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October 2009

Week Three - Hitting the Mark

October 19, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

It’s pretty common for aspiring writers to accumulate a lot of rejection letters before making that first sale. And few people talk about the fact that authors, even after publication, continue to get the occasional rejection letter.

This week, we’re going to review a number of common reasons for receiving one of those letters, and what you can do to avoid the pitfall.

• Subjectivity and Fit
There is a measure of subjectivity in every purchase or pass decision. Editors and agents are people. They have likes and dislikes, preferences and plot elements that they simply can’t stand. It’s human nature. We as writers need to look at the flip side of that - editors and agents also can fall in love with projects. That frequently means that they promote the book with enthusiasm inhouse, fighting for a better cover and better placement, even for more promotion from the house, beyond the expectation of the deal. Editorial enthusiasm is a potent force, and something an author is very lucky to have on her side.

We can’t really plan for subjectivity, for someone taking one glance at a manuscript and loathing it (or loving it) but we can work with the information at hand. It is comparatively easy to discover what editors and agents acquire what kind of work. Some show a marked preference for certain subgenres or tones or settings. The smart writer will identify what defines her own work, then actively seek a match.

One good way to do this is to identify a published author - or two - whose work is most like your own work. Maybe you tell similar stories to one author, but your voice is more like another. From that, you can do some detective work and probably discover who edits both of those authors, and who represents them. That will give you a good place to start to seek a fit.

• Market Trends
This is a more objective variant of the above. Certain houses publish certain types of work. There is nothing to be achieved by sending an erotic vampire romance to an inspirational romance publisher. You’re wasting postage and time in so doing. It is remarkable to me what a large percentage of rejected manuscripts are due to the author simply not doing his or her homework.

But publishing is fluid, and lists change constantly. Publishers enter subgenre niches when they perceive that they can sell work in that niche. Publisher websites can be a good source of information for this, but RWA National’s website is better. There is a Market and Industry page on the website visible only to members after log-in, which is updated on a regular basis. If a particular house chooses to enter a niche, the editors will often inform RWA that they are actively seeking work of that kind. This can be a terrific opportunity for a new writer to “break in” to the house’s list.

• Strategic Submissions
Similarly, when editors play musical chairs - which happens every couple of years -a new senior editor will be intent upon making her mark upon the house’s list. Newly promoted editors are also building their list and will be more likely to buy from previously unpublished authors than senior editors, who will already have a list of authors. The same logic applies to agents - agents who have just set up shop, or who have just left a large agency to begin a sole proprietorship, will be more likely to take on unpublished clients. A more established agent may prefer to take on new clients only by referral from his or her existing clients - that can be helpful if you know one of those clients and that author likes your work, otherwise, it’ll be a tough placement to make.

• Structure
There are a host of potential problems with the structure of an unpublished manuscript. In a way, the issues will be as individual as the writers. Remember that there is a measure of subjectivity in this, as well - one editor may say that a manuscript suffers from slow pacing while another compliments the author on how crisply the story moves along. It’s also not uncommon for editors and agents - since they are all pressed for time - to not put their finger on the precise reason why the book doesn’t work. They just don’t like it, but they have to say something - sometimes they’re exactly right and sometimes they miss the mark. For this reason, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to revise a manuscript without some consensus between rejection letter comments.

But a consistently rejected manuscript may very well have some structural problems. A few suggestions here for you to check:

• Slow Introduction
A romance novel is about the development of a romantic relationship. As a result, the story begins when the two protagonists meet - everything previously to that event is backstory. It doesn’t matter how important the heroine’s childhood was in shaping her current attitude - it is backstory and must be managed as such. Many books with slow beginnings simply start too long before the romance begins.

The closer the author can get the Meet to line one page one, the better.

• Prologues
Prologues can be part of this slow beginning and this is why many writing instructors advise against the use of prologues at all. A prologue occurs before the beginning of the story, in strict chronological terms. So, an incident from the heroine’s childhood might be presented in a prologue, if the writer believed the reader needed to know this detail to understand the heroine’s reaction - for example - at the meet. This is thin ice, though, and needs to be managed with care. Consider whether you truly need the prologue or whether the information could be presented in another way. If you must include a prologue, keep it short and put a good hook on it.

