Sunday, July 26, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 15.

Life has been getting in the way somewhat, and this subject has ended up a LOT longer than I'd thought it would, so apologies again for the delay, and for the fact we might end up with a post or two more than I thought we would. A big THANKS to everyone who has commented to say they're finding the Mini-Workshop useful! It makes doing it worthwhile!!! Once we're done I'll run a Q&A for anyone who has questions not covered in the topics, and for anyone who wants to brainstorm something from their manuscript/WIP they're uncertain or worried about. Meanwhile, onwards and upwards...

Missed Part Fourteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here

  • Approaching The Finish Line:

This follows neatly on from the subject of stopping your manuscript before it's finished to move on to the next shiny story that just won't let go in your head. Only this time, we're talking about sending your manuscript away before it can be the best possible story. Yep, we're talking about the EDITING process. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Writing a story – any story – can be a fatiguing process if your project has been a complex short story or – harder – a novel, you will probably come to the end of your first, or second draft in a state not only of weariness, but also of a certain amount of anxiety. You want to be done with this arduous task – to have it finished and sent out somewhere, so you can at least relax a bit... and perhaps begin to think of some new project.”

Remember I talked about BLEEDING ON THE PAGE and how some authors are emotionally drained by the end of the book? Well, this is the end result of that. Plus it comes down to what kind of writer you are again. The PANTSTER in me, will go with the flow and write, write, write when the story grows wings, picking up speed as I approach the end, so sometimes I will write through the night while the words are flowing. Over time I've learned that my body can go without sleep for a maximum of thirty-six hours before I start to feel physically sick, but it isn't something I'd recommend. And I do think, over time, that it has contributed to the burn-out I've experienced this year. But even authors who try to stick to a regular timetable or 'office hours' have to balance their real life with their writing and will spend time with their brain locked in the story no matter what else they're doing. Add the emotional ups and downs your characters experience and it's not surprising that by the end of the book, you can be both mentally and physically exhausted. It's yet ANOTHER reason why giving yourself additional worries at the TELL THE STORY part of the process isn't a good idea. In a way it's masochistic. In another pretty pointless. Why pointless?

Well let's take the worries you have about the first three chapters of your book for example, shall we? There was a time when I obsessed about those chapters the same way you do (still do sometimes to be honest!), and it's completely understandable; particularly when those first three chapters are the partial you'll be submitting. We want it to grab the reader – propel her into the story – hook her in so she wants to read the rest of the book. With out a great SET-UP, we are lacking the foundation stone needed to build a strong story. So we obsess about it. When the simple truth is, no matter how much work you've done BEFORE you start the story, there is no way you can know your characters as well as you do by the END of the story. By the end of the story you will know them inside out and upside down. You will know WHY they did the things they did at the start of the story and you can SEE where all those little threads began. Only when the story is FINISHED and you come back to it at the EDITING stage, can you use that new knowledge to help strengthen those opening chapters...

Which brings us to the next point the book makes; “At such a time, when your enthusiasm for your current story is perhaps at an all-time low, and you ache both literally and figuratively, you run the grave risk of stopping a bit too soon – of failing to take one more critical look at what you planned to do, what you've ended up doing, and how well the job was done.”

Not only is this the time when you need to switch from the right brain where you store the skills to TELL THE STORY, to the left brain skills that will EDIT the story, it's also when you need to take a step back so you can see things clearly. You both literally and figuratively have to detach yourself from the manuscript. Just like stepping away from the keyboard when you hit a wall can help to clear your mind and allow you to see the path forwards, leaving your finished manuscript to 'simmer' for a few days can allow you to come back and edit it with fresher eyes. Telling the story might have felt like the hard part – and it's NOT simple - but EDITING is a whole different discipline and that can make it a harder task for some. You have to take everything you've learned about your characters during their journey, put it together with everything you've learned about writing and at the same time keep an eye on the emotional content while emotionally detaching yourself enough to cut what needs to go for the good of the story. And the latter can be the hardest task of all. Because having gone through the process of creativity that brought your story – sometimes kicking and screaming – into the world, we can sometimes become as attached to it as we would to a child we'd given birth to, and as the parent of this new child we can have problems with finding 'fault': A common problem with new writers is that they'll have spent so long trying to make every word perfect during the creative process, they might not be able to see the 'wood' for the 'trees' (something even multi-published authors can struggle with), which is where a CRITIQUE PARTNER can prove invaluable. A CRITIQUE PARTNER didn't give birth to this creation, so they can look at the story the way a reader would and they're working WITH YOU to get the best book possible.

On the flip-side, we can fall into the trap of constant over-editing and never letting go. This when the new writer (and yes, even the published author) can feel that just one more edit is needed. That edit then becomes another edit and another and another; sometimes changing back and forth so they ultimately end up with what they had in the first edit and sometimes removing something that an EDITOR will later ask them to put in! So when is enough a enough? When is it NOT enough? It's the dilemma all writers face, and the only one who can ultimately make that decision is YOU. You have to feel you have submitted the best possible work you could have at this stage of your career...

To this end, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “No revision checklist can suggest everything you might look at. Your awareness of your personal strengths and weaknesses as a writer, together with some idea of the kind of writer you want to become, will dictate some of the things high on your own checklist.”

I doubt there are many published authors – particularly authors who have been doing this for years and are multi-published – who will write down a check-list to follow at the editing stage. It's true of any job; the longer you do it, the more you will do things instinctively and with a skill borne of practice. But every author, no matter how established, will have a mental checklist of things they are looking for at the EDITING stage of their manuscript. They will have their eye on the things a computer can't do for them. Yes, we have a spell-checker, suggestions for grammar and a word-search to help us zone in on some of the basic things we can tighten up on or improve, but it's worth remembering that those are SMALL things. There's no point obsessing over them. An editor is looking for a well told STORY. The STORY COMES FIRST. So at the EDITING stage of your manuscript you should be looking at the same thing. This is why the very first thing you should do after your break away from the manuscript is to read it from start to finish without stopping. Many authors print off the manuscript at this point, instead of reading it off the screen. I have to admit I don't, but a great many people may be shocked by that. For me it's an eco-friendly thing (at least that's what I tell myself). If I were to print off every manuscript I wrote, even using the other side of a previous manuscript, added together with the paper copies I have of my books from the COPY EDITING department, I would now have a minimum of thirty eight to fifty seven manuscripts sitting around. And that for me is a real storage problem. But again it comes down to personal preference and what works for YOU. Instead of using paper, I have numerous files on my laptop. Because when I'm editing I'll make a copy of the original file and rename it REVISIONS, and I'll often open a third file and name it NOTES. Then anything I delete will go into the notes file in case I need it again, and the original will give me something to check back to if I get lost at any point. But then I'm someone who frequently works with a good half dozen windows open on my computer. As I type I have two office docs, Tweetdeck and seven internet pages on the go...

By reading your manuscript through from start to finish with a more critical eye, you can see if it MAKES SENSE. That, in my opinion, is the foundation stone of fiction. Each scene should flow from the scene before in a logical path the reader can follow while you ask yourself things like – did that happen too soon, is that 'in character', are their actions understandable, is the continuity correct? You can take notes, make notes in the margins or highlight a section with a red pen at this point. But you ARE NOT going to stop to correct it. Only once you have seen your story through the eyes of a reader will you know if it MAKES SENSE. On the second run, we go to work.

If you've printed off your manuscript, then this is the point where you will open the file on your computer and refer to the notes you made on the paper copy. If you're like me, this is where you'll open the REVISIONS file of the manuscript and bounce back and forth between the two. Fixing these problems first gives you a starting point. You may also run a spell check at this point if you haven't already done so, though it's worth keeping in mind that spell-checker won't recognize certain words as being 'wrong'. 'There' won't be recognized as being the incorrect version of 'their' or 'they're' for example - same with 'where' and 'were'. A grammar check will more than likely find these, but it will also make suggestions that you don't necessarily have to accept; particularly when it comes to dialogue. I'm not saying that correct grammar isn't important and I'm by no means saying a manuscript can't be much improved with the help of a grammar check, but what I am saying is that not everyone will speak in grammatically correct English. We will move words around, abbreviate them, speak 'out of rhythm' – particularly during an emotional outburst – and we want our characters dialogue to sound realistic, don't we? Take a character for whom English is a second language for instance; are they likely to get everything grammatically correct, or might there be times when they say the words in what we would consider to be the wrong order because that is how their native language would arrange the words? Will a small child use perfectly correct grammar? A teenager? It all comes back to the CHARACTERS again, doesn't it? And if we're writing in a characters INNER POV then they will think as they would speak. Having said all that, it IS worth using the spell-check and grammar facilities on your computer, because it's a couple less things to worry about. BUT we have to remember not to sweat the small things that can be corrected by the editing department after we sell.

