Monday, July 20, 2009

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 Any writer published or unpublished should think the same way, at the very least in their own category/area.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.)


Janet said...

What great advice. Thank you, Trish I'm copying and pasting all the new posts. Your advice is so helpful.

In the romance line guidelines you posted, it says that the editors don't want
"standard, tried and tested hook-driven plots."

What's a hook driven plot?

Trish Wylie said...

ANOTHER good question Janet!

I think when they refer to 'standard, tried and tested hook-driven plots' they are talking about external conflicts and the kind of stories that have been done time and time again (hence the phrase 'tried and tested'). There are some stories readers love and have loved for decades, but with each new generation of authors there is not only a new generation of readers to entertain - there are also those readers who have read the same kinds of stories again and again and again and might be ready for a new twist on a classic 'hook'.

I'm actually finding this one quite hard to explain. I usually try to give an example of an idea to make it clearer...hmmm... lemme see...

A hook is called a hook because it snags the readers attention and draws them into the story, right? With that in mind it still says to me that it's about taking a fresh approach to things.

I guess 'MARRIAGE LOST AND FOUND' could be considered a new take on a tried and tested hook. I can remember when amnesia stories were all over the place. I used to love them! But a lot of the ones I remember had some kind of miracle by the end and the amnesiac would remember everything in the HEA. When I was writing MLAF a friend of mine had been in a bad car accident and lost months of his memory. The doctors explained that more than likely he would never get those memories back. So I took that real life experience and I used it in the story; showing how the hero and heroine still found their way back to each other even though the hero never remembered the first time they had fallen in love and got married. Also, by the time the hero returned to meet the wife he didn't know he had, the heroine had moved on and was dating a perfectly nice guy who had asked her to marry him. The temptation would have been to make that guy a moron, or to show how he wasn't really as nice as the heroine thought he was, so her decision to go back to the hero was more understandable. I didn't do that. Instead I kept that guy as a nice guy throughout so it added to the heroines internal conflict. I guess that could be considered a new approach...

THE BRIDAL BET would be another example. It had the tried and tested 'hook' of friends to lovers. What kept it 'fresh' was the flashbacks to their early friendship from their teens onwards - the flashbacks stopping at the end of the book at the point where the main story had started at the beginning of the book.

Then there are examples of the classic tried and tested 'crucible' hook; where two characters are forced together in a snowbound cabin or something similar. Liz Fielding recently took a completely new angle to this by having her hero and heroine trapped underground by an earthquake.

What they're saying - I THINK - is that they're looking for fresh ideas and modern day stories. Take the single parent storyline for example and think of how often it has been turned on it's head in the last few years so that instead of a SAHM we have a SAHD.

What they're also saying is that the stories shouldn't rest on external conflicts. Stories now are very focussed on the characters. Therapy has been a part of everyday life for a lot of people in society for a couple of decades now at least, talk shows are commonplace (with people talking about their problems). Generally speaking we're more open about our feelings as a society and why we do the things we do. It's the exact same thing with how open women can be about what they want from their sex lives. So for a modern day reader to believe a love story, the writer has to really delve below the surface and allow the reader to see and understand why these two people are meant for each other. That means character driven plots and internal conflict.

ANOTHER long answer *blush*. But does that make sense? I really had to think about that one! Must. Need. More. Coffee.

Trish Wylie said...

Basically what it comes down to, is yet another reason to read as many books from the line you're aiming for as possible. That way you can see what kind of stories are being bought and how the authors take a fresh approach to the kind of stories readers have loved for years.