• Unsatisfactory Ending
The opposite end of the spectrum is the unsatisfactory ending. Because a romance novel is the story of the development of the romantic relationship, the end of the book is when the hero and heroine commit to each other. It is typically the moment in which they confess their mutual love and resolve to spend their lives together. This moment should come as close to the last line of the book as possible, and it must be an H.E.A.

If one of the protagonists dies at the end, the book is not a romance. It may be romantic, but it is not a romance novel. You will have to structure that story as a mainstream novel with romantic elements in order to place it.

If the conflict between the protagonists is resolved two-thirds of the way through the book, then the book has a structural problem. The story is over so there’s no reason to read the rest of the book. The main conflict must be resolved last in order to yield a satisfactory ending.

• Epilogues
Epilogues are much more popular in romance novels than prologues. An epilogue occurs after the chronological end of the story - in the case of a romance, after the H.E.A. Strictly speaking, it is unnecessary. If you consider the reasons for the genre’s appeal, though, the epilogue does make sense - readers have followed the emotional journey of the protagonists to the H.E.A. and often want another glimpse of the couple together to reassure themselves that they really are happy forever. Readers come to care for these characters. It’s common for the epilogue to feature the birth of their first child, for example, again reassuring the reader that all proceeded without complications. This is another reason for the popularity of linked series - previous protagonists can have cameos in the later books, providing updates for the reader on the happy state of their respective unions.

An epilogue that introduces a threat to the happy couple, in contrast, is unsatisfactory.

• Poor Pacing
Popular fiction is about entertainment. Readers want to be grabbed by the story from the first page and compelled to read the rest. That means that first half page of the book must be interesting.

Often this is achieved with action - there’s a reason why many movies begin with an explosion or a murder - or at least with dialogue. Your first line can be a provocative sentence set off by itself. A successful book often has a compelling first line, one that intrigues the reader and catches their attention. A snappy beginning goes a long way to selling a book - both to an editor and to a reader.

This concern with pacing continues throughout the book. A book with long passages of introspection or description will often be said to have poor pacing. Avoid large blocks of text and passages without action. Avoid long meandering sentences. Avoid use of the passive tense. You want to focus on action to keep your reader engaged.

You might even have to rethink the length of your scenes. Active scenes - like fight scenes - are typically shorter, with shorter paragraphs, because that speeds up our reading pace. It makes the scene more exciting and more compelling.

Finally, each scene should end with a hook. A hook puts a new twist on the scene or raises a question or introduces a threat - there are many kinds of hooks, but they all act the same way. They convince the reader to read just one more scene, or just one more chapter. They intrigue the reader and keep him or her reading the book. Good hooks are big part of what gives a story crisp pacing.

• Unsympathetic Protagonist(s)
In romance, it is important that the reader empathize with the two protagonists. This means that she identifies with the heroine and admires the hero. This doesn’t mean that the characters have to be bland or predictable - it does mean that if one of them can appear to be unsympathetic then the author must manage that plot element more carefully.

For example, in my book DOUBLE TROUBLE, the heroine Maralys has a tremendous amount of attitude. She’s a bit abrasive and keeps her guard high. I knew that readers might be put off by Maralys - as the hero James tended to be - so I made allowances for that. I wrote that book in first person, a deliberate choice because it allowed the reader to view Maralys’ thoughts and her doubts. Even in third person, her vulnerabilities would not have been sufficiently clear to make her sympathetic to the reader. The reader then knew from the outset that Maralys was bitter for a reason - although the reader didn’t know the precise details of why until later in the story.

Similarly, the other protagonist could be the one to see through the potentially unsympathetic character’s armor. Maybe that character reminds the protagonist of someone else, of him or herself in earlier days, maybe it makes a bond of commonality between them. Making a difficult character more sympathetic is often a case of revealing more information sooner to the reader - the same data that will persuade the protagonist to fall in love with this person can also be relied upon to change the reader’s perspective. You can show the reader the truth before the character sees it.

• Episodic Plot
The single word “episodic” in a rejection letter opens a huge can of worms for the author. Someone who says this about your work doesn’t perceive that the work has any direction - the scenes don’t seem to be building to anything, or the conflict doesn’t appear to be getting resolved. Maybe the characters don’t seem to be learning anything. That doesn’t mean that you haven’t charted a direction for your work - it just means that the reader doesn’t see progress being made. There are many reasons why this might be the case, and thus many possible fixes. I’ll link a trio of past blog posts on Wednesday which specifically address this issue.