With the basics done, we will revisit the beginning of the story with a greater knowledge of our characters and how they will think and react in the latter stages of the manuscript. Keeping in mind that we want to grab hold of the reader at this point, we have to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Does it start with an EVENT, that 'live at the scene' report that propels us straight into the action and introduces the viewpoint character to a 'THREAT'? Does that threat give them a GOAL? Did you get straight to it, or did you 'warm up your engines' with a BACK-STORY DUMP or a long passage of introduction that wasn't needed? Did you get the HERO and HEROINE onto the page as soon as possible?

With that in mind, I thought I'd give you a few examples of how I opened a story in my own books. Marriage Lost And Found started with a Prologue and an opening paragraph of; “It was in the gap between Christmas and New Year's, when people started thinking about what the New Year had to hold. About New Year's resolutions to help everything along in the right direction. That was when she made the decision to let go.”

Would you agree that immediately we have a season, a motivation and a goal? Would you agree we now know that it's the HEROINE whose viewpoint we are in? Are we propelled into the action?

From The Wedding Surprise we have; “'How bad is it, Dad, really? I need to know.'”

One line. But do we know there's a threat? Have we been propelled into the action? By asking a question in the opening line, we immediately give the reader an answer to look for and therefore a reason to continue reading. From the answer to this question comes the THREAT, from the threat comes the characters GOAL, that goal then leads to an ACTION which draws us further into the story...

From O'Reilly's Bride we have; “'We're just going to have to face up to the fact that we have no choice but to sleep together.'”

This time it's a statement of fact. But look at how that statement is worded. Is there a question in there the reader would need answered? Would the need to answer that question encourage them to read on? Does it propel the reader directly into the action?

From Rescued: Mother-To-Be we have; “'Welcome home, Eamonn.'”

Would it be safe to say there's a good chance Eamonn is the hero and that this statement is made by the heroine? What questions might the reader have? In this particular book the line has added significance because not only does it open the story, it's also the last line at the end of the story; having an addition depth to the statement that wasn't there before by the time we've taken that emotional journey with the characters...

From Breathless! We have the very simple; “'What can I do for you?'”

Would you agree it propels us into the action with a question? Might the answer to that question lead us to the character/s motivation and their GOAL? Is there are chance the answer will reveal something about the character/s? Does it therefore draw us into the story?

From His Mistress, His Terms we have an even simpler; “'Merrow O'Connell?'”

Another question. This time we're immediately introduced to the HEROINE. The reader is once again given a question to seek an answer to, and this time the question is immediately expanded on the same way it may have been in some of the other examples. Who IS Merrow O'Connell? Why does the person asking want to know? Would the question indicate they may not have met before? Why is this person looking for her? Who IS this person? And we're propelled into the action seeking answers that will lead to our characters motivations...

From Claimed By The Rogue Billionaire we have; “She was back. And Ashling Fitzgerald hadn't changed a bit in eight years, had she?”

Again, I have something that should hopefully spark the readers imagination and draw them into the story. If she was 'back', then Ashling Fitzgerald had obviously been 'away'. The viewpoint character then tells us how long she was gone for. Would it be safe to say the reader might ask why she was gone for so long, where she'd been, why she was back, who it is making this statement? I think we've established that I tend to start my books with some kind of question. It's my way of dealing with it. How did the author deal with it in a book from the line/category you're aiming for? Were there questions asked in the readers mind?

Task Thirty-Seven: Take a look at several romance novels from the line/category you're aiming for and examine how the author propelled you directly into the action with the FIRST LINE and FIRST PAGE. Did you have a clear idea of what was happening? Was it clear whose viewpoint the opening was in? What did the author use to set the scene and introduce the character/s?

At the beginning and as we progress through the story, the next thing to look for is the POV. Is it clear throughout or are there times when it might be confusing for the reader? How did you make that POV clear? How often did you change it during a scene? Are there times when having the POV remain the same throughout a scene would add to the suspense? Remember what we talked about when it came to sprinkling information about the characters and the back-story throughout the book so the reader gets to know them as they get to know each other. There's a fine line between letting the reader in to some of the characters inner secrets and lowering the tension by doing it. By holding some things back, the reader will start to ask questions of their own and make assumptions based on what they already know about the characters as the story progresses. For example, if we know one character is afraid of water or can't swim (as is the case in O'Reilly's Bride), then without having the hero know that we can up the undercurrent in a scene when they are on a boat and the hero thinks there is something wrong with the heroine. Was she emotional because she was afraid of the water? Or was she emotional about something else and uses her fear of water to avoid talking about it? The reader has to WANT TO KNOW what happens next. And one of the best ways to do that is to have them asking questions that the story will then reveal the answers to while leaving yet more questions to be asked and answered. What we have to make clear throughout is WHO is telling us the story at a particular moment in time so that we can see clearly where the misunderstanding happens, when the characters are hiding something from each other, and why they do the things they do and say the things they say.

Then we come to the TIME-LINE. This is a subject we haven't discussed before, because it's something we shouldn't overly-worry about during the phase of TELLING THE STORY. A PLOTTER may well have this down to a 'T' in the planning stages prior to beginning the book, but even a plotter will need to double-check it while EDITING. A chart can be the easiest way to go if you find yourself getting confused but there should always be what The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes calls 'time pointers' throughout the story. They give the reader a sense not only of season, but of the time-frame for the story, and should be peppered throughout. We're not talking about 'dating' the story here, as in a particular decade (though obviously this would be different in a historical romance where set periods of time in history may have a great influence on the plot), but more about making sure the characters time-frames match up for the sake of CONTINUITY. Jane cannot discover something has happened on Friday if John does it the following Sunday. John can't mention being apart from the heroine for a week if Jane sees him three days after their last meeting. It has to MAKE SENSE. I'll admit that the time frame is something I often struggle with from a different direction. Because my stories rely so heavily on ACTION and REACTION (as they should), and because I try to have the hero and heroine on the page together as often as possible (as they should be), there are times when I can suddenly realize the entire story has happened in a matter of days. One Night With The Rebel Billionaire would be an example of this, with the entire story, barring the epilogue, happening in the space of four odd days. This then raises the question of 'Can people fall in love in four days', particularly when they have strong conflicts? The way around it in this book was once again to go back to the characters. The answer was, the heroine felt she could, but as one of the hero's main conflicts was the fact he didn't think he could feel love, he couldn't. So how did I deal with that? I had an epilogue that was eighteen odd months later. The main story showed the emotional journey that brought them to the point where they had overcome their conflicts enough to TRY for a HEA. They'd had their BLACK MOMENT and the RESOLUTION, then the epilogue then brought us back at a later time so we could see how they'd GOT their HEA. Remember it comes down to READER EXPECTATION with the HEA. Even though, in the modern age, there are books that won't end with a marriage proposal, at the VERY LEAST there should be the suggestion there will be or that these two people will be together for the rest of their lives; THAT is the HEA the reader came to the book expecting to find. And let's face it, if an editor isn't happy with the lack of a marriage proposal at the end of a well told story, what is she more likely to do; reject the manuscript or ask for a revision to put one in? When it comes down to it time-frame wise, as is this case so much of the time with everything else, we once again go back to the CHARACTERS. They will tell us how long it takes to overcome their emotional conflicts and therefore give us the time-frame. It's up to the writer to make that time-frame clear to the reader.

Next we move on to the characters MOTIVATION and GOALS? Are they clear? Do they follow on logically as a REACTION to the ACTION? Are they contradictory to the goals they had earlier in the story? If so then what changed their motivation? EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. When looking at your manuscript with a more critical eye at the EDITING stage, you should be asking yourself that question and looking for the times it doesn't MAKE SENSE so you can fix it. How about those coincidences we wanted to avoid? Did you fall back on a PLOT DEVICE at some point instead of having things happen in a logical manner? Any time something seems to happen out of left field, you have to ask yourself if it happened sheerly for dramatic effect in an attempt to increase the conflict. Because if it did, you then have to ask if it made sense to the reader and if it added to the EMOTIONAL CONFLICT. If it didn't, then we have a problem that needs to be fixed. Remember it's always better to have the character experience something through an ACTION rather than an outside conflict or coincidence. They're not wimps. They DO something to drive the action. And through that action they learn something about each other and themselves that leads to a REACTION, a new GOAL and more ACTION so that the chain of events can continue.

Another place to take a closer look is at the beginning and endings of each chapter and scene. Just as I started my stories (in the examples given) with questions the readers can continue reading to find the answers to, we can use the goal/action/reaction/new goal chain of events to leave our reader with yet more questions which will in turn lead them continuing to turn the page. And this is important not just for the PAGE TURNING QUALITY of your story, but from the (possibly more pressing need for unpublished writers) point of view of encouraging an EDITOR to want to request the full manuscript so they can find out what happens next. Think back to what we talked about in the section dealing with SCENE STRUCTURE and ask yourself if the end of the scene/chapter left the reader with a new twist or realization that keeps them reading, while the next scene/chapter immediately opens with the characters reaction to what happened so they can find the answers and lead themselves to the next twist or realization. Personally I think this is doubly important at the end of a chapter. Because, speaking for myself as a reader, if I'm reading into the wee small hours or when in the bath, I will tell myself just 'one more chapter' and then I'll put the book down. If I find myself reading another chapter after that, then another then another, until I'm either bleary-eyed or wrinkled like a prune or both, then the author has done their job and held my attention; drawing me deeper and deeper into the story until I'm done.

