The newest growth industry in America is writing romance novels.

Anybody, or so the promos claim, can do it. You can moonlight on an established career or start a new one, come out of retirement or out of high school. Neither age, education, nor experience seems to matter. Start-up costs are minimal; long-range projections, phenomenal. All you need is a place to write, like your back bedroom, and lots of dedication. Support and encouragement, however, are all around, once you tap into the right networks.

Although Harlequin Romances dominated the field until two years ago, the number of series now increases monthly. Among the newcomers: American Romances, Second Chance at Love, Super Romances, Hourglass, Circle of Love. One prediction is for 16 series on the market by the end of this year, offering readers 70 new books a month.

Romance novels now account for 40 percent of all paperback sales, and even the most dignified publishers appear eager to send Author's Guidelines to aspiring writers. Pocket Books has published a self-help book entitled YOU Can Write a Romance! And Get It Published! It even helps with grammar.

Recent reports put the readership at 20 million women who spend between $250 and $300 million of hard-earned cash yearly for their daily fix of romantic fantasy.

"Women who never read before," notes an Alexandria librarian, "ask for cards when they spot the big display of Rapture Romance in the middle of the library."

When you come across a statistic declaring that of 600 romance readers surveyed, 20 percent read a novel a day, you know the power of the addiction.

The romance writers, veterans and novices alike, belong mainly to what Nathaniel Hawthorne castigated as "that horde of female scribblers." His complaint, in mid-19th century, was that women writing the romance counterpart of that era, "the sentimental novel," were making more money and had more readers than "real" writers such as he; a complaint not limited to the 19th century.

I recently joined that horde and, although I have yet to make a dime, I've had a lot of fun (which ultimately may be my only reward). Contrary to all the hype about how easy it is to write these fast-moving, best-selling items, it's not easy to work within the formula. Perhaps because my sexual fantasies don't correspond to the obligatory ones of these books? Or because it's hard to write the required scenes without shrieking with laughter? Because I'm worried that police will respond to my 2 a.m. writing hysterics and knock at my door?

How did I get into this?

I was led astray by a friend who had been involved in romance writing for several months and asked me to collaborate. She lured me in by saying it would be just fun, games and a million laughs. We did spend several hilarious hours inventing our pseudonym, names of our main characters and a book title.

For pseudonyms, used more frequently than real names, you have your choice of preppy, exotic or hometown. Preppy and exotic lead the field three to one. In main characters, it's unisex among all that passion and rapture, desire and ecstacy: Barrie Coltrane, Storm Reynolds, Corey Kenyon, Kelly Lord.

In book titles, your choices narrow considerably: Love Me Again, Love's Agony, Love So Fearful.

Romance writers have been known to posture publicly about the kind of stories they write and how they're helping women by widening their horizons, illustrating new options for careers, life styles and love. Their books, however, demonstrate that they know exactly what they're doing: functioning as cogs in a nationwide fantasy factory, turning out products made of identical ingredients.

Regardless of the packaging--location, job, age, appearance of the main characters--every novel seems to dramatize the working out of two contradictory fantasies warring within the same woman: that of a beautiful, young, independent and successful woman with a strong self-image and a dependent woman with a weak self-image.

Sex, it seems, is something this woman cannot seek actively. Instead, she must be swept away by a stronger force and held captive--if only by her wrists--as she is forced against a wall, kissed and caressed against her will . . . until, as the inevitable line has it, "Her body betrayed her."

As soon as the woman responds, the man backs off, adding to her humiliation. The man, created according to the Heathcliff Syndrome, is arrogant and demanding, with a streak of violence underlying his actions. His laughter is mocking; his glance, burning. In romance novels, a glance is not worth having if it doesn't burn.

Professional women, achievers in their careers, succumb in recent books to the man's relentless pursuit after they have been dominated physically by "love" and the man has put his emotions in the woman's control. She gives up her job, announcing, "It wasn't worth it."

The twist is that the man then returns a smidgen of the woman's identity by giving her what one woman describes as a "jobette," sans power. That's new?

Inventing people to act out all this illogical and contradictory stuff and making it sound plausible is hard work. Fortunately, it doesn't have to sound too plausible.

And now you know why your friends have stopped selling the Cambridge Diet and stay home a lot in the back bedroom. When they run to the front of the house to answer your call on the telephone, gasping and breathless, it's because of all that hot passion clicking out of their typewriters.

It's not stars dancing before our eyes. It's cold cash.