• A Lack of Sexual Tension
Given that you’re writing a romance novel, there should be some chemistry between the two protagonists. Sparks should be flying. There should be palpable sexual tension. This is more than the physical details - there should be an emotional connection between your protagonists as well. You may be able to improve this facet of your book by doing character charts - each character’s motivation, internal conflict, external conflict, best characteristic, worst habit, what each finds attractive in the other etc. etc. etc. - which many writers make available as blanks on their blogs and websites. You may need to review the conflict, and ensure that it is being resolved in steady increments. You may simply need to turn up the heat of their awareness of each other, or turn the attention of the characters to each other rather than the crisis at hand.

• Lack of A Strong Voice (or the corollary, Too Strong of A Voice)
Voice is the way the author expresses herself, how she expresses herself that makes her work distinctive. Once upon a time, it wasn’t expected for romance authors to have strong voices. I think this may have come from the way that romance novels were marketed, more by line than by author. In the last decade or so, though, it is far more common for romance authors with strong voices to be published and to be actively sought by publishing houses. There is a perceived connection between the author’s voice and the house’s ability to build a brand. A voice that is too audacious, however, may be considered a liability.

As you might guess, this is a very subjective call on the part of an editor or agent, and one that you can’t predict. You also can’t force your voice to manifest - particularly early in your writing career - and you can’t change it much once you’ve discovered it. The best way to find your voice is to write a lot. When you write, try to avoid phrases that come easily to mind - the lazy writing of using clichés - instead, write what you actually mean. Read your work aloud to see whether it echoes the natural rhythm of your speaking voice. Identify your strengths and hone them as elements of your voice.


Phew! I think that’s a good broad list of things for you to cross check in your work. Writing a book is not an easy task, and revising it repeatedly is one of the ways to make every project better. (And every project can be made better.) Taking criticism and turning it to advantage is a skill that every author needs to learn - if you can revise competently and unemotionally, you’ll have a tremendous advantage on your side.


What’s up this week?

Wednesday - some pick-up posts from my blog on structure.

Friday, we’ll have two guest authors to talk about writing category romance. (Check the post from last Monday if you've forgotten the difference between category and single title.) Ingrid Weaver and Brenda Harlen will be able to give you more insight into what makes a category romance work.

A Great Romance Novel - Guest Nancy Warren

October 16, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (9)

Nancy Warren is one of those charming and energetic people who is impossible to dislike. She's both prolific and bestselling, so is perfect candidate to tell us the elements of a great romance novel. Please welcome guest blogger, Nancy Warren.

Nancywarren


Nancy Warren is the USA Today bestselling author of more than 40 novels and novellas for Harlequin and Kensington publishers. Her next novel will be out in November from Harlequin and is called POWER PLAY. 51gHNvF7a8L._SS500_



What Makes a Great Romance Novel?

As a romance author, I've been asked many, many times some version of the formula question. The variations are something like: So, does Harlequin send you the formula when you become a writer? Or: I guess it's pretty easy to bang out a romance novel when you write with a formula. As insulting as it
is to a novelist to have a reader or aspiring writer assume there is some magical blueprint that makes writing a romance similar to constructing a model car from a kit, the truth is that of course there's a formula.

Here it is.

1. A man and woman meet (or boy and girl, vampire and high school student, some version of hero and heroine).

2. Sparks fly (some emotion is elicited, there is initial attraction, or they hate each other on sight, but they are never neutral).

3. Conflict keeps them apart (whatever prevents them from falling in love and getting married is conflict. This can be war, they are from different times, they are competitors of some sort, they are on the run from danger, a romantic rival exists, etc).

4. By trusting each other and growing as individuals they earn each other's love and end up happily ever after.

Think of your favourite romance novel and you'll see this formula at work. Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel, so let's try that one. Elizabeth and Darcy meet, he's too proud to dance with her and slights her in her hearing, naturally, after this she detests him and is all too willing to believe any slander she hears about him. Meanwhile, he falls deeply in love with her and is rebuffed. Now he must swallow his pride to earn her love, while she must see beyond her blind prejudice to the man he truly is. The result? Happily ever after and a perennial best seller.