So let's look at the comparisons between chapter openings and endings in the examples I gave you earlier. Marriage Lost And Found started with a Prologue and an opening paragraph of; “It was in the gap between Christmas and New Year's, when people started thinking about what the New Year had to hold. About New Year's resolutions to help everything along in the right direction. That was when she made the decision to let go.”

It ended with; “Her pen moved across the paper in fluid strokes. Suddenly words came, and she was letting the dream go.”

Are we still in the action? Is it clear whose viewpoint we're in? Would you agree the question the reader is left with could be, has she really let go of that dream? The answer might not necessarily be in the next scene, but it WILL be answered as the story progresses.

In The Wedding Surprise we started with; “'How bad is it, Dad, really? I need to know.'”

And ended the chapter with; “And, after all, how bad could this Aiden guy really be?”

Just as we knew there was a threat at the beginning of the chapter, by the end we have a fair idea another one is on it's way. How do we know that? Because we're now taking the question that has been asked and answering it ourselves with 'worse than you might think', which is exactly what the story will go on to tell us. Have we been kept in the action and encouraged to turn the page to find out? How will the reader find out if their assumption about Aiden is true? How will the heroine?Once again, from the answer to this question comes the THREAT, from the threat comes the characters GOAL, that goal then leads to an ACTION which draws us even further into the story...

In O'Reilly's Bride we started with; “'We're just going to have to face up to the fact that we have no choice but to sleep together.'”

And ended the chapter with; “'We still have time, Mary Margaret, don't worry.' His eyes glowed across at her in the soft light. 'Sweet dreams.'”

Another statement. But once again, look at how that statement is worded. Is there a question in there the reader would need answered? Might the reader possibly suspect the characters don't have as much time as the hero has said they have? Would the need to answer that question encourage them to read on? Does it propel the reader directly into the action?

In Rescued: Mother-To-Be we started with; “'Welcome home, Eamonn.'”

And ended the chapter with; “Not half as sorry as Colleen was.”

In this case, we're left wondering just what it is Colleen is sorry about. We have another question, even though it hasn't been worded as a question. The only way to discover the answer to that question? You can see where I'm going here...

It's the same in His Mistress, His Terms where we started with; “'Merrow O'Connell?'”

And ended the chapter with; “'I've run into a bit of a problem with that...'”

Now we need to know WHY it's a problem and how the heroine (who is saying this) is going to deal with it. How she deals with it is her REACTION to what has happened. Her plan to deal with it is her GOAL. Her GOAL leads to the ACTION and so on from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, start to finish.

In Claimed By The Rogue Billionaire we started with; “She was back. And Ashling Fitzgerald hadn't changed a bit in eight years, had she?”

And ended the chapter with; “But she'd never forgotten what happened next...”

As you can see from the examples there are several ways of leaving the reader with a question that needs to be answered. It can literally be a question, it can be a statement of fact that may be proved right or wrong as the story continues, it may simply be a line that leads us to the answer of a question the reader already has from earlier in the scene. But what that question is, in whatever form it may take, it's a reason for the reader to TURN THE PAGE and continue reading. In the case of Claimed By The Rogue Billionaire, the ending to the first chapter actually propels us into a 'flashback' scene where, not only does the reader get the answer to the question, 'What DID happen next?', there is also an opportunity for a little of the back-story that has led the characters to where they are at the start of the book. So while answering the question, more of the characters history and motivations are revealed to the reader; allowing them to understand some of the INNER CONFLICTS and where they come from.

Task Thirty-Eight: Take a look at several romance novels from the line/category you're aiming for and examine how the author propelled you further into the action with the end of a chapter/scene. Did you have a clear idea of what was happening? What did the author do to leave the reader with questions? How did they answer those questions as the story progressed?

Last of all, we'll look at the ending. This is the readers payoff, so we want to take the basic, most important question they had at the beginning of the book and answer it. Will these two characters get their HAPPILY EVER AFTER? As we've said, the reader knows they will from the beginning, before they even opened the cover of the book, but what we should have done during the telling of the story is place doubt in their mind. Then – after the BLACK MOMENT – when their doubt is at an all time high, we reward them for their patience and the EMOTIONAL ROLLER-COASTER we've placed them on, by giving them EXACTLY what they came to the book for. The basic question in a romance novel is 'Will they have a HEA?'. The answer from the writer is a resounding ;YES!'. But what we also have to remember is all those other questions we've asked throughout the story. Have they been answered too? ALL OF THEM? Because every doubt should now be removed from the characters' – and the READERS – mind. When they close the book, there should be no doubt that these two people will stay together for the rest of their lives through thick and thin; their lives enriched by the presence of each other. Just as we needed glimpses of their compatibility and happiness at a few points during the story to believe it was possible, we need to see it in spades at the end. Every fear, hope, doubt and need will be dealt with and the thing that held them back from each other – the INNER CONFLICT – will no longer be there. This is the ONE TIME in the book when your characters will be completely honest and open with each other. It's a HUGE step to take for anyone and involves a giant leap of faith, but what the reader should be left with is a deep and abiding sense of HOPE that a HEA is possible not only beyond the pages of the novel, but to a certain extent in real life too. A romance is a 'FEEL GOOD' experience in the end. It's part of the reason sales increase when times are tough in the real world. So don't skimp on the HEA in the last chapter!

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes creates a checklist of points for the writer to work from at the EDITING stage of the story, in a similar way to how an EDITOR will outline the REVISIONS she would like to improve the story. And I think for the beginner writer this can be quite useful, not just in keeping clear the things they're looking for, but in 'training' themselves to work from a list similar to those revisions. Remember we don't FORGET all these things when we're writing, but when we're at the creative stage it's all about TELLING THE STORY. So when we have a COMPLETED MANUSCRIPT we can come back with our checklist and remind ourselves of what we're looking for and what we might be able to improve on, lessen or even lose to strengthen the story. Only when we're happy with what we've done, is it time to let go. If you have a CRITIQUE PARTNER you can send it to them for a final read through and any final suggestions, but once that's done it's time to SEND IT OUT to a professional.You can of course make your own checklist, but I'll add the book's suggested list for you to look at and you can add your own points to it as needs be;

1/ Take a break when the first draft of your manuscript is complete.

2/ Check the story for acceptability to the line you're aiming for word-count wise so you know how much you need to delete/can add at the EDITING stage.

3/ Read the story from start to finish.

4/ Fix any initial problems you may have found on the read through and run a spell/grammar check on your computer if you haven't already done so.

5/ Take a closer look at the opening of your story and think about how you can tighten it up to propel the reader into the ACTION.

6/ Check the POV the story is in and make sure it's clear to the reader.

7/ Check the time-line/CONTINUITY of your story and any RESEARCH facts you're unsure of.

8/ Examine the characters motivations more closely. Does it MAKE SENSE? Does EVERYTHING HAPPEN FOR A REASON?

9/ Be on the look out for PLOT DEVICES and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS.

10/ Read the chapter/scene endings to make sure the reader is left with a question that will drive them towards the next scene/chapter.

11/ Think about the characters ACTION and REACTION. Does it MAKE SENSE? Does the PLOT make sense? Is there anything in the story that could be removed without effecting the main story? Are there SECONDARY CHARACTERS who are unnecessary or could be on the page for less time?

12/ Look at the ending and make sure that all the questions have been answered in the RESOLUTION and HEA. Was enough time spent convincing the reader the HEA would last beyond the end of the story?

With all done and our manuscript ready to go out into the big, bad world, we then move on to the business end of things, and another checklist...

  • CHECK BACK for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Sixteen of this Mini-Workshop here.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 14.

Missed Part Thirteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here

  • Wasted Plots:

This part of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes didn't mean what I thought it was going to mean. To me, this subject has more to do with those stories in an authors head that battle hard for attention, even though you're currently working on something else. For the beginner writer, it can prove a form of procrastination, or worse still; a reason to leave one story unfinished in order to start what seems like a much better idea. The first stepping stone to becoming a published author is the ability to actually FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT. Many people can't. When you do sell, you'll be expected to produce a minimum of two full manuscripts a year (depending on your publisher). So again this is an example of using your time as a pre-published author to hone your professional skills. Put it this way; even if you finish a story and decide NOT to submit it, the lessons you learn while writing it and the difficulties you overcome ADD to your LEARNING CURVE.

