of Romance Writers Australia, which has attracted local and international authors.
Strong and sexy, the alpha male hero is the ultimate fantasy, said West. "He brings out the best in the heroine," she added. "Everything that she needs he will be able to provide her."
Characterised by relationship-driven plots and compulsory happy endings, romance novels are a booming international industry, with Romance Writers America estimating worldwide sales at over $1 billion.
Australian romance authors are also increasingly becoming popular abroad for their easy-going heroes -- a change from the Texan cowboys and racing car drivers popular in some U.S. novels.
Keri Arthur's novel "Embraced by Darkness" made the New York Times best sellers list, and Barbara Hannay was also awarded by the Romance Writers America for "Claiming His Family".
"We're a bridge between England and America -- we're still quite strongly influenced by our British heritage and yet we're also colonial," says Australian association president Anne Gracie.
SEXY, NOT SEXIST
"Romance is probably the most denigrated genre in the world because it's writing by women for women," says Glen Thomas, Queensland University of Technology romance fiction professor.
"But it obviously fills a need that's out there in the community," he added, estimating romantic novels make up 55 percent of all paperback fiction sold in North America.
The genre's appeal is timeless but it has adapted to the the changing times, with modern novels focusing on empowering women, rather than finding a man who will dominate them.
"Gone are the days when the male keeps the woman in a one-down position. Both the male and female characters come into these stories very much as equals these days, and they end as equals," West said.
While romance fiction is often dismissed as fluff, its defenders say it is sometimes trivialised just because it deals with powerful emotions.
And writing it is also more challenging than critics give it credit for, romance authors say.
"It's really easy to write about a bad relationship because it's so full of drama," says Gracie.
"But it's much more difficult to write about the development of a good relationship that works on the page and is convincing to the reader."
But for male readers, even the best novel, and especially its hero, may be just too much of a good thing.
"I always come away feeling too short, too fat and too poor," said university professor Thomas. "They're always six foot four and really well built and fabulously wealthy."