But what sets a truly great romance novel from a forgettable one? That's the heart of this topic and a subject many aspiring authors would love to understand. There are novels that take the world by storm, others that are forgotten as soon as they are read. Yet, both follow the above formula. The late screenwriting teacher, Blake Snyder, talked a lot about primal emotion in his books and lectures. Love is of course primal. We need love. We crave it. We will die for love, kill for it, pluck our eyebrows and wax our legs in hope of it.

As many times as I've read Pride and Prejudice I can never put it down. Apart from the brilliant writing, I am caught up in the suspense. Will they end up together? The story world Jane Austen creates would be a sorrier, darker place if they didn't.

What makes a great romance novel? I, the reader, have to care, deeply and passionately what happens to these lovers. That's what keeps me turning the pages and coming back to a well-loved book again and again. Character is important. I want to identify with the heroine and fall in love with the hero. An interesting plot definitely helps, but in the end, what I think makes a truly great romance is that the author has made me believe that these two are meant to be together and their love will make them stronger and the world a better place.

That's what keeps me reading, and writing, romance.

Readings for Writers - II

October 14, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (0)

More links today about the romance genre - and some ideas about why readers love it.

• "Bodice Rippers"

• The Rollercoaster Analogy

and

Books for Writers, because I forgot about it last week.


Week Two - How Romance Novels Are Sold

October 12, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

Today, we’re going to talk about the romance market from the business side. If you followed all the links last week, you've already read a bunch about what I think makes a good romance novel, as well as RWA's definitions. We'll have another perspective from another guest on Friday.

This week, we’ll talk about the ways books are sold to consumers - not because I expect you to particularly care about the dynamics of the wholesale selling process, but because different marketing decisions shape different editorial policies (and maybe even reader expectations.) That will have implications for your book, and also for the best fit for your work in the marketplace.

There are several great divides in publishing - although these are most vehemently argued between writers - but one really big one that we need to discuss early is the difference between category romance and single title romance.

There have traditionally been two methods by which romance novels were sold. Neither exist in their pure form any longer, but we’ll look at them as if they are, just to get a better understanding of how they work. These two methods are single title and series (which is sometimes called category). The primary difference lies in how each kind of book is marketed to bookstores (and to some extent, to consumers).

In single title, books are sold on an individual basis (or, yup, by single title). This means that the sales team of any given house will take orders from their wholesale clients for each title in the list. It’s called “single title” because the bookstore/customer orders by individual title and can order as many or as few of any given title in the list at once.

In contrast, category books are sold by line or by type. In this sales model, books are fit into a marketing structure by the house - let’s say that there are four sexy contemporary romances published each month by the house. They will be packaged similarly and they will be distributed identically, in a pre-pack containing a fixed number of copies of each title in that line for that month.  In contrast to single title, book sales are not solicited individually in this model - they might even be calculated, based on the previous year’s sales volume for that line - and customers do not actively order or reorder specific titles.

Neither method is good or bad - they’re just different. What's important to you as a writer is that some romance novels fit in one place but not in the other.

Implications

• The first implication is packaging. (That means the cover of the book.) In a single title program, the house tries to build a brand based upon the author - the author name is the brand. The house’s art department will try to give the author’s books a distinctive look, one that communicates graphically the kind of book it is, but still differentiates the book from other author brands. This graphic branding isn’t easy to do, but when it works, it really works. (Take a look at my Dragonfire titles to see graphical branding in action.) And that makes sense, because the house wants to establish the individual author in the market - the author’s sales will drive future orders. In contrast, in a series program, the graphical look of the line is most important, so that the consumer can recognize that month’s books in a specific line from the package. These covers have banners or borders or specific styles of type - the distinction is that they are branded by line not by author. The previous year’s sales in that line in that month will drive the order volume, independent of which authors are published in the line in that month.

• A second implication is distribution. The category line is effectively sold into a number of outlets in advance, independent of who the author is of each book. (It may also be sold direct to consumer by line, like a magazine subscription.) That means that a baseline order level has been established, which diminishes the risk of launching a new author. It has also meant that there has been very good distribution for category books in non-traditional sales outlets - like bus stops and convenience stores, grocery stores and drug stores - because those outlets didn’t have to really understand the book business to sell books. They could just sign up to carry category lines and unpack the boxes when they arrived each month. Over time, this distribution method has been modified, with the same jobbers who distribute magazines also racking a variety of mass market paperbacks (both category and single title). But the fact remains that a new author may have a better distribution in category than in single title - actual results will depend upon the single title house’s enthusiasm for the book and success in marketing it.