What do we do with those stories in our head that won't go away? We OPEN A FILE IN OUR COMPUTER and we SUMMARIZE THEM for FUTURE REFERENCE. I have literally dozens. I have files where I jot down lines or phrases I find inspiring or links to articles that might one day launch a plot. I never delete a rejected proposal, because who knows? Maybe one day I'll get to write it. I have a photo file for potential hero inspiration, one for heroines, and one for pictures of settings I trip across when I'm doing something else. I then FORGET ABOUT THEM until I finish the book I'm working on, because until that book is finished I don't want to be distracted from the story, the characters, or the fictional world my imagination is inhabiting. Even the manuscripts you finish but don't submit, or submit and have rejected, could one day be dug out and looked at with more educated eyes, revised, and turned into something saleable. I know people who have done it. You just never know. But TELLING THE STORY and FINISHING THE MANUSCRIPT is a step you simple CAN'T SKIP on the ladder to success. The only time you should EVER set a manuscript to one side and move on to another is when you have REVISIONS on another manuscript you have submitted or when an EDITOR tells you to set it to one side or rejects the proposal that goes with it. It's why, in my opinion, it's always better to get the go ahead from your editor before you start working on a new story. I know people who are published who have had books rejected three or four books in because they didn't wait for that approval. When you're a published author, time is money, and it makes more sense to spend your writing time working on a manuscript that will SELL than it is to work on one that might not. That's not to say there aren't plenty of published authors around the globe who will work on manuscripts between deadlines or contracts for other books, but those authors will set that manuscript to one side when they have a deadline for a contracted book, and they'll come back to it when the job is done.

Now at this point I can hear the cries for mercy from writers who have abandoned fledgling manuscripts because they'd dug too deep a hole to climb out of, or because it sucked nine year old lemons, or they'd suddenly had an epiphany and realized everything they were doing wrong and felt starting afresh was the better option (add your own reason here at will). My question will then be, have you finished a manuscript? If the answer is yes, then I can forgive you a few stalls in the early days. If your answer is no, then I'm going to ask just how many of those fledgling manuscripts you've left languishing n your hard drive. One or two I can forgive IF you promise me you're going to finish the one you're working on now. If the answer is four, five, six or in to double figures we have a problem. Even if your finished manuscript DOES suck nine year old lemons, the important thing is you FINISHED IT. You get to reward yourself for that regardless of the somewhat rancid, vaguely citrus smell that surrounds you. Chalk the end result down to experience. Have a ceremonial burning in the back yard if it's cathartic or shove it in a drawer to cringe over for old times sake when you're published and famous and need something to remind you of how far you've come. The most important thing is the completion. That tells you, you're capable of telling a story from start to finish. Then you remember the mistakes you made, you store them in your memory, and you dig them back out at the EDITING STAGE of your NEXT completed manuscript once you've TOLD THE STORY. Don't add 'this one sucks nine year old lemons so I'll forget it and start something new' to the list of excuses that hold you back from your dream of being published!

So if The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes wasn't talking about the new stories that are vying for attention, what was it talking about, I can hear you ask. It IS still talking about wasted plot ideas, however it's more about the plot points within a story; which leads us to THREADS and SECONDARY CHARACTERS (again). It starts by saying; “If you've never written a book-length story before, one of the many interesting (and possibly dismaying) things you'll learn during construction of the first draft is simply how many incidents and events you have to dream up in order to 'make length'. It's possible to write a one-idea short story. But even the shortest novel contains dozens of plot ideas, sub-plots, minor incidents, and significant events.”

This is where PLOTTERS will have the edge over PANTSTERS. A PLOTTER will have all of those points planned out in advance and will stick to them, a PANTSTER runs the risk of hitting a point in the story where they really don't know what to do next, have several different directions to choose from, or head off in a direction that eventually leads to a brick wall. Speaking as a PANSTER I know that's one of the risks I take, so I completely get what the book is saying here. Having said that, for me, it's one of the things that opens me up to new directions I might not have explored if I'd had scene after scene set in stone before I started. But for the beginner writer, even the short format of a 50, 000 word romance can seem like a daunting task and filling those 50,000 words can feel like climbing Mount Everest. They can spend weeks on end thinking up scene after scene after scene for their story. The problem with this is that sometimes they lose sight of the fact those 'plot ideas' are dictated by what precedes and follows each scene in a logical chain of events driven by the CHARACTERS and their REACTIONS to the things that happen. That's not to say there aren't writers out there who can put together a story in a similar way to slotting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The difference is, those authors will have a sharp focus on the story they are telling, they'll be able to bridge any 'gaps' without the reader noticing the seams in the finished product and when they go back to EDIT the manuscript they'll be able to see the threads of the story clearly and where some of them may have unravelled. It's not something I'd recommend for the beginner writer working on their first manuscript and there's most definitely an art to it, but it's not IMPOSSIBLE. The main thing to remember is: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. (I know you know this, because you wrote it on a post-it note, didn't you?)

Keeping that in mind, every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident or significant event must drive the story forwards and ADD to the story. There's no room for the superfluous. Running on the assumption that we now know every plot point will add something to the story, we'll move on to sub-plots: Sometimes there simply isn't room for a sub-plot in a short format romance. Or IS there? Let's look at that a little closer. The main plot is the LOVE STORY between the hero and the heroine and their EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. The sub-plot could therefore be considered the events surrounding them. Let's say we have that heroine who is fighting to save the home it looks like she's going to lose. The sub-plot would be how she saves it or how losing it effects her life and how she deals with the loss and moves on with her life; letting go of the past. It therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. If the hero supplies the solution to her problem then he is also tied to the sub-plot, and it adds to the main plot by throwing them together so they have to deal with their attraction and emotions. Which therefore has an emotional impact and adds to the emotional journey. Ordinarily a sub-plot in fiction is considered to be a secondary storyline or plot strand, but in a short format romance there isn't room in the word-count, so it has to be tied to the main plot. It can't run independently. Obviously this is different in a longer book, where it's usual for there to be sub-plots and secondary characters with a plot strand of their own. Independent from the main storyline. There may be times when the 50, 000 word count feels like Mount Everest, but EVERY WORD COUNTS when it comes to the LOVE STORY. That means EVERYTHING in the book must be inextricably linked to that EMOTIONAL JOURNEY and ADD something to it. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there, and that's something we need to remember at the EDITING stage of our manuscript...

Then we move on to minor incidents. The trick with minor incidents is they may SEEM minor at the time, but at some point later on in the story, they will link up with other seemingly minor incidents to form a THREAD in the story that adds to the main storyline. This is often where SECONDARY CHARACTERS will briefly appear to supply information that may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but will later be expanded to peel away another layer of that onion I likened to the main characters personalities. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, the author refers to a doorman who has appeared in a storyline to supply information to the main protagonist. This doorman shouldn't make a one-off appearance the book says. It says the reader will be left asking questions about what else he knows, what he held back, what could be learned from him if he appeared again. The problem with those kinds of questions in a short format romance is that in order to answer them, the secondary character has to make another appearance. And then possibly another one. Then maybe one more because the author suddenly thought of something else he could add to the story. That then leads to the secondary character taking up more and more of the word-count with each appearance. Something we can't afford to lose. So in a short format romance the secondary character has to reveal something about the hero or heroine during their brief appearance, then, later on in the story, that THREAD is picked up again to justify his consumption of our precious words.

An example of this would be secondary characters in The Millionaire's Proposal. As it's a round-the-world story, the main characters move from one setting to another; making it difficult for the introduction of a secondary character to reveal something and then come back later in the story to expand on it. The solution to this was to have small appearances by different secondary characters who added to the THREAD in the story. The information revealed by one secondary character, although seemingly 'minor', was later picked up by another secondary character who added another seemingly minor detail, which was then picked up later in the story when the THREAD led to an emotional reveal from the hero (to the reader). That THREAD was crucial to the INTERNAL CONFLICT because it was the reason the hero was unable to surrender himself emotionally to the heroine. It could be argued that every plot point, sub-plot, minor incident and significant event is a THREAD, and I'd agree with that. The difference in a romance is that all THREADS – like roads – lead back to the main characters in some form or another, because the hero and heroine are the focal point of the story. Ronan, the hero in The Millionaire's Proposal, was losing his sight. You might think that adding hints of how that effects him to the story in a THREAD is anything but a 'minor incident'. But look at it this way: Does Ronan losing his sight effect his ability to fall in love? No, it doesn't. The heart doesn't have boundaries; the head supplies those. The INTERNAL CONFLICT stems from the inner battle. Technically that would make losing his sight an EXTERNAL CONFLICT in the love story and a PLOT DEVICE. What makes it a THREAD that links to and adds to the love story is the INTERNAL CONFLICT it causes for Ronan when the reader understands how losing his sight effects him EMOTIONALLY. How he dealt with the INTERNAL CONFLICT caused by losing his sight (and the restrictions that would come with it) versus falling in love with a woman who was just beginning to spread her wings gave us a huge part of his EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. So the story had two secondary characters who made brief appearances to set up the scene where Ronan reveals the true depth of his feelings about losing his sight.

The first secondary character appeared early on in the story and had a conversation with Ronan. From the dialogue alone we got;

'I'm assuming from the fact we're avoiding talking about it that your appointment didn't go so well.'

'We're still not talking about it.'


'Looking to help me drown my sorrows? 'Cos I should warn you I have a curfew these days – so if we're heading out on a pub crawl, we need to get started sooner rather than later.'

'How can you make with the funnies?'

