RECENTLY I ASKED a friend if she loved the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. She liked it, she said, but she didn't love it, and therein lies the difference between the two of us. She is a pragmatic soul and cynical about relationships. I am a romance writer and fell for the whole syrupy concoction of uniformed virility, erotic longings, sweet sex, and the ultimate surrender of the hero. Dare I confess it--mother of two that I am and wife of 18 years? I would have killed to change places with Debra Winger.

Along with 500 other authors who are attending the Romance Writers of America conference in Washington this weekend, I am a seeker of lovely, sensuous dreams. Imagine a life without the nuclear freeze or El Salvador or the government deficit. Imagine a world where a woman can go to bed with the man of her dreams and discover that he still is. Imagine flirtation, seduction, and guaranteed orgasm. Let your mind roam through your deepest romantic fantasies (sorry, nothing kinky) and there--you have the framework of your basic romance novel.

Is it a "formula"? Is a romance novel simply a mixture of hero and heroine with a soupcon of sex and a pinch of scandal? Certainly, the plots are transparent and the characters stereotypical. All a would-be writer has to do is read a few romances, peck away at the typewriter for a couple of months, submit the finished manuscript to one of an increasing number of romance publishers, and then retire on the royalties--right? Well . . .

It didn't quite work that way for me despite such credentials as a degree in Latin and Greek, book reviewing for a local paper, and a handful of published poems. I read some romance novels, thought they would be fun to write, and put my old Smith-Corona to work. Within five pages, I discovered that I didn't know the first thing about writing fiction. My hero and heroine barely spoke to one another; instead, they indulged in long and boring episodes of visual contact while their pulse rates rocketed off the charts. There was more, I discovered, to romance novels than meets the eye.

I persevered. I read and wrote more books, I received rejection slips, I threw away an entire manuscript. I began to understand my own strengths: a vivid style, a high sense of drama, and an ability to create wonderful, sexy heroes. But my heroines were terrible. They were young, virginal, weepy, and impressionable. I didn't respect them; the fact was I hated them. So I decided to write about a woman who was older, had a career and a mind of her own. I tailored my adolescent fantasies to the adult dream of the woman I wanted to be--and sold my first novel. For me, success in the romance genre went hand-in-hand with feminism.

I started writing romances in 1977 before the genre was fashionable, and breaking in was nearly impossible because only two publishers had "category" lines (Harlequin-style: several novels released each month). In 1980, however, the picture changed. American publishers entered the field in a big way and the competition grew intense. With romance novels now making up 40 percent of all paperback sales and the readership estimated to be more than 20 million, an all-out "Romance War" is being waged in editorial citadels. For the first time, romance writers are a hot property and the genre a free-lancer's heaven.

For those who want to climb onto the bandwagon, an assortment of "how-to" books is available. How to Write a Romance and Get It Published, edited by Kathryn Falk, is the season's heavyweight, a worthy collection of articles by romance editors and published authors, strung together by a fictitious correspondence between Rosie, a gushy would-be writer, and Kathryn Falk playing the helpful muse. The most analytical of the writer's guides is Writing Romance Fiction_For Love And Money by Helen Schellenberg Barnhart. Those blessed with mathematical minds will enjoy the exhaustive detail as the author dissects a romance novel into its component parts, but others might find her rigid rules inhibiting.

The artistic spark is fanned a little brighter in How to Write Romance Novels That Sell by Marilyn M. Lowery, which looks to such writers as Jane Austen, the Brontes, and D. H. Lawrence for inspiration. Although occasionally sketchy, chapter sections are brief and to the point, and the historical information is interesting. Last and certainly the least of the season's offerings is You Can Write a Romance and Get It Published! by Yvonne McManus. Chatty but disorganized, this quickie (96 pages) offers little help in writing but does provide some insight into the beleaguered life of the romance editor.

The "how-tos" are helpful, but nothing is more successful than individual creativity and you won't find that in any writer's guide. Every day, I sit down at my word processor and let loose the girl of 20 years ago who wished for a tall, dark, and handsome hero to lead her into the secret heart of love. This adolescent yearning is then woven into the most ultra-modern plots I can devise. I've written about a woman whose ex-husband comes back to marry her again, a ballerina who becomes pregnant during a weekend liaison, and a playwright whose leading man distorts the unhappy past she has written into a Broadway play. Each plot is unique but the romantic message is always the same--that true love exists and the hero of our dreams is waiting for us.

Is romance writing worth it? Should you try your hand at it? My answer is this: how else can you earn a living, commit legitimate adultery with the hero of your choice, and play God with hundreds of characters? I've never had more fun in my life.