• Because of this distribution model, a category author may be expected to do less self-promotion than a single title author. Generally, romance authors maintain their own websites and many blog, but I think you will find that single title authors tend to be more inclined to do more self-promotion than that and be more likely to hire a publicist. This is because there is more potential for upside - in the pure model of category sales, all of the books in the line in the same month will have the same distribution and print run. If one sells very quickly, then it’s just gone. In single title, of course, there is the option of not just shipping more copies but of active tracking the sales during the release month. Although series titles are also tracked by ISBN # now and there is some ability to restock, I’m not sure that there is the same focus on re-orders as in single title.

• Traditionally, there were also editorial distinctions between single title and category romance. A lot of this was because category romance tended to be shorter - when I wrote for Harlequin Historicals, for example, their max word count was about 95,000 words, while single title historical romances at that time were all in excess of 100,000 words, even 120,000 words. A shorter format requires a different balance of elements, perhaps fewer subplots or secondary characters, in order to ensure that the focus remains on the core romance.

There have also been particular editorial mixes and balances that sold well in category but had no echo in single title. Traditionally, there have been different assumptions in category, mostly about what the reader will find acceptable. It has been perceived that a category reader is more conservative, but I think those distinctions have been eroding over the past decade.

Differences? Sure. The point is that where an author’s work fits into the array of possibilities is a big part of the puzzle that each writer has to solve. The fact is that every house has its suite of assumptions in terms of what its editors believe reader expectation to be, as well as how it should best be fulfilled. That’s in addition to expectations about author self-promotion and sales patterns.

When you are writing your book, I think it's smart to consider where it will (or might) fit once you've finished it. If you intend to target any imprint or line or publisher with your work, you should read as much as possible in that house’s list. That’s the best way to get a good feel for what the house is buying. Focus on the work of newer authors in your research - or authors who are new to the house - as that will be more representative of what the house is currently acquiring.



What’s up this week?

Well, on Wednesday, we have pick-up posts from my blog, a few ideas about romance novels to keep you thinking.

And on Friday, our guest blogger is bestselling romance author Nancy Warren, talking about the elements of a great romance novel.

Romance as a Mirror of Popular Culture - Guest Dr. Nancy Down

October 8, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (9)

Today we have a very special guest - Dr. Nancy Down. She is Head Librarian at the Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies, at Bowling Green State University. Because Nancy will be travelling tomorrow, this week's guest post is appearing on Thursday - I wanted her to be able to stop by and answer your questions!

N Down (2)

Nancy Down is Head Librarian of the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University (OH).  She has an M.L.S. from Indiana University and a Ph. D. in English Literature from Drew University. She has been a librarian for twenty years and is an avid reader of romances and mysteries.


ROMANCES AND POPULAR CULTURE

    At the beginning of each semester, the Browne Popular Culture Library offers tours for classes of it’s collections back in the stacks. We usually pull the requested materials for the patron’s use in our reading room. Students are often surprised that, as an academic library, we archive romance books. As we stand in front of the shelves holding series romances such as Silhouette Intimate Moments or Harlequin Intrigue or Candlelight Ecstasy, reactions vary from “Wow!” to “I think my mother reads them.”  I always try to explain why we collect the materials we do and what their role is in relationship to the study of popular culture. Romances tell us a lot about our culture, especially series romances. First, by comparing the art work on the covers, we can see how our society’s attitudes towards sex have changed from the 1950s and 1960s till today. Both men and women can expose more flesh and be seen in more compromising relationships on today’s covers. A graphic design instructor once remarked how the covers would be a good example for students of how to create a generically defined situation over and over again, but bring something new to your cover.

    The stories within romances also tell us about our culture and how our views towards women and relationships have also changed. In the earlier romances, women were nurses, governesses, or paid companions to elderly clients. Many were orphans who needed guardians to look out for their welfare. In today’s romances women follow almost any career you can name—scientists, business owners, ministers, law enforcement, etc. I am surprised when people criticize the earlier romances for depicting women as weak. Even back in the pulp magazine era, romance pulps such as Western Romances and Rodeo Romances would portray strong women managing their own ranches or dealing with gunslighters. The early Harlequins of the 1960s and 1970s are interesting for their choice of locations. Many novels are set in exotic places like Australia, New Zealand, Spain or Greece. Yet, these English heroines travel to these locations, hardly knowing anyone there, and undertake various adventures.
   