'How can I not? I'm Irish, Al – you take away my sense of humour, you may as well put me in a box and dig a hole.'

'You're barely thirty-two, Ronan.'

'And I've had my whole life to prepare for this so it's not like it's that big a shock. My uncle has lived with it since he was a kid – so I'm the lucky one.'

'You can't take this trip on your own – not this time.'

'Watch me try.'”

Keeping in mind that there were additional LAYERS of INNER POV, movement and description of the setting around the dialogue, hopefully you can see it's the DIALOGUE in this scene that has set up a THREAD which can be followed throughout the story. What did we learn about the HERO? We learned he'd had an appointment that didn't go well, which led to the reveal that whatever was wrong with him meant he now had a 'curfew', which led to the seemingly minor detail of his age and how it was young for whatever was wrong with him, which led to the reveal that whatever it is it's hereditary, which then led to the statement that Ronan couldn't make his trip alone (which Ronan disputed). The scene gave the general impression that Ronan was coping just fine with his problem. But was he? He could have 'tried' to make that trip alone, but instead he took the heroine with him. During that trip, the story eventually brought us to another secondary character who had another conversation with Ronan;

'How are you managing to hide it?'

Actually it had taken some pretty intensive forward planning, which could only be a good thing in the long run, he felt – a practice run of sorts. He'd learned how to use his vast knowledge of their destinations to makes sure he always have her plenty to look at so she wouldn't focus too much on him – and so far so good. All he had to do was maintain the deception all the way back to the Emerald Isle and he'd be grand. She's never have to know and he'd never have to see pity in her eyes.

He opened his mouth to voice the one concern he's had about bringing her here, 'I might need you and Frank to help me some later. You still eat in the dark by hurricane lamp, right?'

He knew she knew what he was aiming at when her hand reached across and squeezed his, her voice threaded thick with emotion. 'Already?'

'Just don't let me go making a fool of myself.'”

Picking up on what we'd learned earlier in the story, and following the hints to this thread sprinkled throughout, we can see how much effort it's taking for Ronan to hide his secret from the heroine. We also know he has problems with the dark (his condition made him night blind, with tunnel vision during the day before it progressed to total blindness) and that he isn't dealing with his condition as well as he seemed to be in the earlier scene. What then happened was those 'minor details' or 'hints' in a continuous THREAD through the story eventually led us to a scene where Ronan made a strategic mistake and found himself outside, in the dark, totally blind and helpless, and (crucially) alone with the heroine; who he had fallen in love with (even if he still hadn't admitted it to himself) and was still hiding his condition from. In that scene his emotions were fully revealed to the reader with INNER POV. And if you look carefully, you can see how the scenes were layered on top of each other in a series of stepping stones that peeled away the layers and finally revealed the deeply felt emotions that were a HUGE part of his INTERNAL CONFLICT. The first scene I've used as an example revealed the details through DIALOGUE (hence why I was able to cut everything else out to make my point), the second scene had more INNER POV than dialogue, and the scene that had the big emotional reveal for the reader did it all in INNER POV because the heroine was the only other character there and the hero didn't want her to know...

Hopefully what this demonstrates is not only how 'minor incidents' can be threaded together to add to the main story, but that sprinkling details throughout the story can gradually build a picture without giving everything away all at once or in a long diatribe; thus adding to the pacing, allowing the reader to follow a chain of events that make sense, and doubling the emotional impact of the reveal. Things aren't always what they initially seem to be in a romance novel. Ronan wasn't dealing with his condition. The fact he wasn't led to denial. Falling in love with the heroine made him face up to what he was losing and the loss of something he hadn't expected to find; making the loss of his sight even harder to take than it already was. From that point of view, falling for the heroine was a 'disaster'. The emotional reveal to the reader (hopefully) made it clear how big a disaster it was from Ronan's POV. That disaster then led to the goal of gradually distancing himself from her despite their growing closeness, which then led to the BLACK MOMENT, the RESOLUTION and the HEA.

Which brings us neatly to the topic of 'significant events'. I think it's safe to say the emotional reveal I just used as an example was a significant event in The Millionaire's Proposal. Significant events are the moments where something major happens: ACTION. That leads to the hero or heroine being forced to re-evaluate and form a new GOAL; REACTION. The most common mistakes here are when the 'significant event' comes out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, and without any set up or hint it was going to happen. In other words when it doesn't MAKE SENSE and is thrown in for the sake of 'conflict'. But as we know by now, CONFLICT is a result of the characters EMOTIONAL RESPONSE to something that has happened. A 'significant event' is therefore not an earthquake or a car crash or an alligator landing in the room. It's a significant step forwards or backwards on the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. It's something the main characters perceive as a 'disaster'.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes then says; “Professional novelists recognize that it's sometimes a problem, coming up with enough events and incidents in the first place. For that reason, they always think... (of) looking for ways to make maximum use of everything they invent. The grand by-product of such thinking is that more and more characters and events take on significance; various scenes and plot lines begin to link more tightly together, making the novel tighter, and more logical: and the reader tends to read with more attention and pleasure because every page is sure to be important not only for itself but in terms of later development.”

When writers talk about tightening up a manuscript at the revisions stage, this is EXACTLY what they're referring to...

Task Thirty-Five: Pick a random page/scene at the beginning of the romance novel from the line/category you're aiming for, and make a list of everything you have learned about the characters in that one page. Then pick another random page/scene from the middle of the novel and near the end and do the same thing. Have the characters changed between scenes? What is different? What might have happened to bring about that change?

By taking random pages/scenes from a book and imagining scenarios that could have been a catalyst for change in the characters, you are flexing your creative muscles and thinking in terms of a chain of events that follow a logical path from beginning to HEA. This is the exact same method you will use at the creative stage of your manuscript when you are TELLING THE STORY. Ask yourself if the scenarios you have created add something to the characters EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. Do those scenarios lead the characters to some form of 'disaster' that leads to them forming a new GOAL? Always keep in mind that every scenario or plot point you come up with must ADD to the story and will be CHARACTER DRIVEN.

Task Thirty-Six: At the EDITING stage of your manuscript, think again about the SECONDARY CHARACTERS you have in your story. Was the information learned about the hero and heroine through the secondary characters part of a thread that adds to the main love story? Were there any questions left from the scene/s with the secondary character/s? Make a list of the number of secondary characters you have in your story. Could one secondary character do the same job as several? Think about the THREADS that run through your story. Have they all had a purpose? Were they all tied up at the end of the book or were some left hanging?

Remember when a secondary character is starting to take over a large chunk of the word-count, it's time to rein them back and open a file where you can add notes with a linked story in mind. Some secondary characters will call out for a story of their own louder than others in the portion of your brain where new stories are born. But no matter how loudly they call, the story they appear in as secondary characters does NOT belong to them. One line may be enough to seed an entirely new story. I know that was the case with Adam in Her Real-Life Hero. He asked the hero if the heroine was the right age. The hero asked what that meant. His reply; “Not so young you could be prosecuted; not so old you'd be embarrassed to take her out in public.” That man had a whoop ass dose of Karma headed his way! The result was the linked book, Her Unexpected Baby. And readers love linked stories. I can't tell you the number of emails I've had asking about secondary characters having their own story at some point. Never say never I say...

  • CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Fifteen of this Mini-Workshop here.)

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 13.

(Apologies for how late this is! My Sunday didn't fit into it's allotted 24hrs. Roughly three parts left to go before we're done - not including this one...)

Missed Part Twelve of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here

  • Chasing The Market:

This lesson and the chapter in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes deals with trying to predict what editors and publishing houses are looking for six months or a year or two years from now and then matching your writing to it. But, as has happened before, there are parts of this I agree with, and some I don’t…

The book says: “As a professional writer of fiction, you can go crazy trying to out-guess the editors… trying to figure out where the market might go next, or just what such and such publisher ‘must really want’. You can waste too much emotional energy trying to get out in front of the latest trend.

Having said that, let me quickly add that you must, of course, do everything in your power to keep abreast of trends in the sales of fiction.

… In addition, it goes without saying (doesn’t it?) that you should read and study your target magazines on a
continuing basis…”

So let’s put this into terms we understand for the romance writing world. You’ve heard it before… READ BOOKS FROM THE LINE/CATEGORY YOU’RE AIMING FOR. And I’m going to stand over that no matter what area of romance you’re aiming to write for. I don’t care if it’s paranormal, erotica, sci-fi, inspirational, main stream or category/series romance; you’ve got to know what sold and what is selling right now. Me, I’m naturally curious. I regularly read across the board to see what’s ‘out there’. Okay, so some areas that don’t interest me I’ll avoid, but if I’m not interested in reading a particular kind of book am I likely to enjoy writing it? I have read everything from paranormal to historical to erotica to Blaze to Modern Heat to Romance to Presents to chick-lit to Intrigues, etc, etc, etc. I like to dip my toe in different waters occasionally and I’m impossibly fascinated by the market as a whole and how it works so I also have things like industry magazines, email subscriptions and books on publishers and editors and agents. The way I see it? This is my JOB. And if I’m going to treat it as such then I have to be professional about it. Any writer published or unpublished should think the same way, at the very least in their own category/area. However, exploring the market and knowing t
he market doesn’t mean you should try to copy what’s already out there or try to predict what the next big 'hit' will be. There’s a difference between knowing the market you’re pursuing and chasing it.