    Romances are also important in popular culture studies because they function as “myths” or fantasies, as the stories we tell about our culture. Romances basically tell a story about two people who meet and struggle (often they don’t even initially like each other), but they come to see each other as whole people and overcome their difficulties to be together. We value the happily ever after story-- though the road to get there is beset with both physical and psychological barriers to overcome. 

    To me, romances are also exciting because they are also changing and crossing boundary lines. We have romantic suspenses, paranormal romances, and historical romances. Whatever elements enter into the romance, the narrative structure must still follow the basic plot of a love story. Romances tell us much about how genres are structured and operate over time. 

    As material culture, the series romances point to romance as an industry. Different series are designed with a similar look, including the colors on the spines, to promote loyalty to a particular series and publisher. For instance, the Harlequin Intrigues all sit together on the shelves with their blue spines and arranged by the publisher’s numbers.

DC - Thank you, Nancy! I'm en route to a conference today - but will try to log on, if possible. I'm counting all you blog readers out there to ask Nancy some good questions, but I'll start things off with one. Nancy, can you tell us a bit more about the collections at BGU and how they're used?

Readings for Writers - I

October 7, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

On Wednesdays, I'll be posting links to other content that may be of use to aspiring romance writers. Most of this will be from my own blog. This week, as part of our general introduction to the genre, we have some posts about the romance genre and about commercial fiction - remember to stop by tomorrow for our guest! - one about the market changing:

• Romance Novels 101

• Literary vs. Commercial

• Moving Targets

Week One - Resources for Romance Writers

October 5, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (8)

Because romance is a commercial genre of fiction that is published primarily out of New York, the majority of these resources are American. It is not impossible that you will find a Canadian publisher or a Canadian agent for your romance novel, but I have always looked to New York first.

The largest organization for romance writers is Romance Writers of America, or RWA. It is the only major writers' organization that welcomes both published and unpublished members, and has in excess of 10,000 members internationally. RWA runs an annual conference attended by industry professionals, writers and aspiring writers. They publish a monthly magazine for members, run annual contests, administer a lot of listserves, etc. If you are interested in writing romance, RWA can be a tremendous source of information.

RWA also has local chapters (in addition to the "national" organization.) These chapters run local meetings, critique groups, host workshops, arrange booksignings, have regional conferences, publish newsletters, hold contests, etc. etc. The local Toronto RWA chapter is Toronto Romance Writers, and they meet monthly at either the North York Central Library or the Fairview branch. In addition, there are online RWA chapters, if you want a more immediate connection or if getting to a monthly meeting is a challenge for one reason or another. RWAOnline is an example.

Many chapters host regional conferences, which can be more economical to attend than the RWA National conference held each July. Chapters often host contests - TRW has a synopsis contest each year - which can be an opportunity to get feedback from other writers and possibly get your work before a final judge who is an agent or editor. There are special interest chapters, which tend to offer workshops online in specific areas of research. You need to join the national organization to join individual chapters - once you're in RWA, you can look for chapters that echo your particular interest.

The AAR or Association of Authors' Representatives is an association of literary agents, which provides a listing of members as well as their various specialities. Although membership is voluntary, most reputable agents belong to this org, and it can be a useful resource when seeking representation. (Just FYI, RWA also maintains agency listings which are visible to members.) AAR has an index of agents on their site which you can search by area of speciality.

Many agents also have agency websites - some even have blogs - and it is worth looking at such a site (if it exists) to get a firm idea of what the agent/agency represents, before you submit your work.

The Authors' Guild is an organization that defends the legal rights of authors and also provides a contract review service for members. Only published authors can join the AG.

Specific publishers often provide information about their lists, submission protocol and about their acquisition policies on their respective websites. If you are targeting a specific publishing hour or agent, it is a good idea to check their submission guidelines first. For example:

Harlequin/Silhouette guidelines

There are chatrooms and reader groups aplenty online, where you can find other aspiring writers and avid readers. Romance Junkies is a big one, which is administered through Yahoo groups, but there are lots of others. (Any good search engine will be your friend here.) Romantic Times is a monthly magazine (and now website) which traditionally was more geared to readers but has become more attuned to writers. RT also hosts an annual conference.