Let’s take the Romance line as an example. Harlequin Mills & Boon, like many romance publishers, will provide Guidelines for writers aiming at any of their lines. And for the Romance line that guideline says:

Length: 50,000 – 55,000 words
Senior Editor: Kimberley Young
Assistant Editor: Meg Lewis
Editorial Assistant: Carly Corcoran

All queries about submissions status should go to Elaine Lentell, administrative assistant

Office: London

No. of books per month: 6

You just can't beat the feeling — the excitement, the anticipation, the depth of emotion and the sheer rush of falling in love! This series captures this feeling — again and ag
ain! This is an exciting new series with a brand-new editorial vision — offering fantastic short, romantic reads with a lower sensuality level — with stories that are contemporary and 100% relevant to today's woman. There is more scope than either the Silhouette Romance or Harlequin Romance lines; there is much more focus on emotional depth. These extended guidelines will provide a bit more information about what that means and what we're looking for.

A big story in a 50,000-word format
The trouble is, that's not easy in a shorter-length story. It takes a talented author to be able to focus a story that tightly, making the most of every single word. These books are not short on plot, just highly focused on the relationship. The hero and heroine are what the reader is interested in, so secondary characters and subplots should only be there if they drive the central relationship forward.

Character driven
These stories must be character driven. We're not looking for standard, tried and tested hook-driven plots. Stories must begin with a set of unique, engaging, appealing characters. Their individual circumstances will drive the emotional conflicts and what happ
ens in the story — and because they're unique, the story will be too. We are looking for fresh, appealing, innovative storylines and delivery.

She drives the story — the reader lives vicariously through her. This doesn't mean there can't be a hero point-of-view — this is important to give the hero depth and credibility. But the heroine is the vehicle through which the reader experiences the romance. The reader wants to be able to identify strongly with her, to like her, to want to be her, or want to be her friend. She must be a strong, convincing woman of the 21st century.

He's always strong and charismatic, successful in his own way and aspirational — a man you'd want to be with!
• Tower of Strength: He has a steely core, is not easily manipulated and uncompromising about the things that matter

• Aspirational: The guy with whom women aspire to spend the rest of their lives with; definitely Mr. Right
• Code of Honour: He has a strong sense of right and wrong, is reasonable and fair
• Sense of Humour: He can laugh at himself and life; he's often understated and modest in manner
• Status: Definitely successful, can be wealthy or just comfortably off; perhaps a specialist in his field

• Examples of the Tender Alpha Male in Film/TV: Nick (Dermot Mulroney) in The Wedding Date; Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Emotion is non-negotiable!
Emotional depth really is key to this series. Stories should be driven by strong, emotional conflicts that are character-rooted and relevant to women today. These conflicts should stem from the realities of real women's lives — the importance of home, family, friends; universal hopes and aspirations for love, security and children. The desire for recognition and acceptance at work and in the community. Although some books can be "weepies" — stories that may move readers to tears — stories should always be upbeat and entertaining overall. They should not veer into the depressing or tragic. These stories are fundamentally feel-good reads — they just need to deliver on the emotion, as well.

Romantic fantasies
There are fundamental romantic fantasies that appeal to women worldwide, and stories in this new series can involve these fantasies — such as forced proximity, sheikhs, royalty, babies, cowboys — so long as they are executed in a fresh, original and character-driven way. These all should be firmly grounded in reality. Readers want to believe that this lasting happiness could actually happen — so this isn't the series for paranormal, mythical or fantastical elements.

International appeal
These stories must have broad-based, international appeal. The varied author base means there are stories set in America, Europe, Australia… But this is not so much about where the book is actually
set — it's fine to write about the area of the world that you know best — it's more about a mind-set, an attitude. Stories must have a global outlook that is mindful of the different lifestyle choices of our readers worldwide, that is accepting and inclusive in its attitude.

Sensuality level
There should be high sexual tension between your hero and heroine — a chemistry that leaps off the page from the get-go. Couples can make love — before marriage, just as they do in real-life, but this should be within an emotional context and not described explicitly. It's fine to shut the bedroom door and leave them to it! However, if you don't feel comfortable with your characters making love before marriage, that's fine, too.

We are seeking:

• Strong, unique voices from around the world
• Fantastic storytellers writing character-driven stories
• Authors who can explore emotional depth whilst delivering a feel-good, romantic read
• Authors who can deliver those intense feelings of excitement, tension, emotion
• Global voic
es — outward looking, with international appeal

It’s a pretty comprehensive guideline (and there's more to it than this on As well as reading any of the numerous guidelines available (including those of any new lines) on the website here we can also go to the part of the site where the books are on sale and look at some of the themes. For example in February 2009, the six Romance line books have titles that include the words: Bride, Valentine’s Day, Blind Date, Marriage, Royalty, Baby, Office Romance, Bridesmaid and Billionaire. By researching those things and KNOWING the market, we now know what the Romance line is looking for and can see the kind of themes that sell well enough for them to put the key-words in the titles so they're easier for readers to find. By trying to follow the guidelines and hit some of the popular themes, you’ve done your research and proven yourself professional in your approach. That to me isn’t chasing the market. If anything, an original approach to some of those themes is likely to catch an editors eye just as fast as a well told traditional story. This line is wide open in my opinion, storyline wise, but at the same time there are obvious things that won’t fit. A story with a lot of sex sc
enes won’t fit. A story with paranormal elements won’t fit. A story with one or the other or both central characters in a marriage/committed relationship to other people definitely won’t fit (in fairness the latter rarely, if ever, would fit in any category/series romance). I can tell you from experience that right now heroes who are sports stars are a hard sell, but at the same time I can tell you that as recently as three years ago an actor/actress as a leading character would have been a hard sell but the heroine in my next Romance is an A-List Hollywood actress (and that was at my Editors suggestion after she appeared as a secondary character in my last Romance).

The thing to remember when reading books from the line to get an idea of the kind of stories being sold is that the Romance line takes roughly a year from sale to print, so it’s worth nosing around author blogs to see what they’re writing and to read new authors books as they come out, because a new author is someone the publisher has invested in for the FUTURE. Then you get people like me, and I’m probably shooting myself in the foot here, but I’m not always going to be the best example of what sells across the board. I like to prod the ‘envelope’; it’s a hobby of mine. I’ve been told to write ‘outside the box’ and to ‘go for it’ and if needs be, my editor will rein me back in. I’ve taken that quite literally in the last year or so. But I also have some time served and have hit themes when I was asked to and tried to put my own particular twist on them. I write for ME, remember? I just do it with my eye on the themes
of the line and the emotional content. I’m not saying I’m the only writer who does that either, there are plenty; Liz Fielding and Jackie Braun would be but two examples that pop off the top of my head, but believe me there are plenty more. So if you come across a book that seems like an ‘extreme’ or ‘original’ or ‘fresh’ or 'different from the rest of the line' that doesn’t mean they don’t fit inside the line or that the line is changing so all books are the same. Far from it. What it means is a good story, well told and hitting a theme the publisher can market, is just as likely to sell as a good, more ‘traditional’ story within that line. A publisher doesn't just consider the current market, or tried and trusted storylines, it's also constantly thinking ahead to the future; actively seeking out new readers and looking for the type of stories the readers of the future may enjoy. If that wasn't the case would Mills & Boon and Harlequin have been around for 100 years and 60 years respectively?

Which brings us to the topic of that 'future market'. You may think you’re more likely to fall into the trap of chas
ing the market outside of category/series romance. Take paranormals as an example. Trends tend to hit the USA first and when they do well there, they will stretch out across the rest of the world. The fact that Harlequin and now Mills & Boon have paranormal romances inside their Intrigue and Blaze lines with the Nocturne line now established in the USA is no coincidence. Paranormals broke in the USA first. Neither is it a coincidence that the HUGE e-book market for erotica which started in the States has now given rise (no pun intended) to the Harlequin Spice line. Or that the shorter e-book market has led to Harlequin’s launch of ‘Bites’; short stories available in e-book format. E-books started out on the internet years ago. Harlequin only launched it's entire monthly catalogue on E-Book a couple of years back. But the fact is someone took a chance on all of those new markets and broke new ground with them. They looked ahead. A couple of years ago I looked into the Paranormal romance phenomenon and unsurprisingly was met by dozens upon dozens of vampires. Occasionally the odd Werewolf/Shape-shifter over time. Then I discovered – and LOVED – stories set in Atlantis. At the time it looked to me like they were following a TV trend that followed on from the likes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. If that was the case then according to the TV tend in the USA we should have been due a wave of paranormals featuring psychics and clairvoyants and demon-slayers… and guess what? We now have many titles featuring demons. Turns out that knowing the market could have proved lucrative to me if I’d followed my hunch. Could I have ‘chased it’? I still wouldn’t have called it chasing, I’d have said it was knowing the ‘themes’ and 'trends', then writing my own take on it. Since it was a genre I enjoy I would probably have had fun with it. I wouldn’t have been forcing my writing style into a particular niche just for the sake of a sale. I wouldn’t have been trying to copy something that was already out there. I wouldn’t have been trying to be the next *insert best-selling paranormal author name*. That to me is chasing the market. Chasing a future market can be the equivalent of trying to predict next weeks lottery numbers...

Ever hear the phrase ‘BOOK OF YOUR HEART’? Those are the books that tend to be ‘break-out’ stories in my opinion. Who will that author have written that book for? She’ll have written it for HERSELF (hence the phrase). She will have told the story she wanted to read, done the best job she could editing it and then done her research when it came to publishers and agents and where to pitch it to give it the best chance of selling. She’ll have been aware of the trends in the marketplace she could compare it to. She may even list who her influences were in terms of rea
ding and writing. She’ll have approached it PROFESSIONALLY. What will SELL IT is the story itself. It comes down to another well known phrase; A GOOD STORY, WELL TOLD. Yes, most certainly, an original idea or a twist on an established theme is a good place to start if you're trying to think ahead. But it's still a case of STORY FIRST. And even if you manage to come up with a 'break-out' novel, you still have to land on the right Agent and/or Editor's desk at the right time. If you don't want to add yet another worry to the long list you probably already have starting out, then guess what? Just TELL THE STORY. And do it to the BEST OF YOUR ABILITY. Like I said; there’s a difference between being professional and chasing the market.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says: “In today’s crazy fiction markets, it’s devilishly difficult to outguess the future. You may hear people say they have it figured out. Don’t let them make you uneasy. Your business is creating stories. If you do that well enough, the trends will take care of themselves.

Be aware. Pay attention to the business end of writing. But always keep in the back of your mind a reassuring fact; every hot new fiction trend was started by a lonely writer, working alone, bucking whatever the last trend seemed to be, and creating such a grand story that it started a new trend the moment it was published.

Or to put it another way: the best books don’t follow trends; they establish them.”

The romance genre is incredibly good at establishing trends, particularly in the e-book and American marketplace,
but can be hit and miss at following them (lines have come and gone as a result) . One of the hottest selling sensations in YA right now for example is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. What is it? It’s a vampire love story. Which came first: The romance genre version or Twilight? If it's the former, then Twilight is a product of the paranormal romance trend with a new take and geared at a slightly different market. If it's the latter then the paranormal romance genre may have been seeded by Twilight. So it’s worth having a nosy around if you have an idea for the kind of story you haven't seen anywhere else, even if many people will tell you there's no such thing as a 'new' story; only new ways of telling it. Just like it’s worth knowing what’s going on in the line/series/category you’re aiming for with Harlequin and Mills & Boon; knowledge is power. No matter how good or original your story is, you have to know where to pitch it once it's done. Guessing future trends doesn't fall under your remit as a STORYTELLER.

So once you have told your story and edited it and polished it until it's shiny, it's time to go to work in a different way. Every publisher and agent will have guidelines - the vast majority of them available online. DO YOUR RESEARCH and give yourself the best possible chance of selling. Approach it PROFESSIONALLY and RESPECTFULLY and remember there IS an element of timing involved. Hit the right desk at the right time with the right kind of story, well told, in your own unique voice and you're on your way! Trying to predict the future of the market successfully and adjusting your writing accordingly is a headache you don't need and a gamble that may eat away years of your life with no return. There may be people who have been successful at it, but they'll be few and far between. And wouldn't you rather increase your odds of getting published?

  • Purple Prose & Dislikeable Characters:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Your style and attitude in your stories should be like a clean pane of glass through which the reader sees the action. If you pose and posture in your copy, you'll draw attention to you as a writer, rather than to what's happening on your page. And that's always bad.

Now this would seem to contradict what I'd said when I talked about bleeding on the page, drawing from personal experiences and VOICE, but it doesn't. What it does, is bring us back to things like demonstrating your in-depth knowledge on a subject or lecturing your reader, only this time it has more to do with the particular style of writing you may choose to use when telling the story. It's about keeping things succinct and simple instead of relying on flowery prose. Naturally you want to demonstrate you're a competent writer, but the best way to do this is to tell a GREAT STORY. One that captures the imagination of the reader and makes them care about the characters. As a reader there are certainly times when I'll be reading a book and I'll think man, I wish I'd thought of that (demonstrating the writer's talent) but it shouldn't drag me out of the story.

The book goes on to say; “The two kinds of posing and posturing that seem most widespread these days are:

  • The frustrated poet

  • The tough guy/gal

Both are phony. Both may be sick. Both wreck fiction.

As I've said, this harks back to some of the stuff we talked about way back at the beginning; this time, showing off. And it carries on from there by delving deeper with:

The frustrated poet act most often shows up when the writer is trying to so one of two good things: face a strong emotion in a character, or describe a striking bit of scenery. The writer usually decides to gear up and mount a massive effort to string together some really striking word-pictures. What results is what we sometimes call a purple-patch – a few sentences or paragraphs crammed with adjectives and other crutch-words designed to ‘be pretty’ or provide some ‘fine writing’. At best it’s a pretty but cumbersome and distracting effort to get at the finest detail, when presentation of such poetic detail isn’t necessary for the readers understanding of the story. At worst the purple-patch is the result of the writers compulsion to show off the style that won her accolades from her sixth grade English teacher.

Here is exactly where romance writers can fall into the trap of purple prose, because some people seem to think that in order to write a romance novel you have to have all these sweeping scenes bathed in spectacular sunsets while proverbial violins play in the background. If I ever read a romance novel or manuscript like that, it not only makes me roll my eyes, but guess what else it does? Yes, it drags me out of the story. A beautiful love story is one that is BELIEVEABLE and HEARTFELT and has COMMON UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS that I can both understand and relate to. Sometimes less is more. So in my opinion the best way to deal with the emotional parts of a book is to describe it plainly, without flowers and purple prose and in a way the reader GETS IT. The EMOTIONS are what makes it real, the SETTING is simply the place things happen to bring those emotions to the surface, everything else is LAYERING to add richness and depth. To this end The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes has another useful check-list:

Any time you find yourself sighing over a paragraph you have written, you are well advised to take a long, hard, more critical look at it. Ask yourself:

  • Did this paragraph develop naturally? (Or did I force it?)

  • Does this passage really contribute to the necessary mood and tone? (Or did I stick it in to indulge myself?)

  • Is there a simpler and more direct way to convey the same information?

  • Am I storytelling here or am I showing off?

All of us have written passages we look back on with fondness. But the dead-stop poetic description will never be among them. Purple patches, signs of a frustrated poet rearing his shaggy head, may occur in the first draft of a story as we let our imagination run, but on revisions we must look hard at all such passages with an eye toward simplifying and cleaning up our act.”

Again note how the book is pointing out what I keep hammering home: First – TELL THE STORY. Then at the REVISIONS/EDITING stage worry about everything else! Editing can become a form of procrastination all of it's own. By making sure everything is perfect before we move on we feel as if we’re being more professional, when in actuality: The professional writer WRITES for a LIVING and therefore has to produce words again and again and again, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month AND hit deadlines AND remain fresh AND hit themes, etc, etc, etc. By training yourself to get the job done, you are preparing yourself for the future. Would you furnish a room before you decorated it? Would you serve up a meal without preparing it for human consumption? Think of it any way you want, but again it comes down to an old writing adage, and that simple fact is; YOU CAN’T EDIT A BLANK PAGE.

When it comes to flowery/purple prose, a little sprinkled here and there in a romance novel is one thing. Selling me Gone With the Wind meets Lawrence of Arabia meets Sleepless in Seattle, all inside one book, is just a little too much cheese in that sandwich, thanks very much. Tell it how it is. Take me inside the hearts and minds of your characters. Let me understand why they do and say the things they do, even if I think they're wrong, so I don’t want to throw the book at the nearest available wall. I want to care about these people enough to follow their story from beginning to end. It’s the writers job to MAKE me care. Let’s take a look at a couple of paragraphs from Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal to see how much can be expressed with a bare minimum of flowery prose and a good dose of natural progression of the characters emotions. When Quinn and Clare have their first real argument we have:

When he looked at her with an expression of raw agony, the very foundations of their relationship shook beneath her feet. Tears formed in her eyes, she wrapped her arms tight around her waist to hold the agony inside, her voice barely above a whisper,

'You offered me the job and a place to stay out of guilt, didn’t you?'

Even the words left a bitter taste in her mouth. Their entire relationship was based on a lie. How did they ever come back from that?”