You can also look for informative blogs - some agents have blogs about the business, for example. Romance University is a blog that offers opinions of guest teachers, covering a wide range of topics of interest to aspiring writers.

We haven't even talked about reference books! Try searching the TPL catalogue for books on writing - keywords "writing romance" pulled up a bunch of titles. I'm not familiar with any of them, so can't make specific recommendations. My resource in the early 1990's was Kathryn Falks' HOW TO WRITE A ROMANCE AND GET IT PUBLISHED, which might be out of print. (N.B. Kathryn is the woman who began Romantic Times.)

Publishers' Weekly, a print magazine for book industry, publishes at least one issue per year that focusses on the romance genre. This issue typically identifies trends, and features interviews with editors at various houses.

There are also online publications to keep you updated on the industry, many of them free for the subscribing - PW offers one, and there's another popular one called Publishers' Lunch.

And of course, the best resource for any writer is to read - read as many books as possible in your targeted subgenre. This will help you a better sense of what's already in the market as well as reader expectations in that niche.

As you can probably see, the trick is less about finding information than it is to ensure you protect your writing time!

Week One - An Introduction to the Romance Genre

October 5, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (12)

or Why Write Romance?


Romance is an enormous genre, one that we frequently underestimate in Canada. Roughly 50% of all mass market fiction sold in the United States each year is romance, and this has been a consistent market share for as along as I’ve been in the business. “Romance pays the rent” is a saying often heard from booksellers in the States, and a walk through any chain bookstore will show that the romance section is generally both large and located at the back of the store. Romance readers will walk as far as necessary to get the books they want - and they are avid readers. The total sales volume for 2007 (the last year for which sales numbers are available) was $US 1.375 billion.

Romance Writers of America compiles statistics each year, which is my source here. (You can read more HERE.) There are no similar compilations done for Canada, but I believe that romance sales in English Canada are consistent with US English sales. 

• So, one reason to write romance is that there is opportunity for writers. When a market is large, there are more books published within that market, which means that there are more publishers acquiring titles, from both new and established authors. According to RWA, the total number of romance novels published in 2007 was 8090 titles. 

• Secondly, romance is pertinent. Romance is a mirror of popular culture, partly because it is a genre focussed on the dynamics of relationships. Romances, regardless of the period in which they are set, will resonate with the popular concerns of the times in which they are published. There is an idea that a romance reader wants to live vicariously through the novel, that she wants to relive the adrenaline rush of falling in love, or even that it’s her desire to step into the shoes of the novel’s heroine. In order for that to be possible, the heroine of a romance novel must seem to be real, to be like us, to be a timely representation of what it means to be an adult woman in our society. She must share our concerns and our realities in order to be an appropriate candidate for our sympathy and our emotional investment. As romance is primarily an American genre - the bulk of titles are published by New York based print publishing houses targeting the American market - it is most reflective of American popular culture and concerns.

• Perhaps it’s not a surprise then, that romance is a conservative genre.  The main focus of any romance novel is a love match, a story of a man and a woman overcoming obstacles to create a lasting bond. In many ways, romance is about family. It’s about pair-bonding. It’s about happy endings. It’s about a pair of protagonists moving beyond their respective histories and learning to operate as a couple. So, a third reason for writing romance is that it’s interesting. I am very interested in character and in character arcs, so exploring the evolution of a relationship between two fictional characters is an intriguing for me. Every book is different, because every book has different characters who different issues to resolve. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of telling human stories.

• The fourth reason I write romance is that I’m an optimist. No matter how the story begins, a romance ends with what readers call an H.E.A. - that’s Happily Ever After. And no, I don’t think that’s trite - I think that we can all use a little H.E.A. in our lives, and the sales for romance (especially the surge in the genre’s sales volume over the past year) show that I’m not alone in that perspective. The H.E.A. can be a challenge to achieve in real life, and maybe that’s another reason for the popularity of the genre.