As simplistic as it may sound, in the more emotional parts of the story it's the emotions we should be focussing on. Some of those emotions will be raw, harsh; they will hurt. So by being blunt the writer is emphasizing that rawness. Take a look at the line, “Even the words left a bitter taste in her mouth”, for example - is there anyone out there who can tell me they haven’t had a bitter taste in their mouth at some point? Can they tell me they don’t know what is meant by it? That they don’t understand how Clare is feeling at that moment? Now if I wanted to be more poetic about it I could have described about a half dozen bitter tasting things to paint a brighter picture in the mind of the reader. And there would have been nothing wrong with using a few of them, of course there wouldn’t, but my style of writing is pretty much ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ when it comes to emotions. I ROMANTICIZE, most certainly I GLAMORIZE, but I don't wax poetic with tweeting doves in the air and a fat naked baby drawing a bow and arrow. The stories we write are supposed to be fantasy escapism, but there also has to be a good chunk of realism in there too.

Near the end of the story when we have the approach of the HEA, the tone of the story changes to match the emotions of the characters; “The fact it was said with a husky crackling in his already gruff voice told Clare a million things about the depth of his feelings that words could never have conveyed. He needed her every bit as much as she needed him – they were a perfect match.”

And then; It never ceased to amaze Quinn as he looked at her, how he could love her more with each passing day. He hadn’t known it could be like that. But then he hadn’t known anything about love until Clare.

It felt like nobody ever knew him till she knew him, touched him till she touched him - loved him till she loved him. She was air to him now, without her he wouldn’t exist. Turned out he was a romantic after all.”

You’ll notice there is slightly more of what might be considered flowery or purple-prose to the writing here. But what you need to keep in mind is how much of it there is, that the story is a CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE, and the fact that at the end of the story - as we wrap up with that HEA - there is an increased expectation from the reader for the big payoff they’ve been waiting for all along. The ending and the HEA is the writer’s thank you to the reader for sticking with them all the way through the varying ups and downs the characters experienced as the story progressed; the big reward they’ve been expecting since they picked up the book. So even though it’s not all right to sell purple prose as if it’s going out of style – it IS fine to take up some of the word-count to make them truly believe everything has been resolved and that these two people stand a chance together, even after the cover is closed and the story is done…

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes goes on to give us an example of exactly the kind of thing to avoid; “As the rosy fingers of dawn painted gossamer strands of drifting cumulus over the vast and lovely expanse of the cyan night, a gentle zephyr nudged sleeping emerald leaves to sibilant stirrings, turning each tiny protoplasmic elf into a whispering, pirouetting dancer, intent upon welcoming the dawn of another warm and beautiful morning.”

I think we can ALL agree this is way too much. It certainly paints a picture, there's no doubt about that, but what we need to ask ourselves is how much of it did we need? What was superfluous to our needs to paint a mental picture through the eyes of our characters? Because yes, it does have to come back to the characters again. There is very little narrative in a love story, so anything we learn has to be conveyed through the five senses. This one would come under sight. So we have to think about the character who is seeing that rosy-fingered dawn. Whose POV the scene is in gives us the first clue. Then we have to think like they think and stay true to character in the way they would describe what they're seeing. The best case scenario would be to add something from their memory to add another layer to their back-story and/or a reaction that would reveal something of their personality. Had they seen a dawn similar to this one before? What kind of mood were they in when they saw it then? What are they feeling as they look at it now? Remember what we said about the witnesses to a crime; no two people will notice the exact same details. It's the same thing here. Again there will be commonalities; those are the facts and they will be simple and succinct. Any other description added by the author will reveal something about the characters because they are personal impressions of whatever it is they are (in this case) looking at.

Task Thirty-Three: Re-write the above paragraph describing an early morning dawn. First do it from the POV of your hero, then from the POV of your heroine. Did you convey a clear picture in a succinct manner? Was there enough to paint a mental picture in the eyes of your reader? What was revealed about your characters personality and how they were feeling? Did it add to the story and set the scene or might it have been a distraction to the reader; pulling them out of the story?

Remember, regardless of what you are describing to add to the setting, every scene must move the story forwards in some way. So how much time would realistically be spent on describing that sunrise before we add dialogue, movement and Inner POV to keep us 'live at the scene'?

When the book starts talking about the Tough Guy/Gal it enters into the territory where romance writers can make a LOT of mistakes. I'm as guilty as any other author. We talked earlier about how indulging the reader is – in my opinion – more important with the hero than the heroine. It's the hero the reader wants to fall in love with. They can forgive him a lot, so long as they understand why he's doing and saying the things he does and says, which is where INNER POV comes in. But how many times have you heard or read the complaint that the hero was a brute? Why would they think that if they understood his behaviour? What it comes down to is this: Not only do we want the reader to fall in love with the
HERO, we want them to understand why the HEROINE falls for him. The reader may understand why the hero behaves the way he does with the heroine, but the heroine isn't aware of his thoughts and feelings (INNER POV) the way the reader is. It's why it's so important to have those glimpses in every story of the hero and heroine getting along, working well together or simply feeling happy. If the hero is a brute then the reader needs to know WHY he's behaving that way and at some point there has to be a CHANGE in him so the heroine can see the man she will fall in love with and, in turn, the reader will know WHY she does. It has to make sense.

On this subject the book says; “In this case, the writer runs to the opposite end of the writing spectrum and denies all impulse at the delicate or the soft by being over-tough, over-cynical, over-gruff, or over-bitter.

Such writers tend to write about rough, tough heroes who grunt and curse and bash a lot.”

What this comes down to, is the common romance writing mistake of believing CONFLICT is created by constant arguing or the clashing of wills. In a romance CONFLICT comes from WITHIN. That's not to say there won't be times when the hero and heroine argue and butt heads, but those times aren't there to create conflict, they're there as a reaction to what the characters are feeling when they are forced together and have nowhere to run and hide from their emotions.

Then we get to the HEROINE and the book says; “In recent times, however, the male crusher-basher tough guy has a serious competitor: The tough-talking, neurotically independent 'modern female'. These women need no one, and talk and act as bad as their fictional male counterparts.”

And here is where we enter the minefield of what constitutes a heroine in a modern day romance novel. Remember I said the heroine is much more likely to be universally hated than the hero? The description the book gave could be one of the reasons why, but on the flip-side, a wimpy, wishy-washy heroine with no spirit or fire to her is more often than not designated by romance readers as TSTL (too stupid to live). So how do we strike that happy medium? Well, you tell me. Because as I've said, the majority of romance writers are women. I have to assume you're alive if you're reading this, so that makes you a modern day woman. Just like your heroine. That same balance we need in your heroine, is therefore the exact same balance you have to find in your own life – with a little leeway in the form of ESCAPISM and FANTASY. Think of it as the heroine having all the same hopes and fears every woman on the planet has, with the ability to do and say some of the things we all wish we'd done and said. In a way it can be quite liberating/cathartic. Think of all those times when you wished you'd had the perfect comeback or used the comeback you thought of four hours after you needed it. Nine times out of ten your heroine will have that perfect comeback and will use it when she needed to. Because as writers, we have those four or five hours to think of that comeback or adjust it when we think of a better one. Every time your heroine fights for something or aims high or reaches out for her dreams, the reader will understand the motivation and cheer her along. Partly because her fight represents all the times we've battled in real life. Her hopes and dreams are reflective of the readers hopes and dreams. Her achievements and every time she flies in the face of adversity, are shared with the reader, and the harder she has to fight for those things - the more she has to overcome – the more the reader will cheer her on and celebrate with her at the end when she gets her HEA. It's about finding that balance and tapping into the COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS all women have. So long as her actions and emotions are understandable and can be followed in a logical path, there can be times when she's tough talking and neurotically independent, but those times will be balanced with the times she's unsure and lonely; when she would benefit from having someone pick up the slack to give her a break from being tough and independent. After all, wouldn't we all like that from time to time?

There is a great deal of honesty in fiction. By hiding behind purple prose and tough talk, the author is avoiding that honesty and the emotions that go with it. Tell it like it is and your reader will get it. By tapping into COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS you are creating a direct line to your reader. If it makes sense on the page, it will make sense to the reader; regardless of whether or not they agree with the decisions your characters make along the way. TELL THE STORY. It's that simple. The complicated part kicks in when you get to the editing stage. But with the bones of the story on the page, you can wade back in and look for the things that can be cut back or improved. Two of those things being purple prose and tough talk...

Task Thirty Four: Take a look at a romance novel from the line/category you're aiming for where the hero or heroine have an emotional outburst or argument. What caused them to allow those emotions to bubble to the surface? Was there a logical path the reader could follow? Then look at the moments where they were shown to 'work' as a couple. Was there a glimpse of the happiness they could have at the end? How did the author deal with this? What caused the characters to pull back again emotionally? Were the characters likeable? What was it you liked/disliked? Make a list of those things and then add a note of why you liked/disliked them.

In the same way we want to avoid the purple prose and the tough talking, I would also add it's important these days to avoid the clich├ęs. You know the one's I'm talking about; the hero's b!tch of an ex-girlfriend, the heroine's moronic ex-boyfriend – both of which reflect badly on the hero and heroine's judgement! The simple fact is some relationships just don't WORK. What we're doing in a romance novel is demonstrating to the reader why the relationship between the hero and heroine DOES.

  • CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Fourteen of this Mini-Workshop here.)