The fact is that H.E.A.’s become elusive when our rules and expectations change - when women want something different from life, the major relationships in those women’s lives need to adapt and accommodate those changing perspectives. That includes marriage. What we as women want from life and marriage is in flux, and has been in flux since the 1960’s. The responsibilities we balance seem to become ever more complex and choices are more complicated. It’s no coincidence that the romance genre has grown so quickly in exactly the same time period. This genre, above all others, is concerned with the emotional truth of women’s lives, and in a period of transition such as the late twentieth century, that is more pertinent to readers. The books published in the romance genre, and the changes in the reader expectations of the genre over time, have echoed the changing role of women in western society, particularly in American society. The genre provides a place to explore ideas, like the evolution of gender roles and the balance of partnership in marriage, and how those ideas manifest in our lives.

Romance novels reflect the diversity of our lives and the wide variety of our concerns. And they show, over and over again, that we can triumph. That core optimism is a big part of the enduring appeal of the genre.

• Because romance is a reflection of popular culture, the expectations of the genre are always on the move. A romance novel must reflect a current facet of our culture in order to strike a chord with readers. Over the past four decades, the traits of a successful romance have changed and changed dramatically. Older books seem dated when we read them now - although we may love them as classics of the genre, the concerns they mirror are no longer our own. The characterization of the heroine has really changed over these years, as she has become more active, and the characterization of the hero has changed, in that heroes have become more fully rounded characters. The conflicts and the relationships are more ‘real’.

Change means challenge and it means opportunity - I find it very exciting that the genre is always mutating, that a kind of book might be marketable now but not five years ago or five years in the future. There’s a tremendous opportunity for writers in that kind of change. I had a great time, for example, writing my book FALLEN, which is a future-set science fiction romance (post-nuclear but pre-Apocalyptic, as my editor loves to say) with a fallen angel as a hero and a suspense subplot. It’s quite the mash-up and was a challenge to write. Science fiction romance - or urban fantasy romance - is a new and growing subgenre, a hybrid that didn’t exist five years ago and will be radically different five years from now. That’s just fun.

• Finally, the raw size of the genre means that it can embrace a great deal of diversity. I don’t think there’s any reason for an author to feel “stale” in the romance genre, as there are options aplenty. I’ve written in a great many subgenres of romance over the years, but there are market segments I’ve yet to explore (and some, inevitably, that I never will.) We’ll look at a number of subgenres in the coming weeks. Some of our upcoming guests on the blog have been chosen to fill some of those gaps in my understanding of the market.

Because this is a blog post - not a dissertation - I’ll stop now. You’ve probably caught a whiff of my enthusiasm for this genre - be warned that I’ll try to infect you with that same energy over the next eight weeks. I have fun writing romance.

We're going to jump right into market stuff next week, so be ready for that.

Still to come this week -

Today - We'll usually have one post on Mondays, but since today is launch day, we have three. You've seen the intro to me, and this intro to the romance genre. Still to come is a post on resources for romance writers.

Wednesday - We’ll have some links to older blog posts of mine on the genre (because I do go on and on about this kind of thing.)

Thursday - We’ll welcome a very special guest. Dr. Nancy Down of the Library of Popular Culture at Bowling Green University will drop by to talk more about romance and popular culture, as well as the program at BGU.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Seattle, where I’ll be teaching a couple of workshops and giving the luncheon keynote at the Emerald City RWA conference this weekend. I may or may not be able to log in before next week, so give a big welcome to Dr. Down, please, and ask her lots of good questions.

Introductions All Around

October 5, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (5)


This is the first post in the blog for the fall 2009 writer in residence program for the Toronto Public Library. Introductions are required!

DeborahCooke2_sm I'm Deborah Cooke, the writer in residence. I'm quite excited to be the first romance writer in residence at the TPL. You can read about me on the About Deborah Cooke page, linked on the sidebar.

I'll be blogging here three times a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday - for the next eight weeks. In terms of format, Mondays will be new posts, Wednesdays will be for links and resources, then each Friday, we'll have a guest blogger. (This week, however, due to scheduling conflicts, our guest blog will post on Thursday.)

The point of the guest blogger is to broaden our perspective. One of my theories of publishing is that there are no absolutes, which means there are no "right" answers, which means that it's healthy to hear alternate views. Also, because the romance genre is so diverse, I don't know about every niche - our guests will provide insight into other segments of the market. Plus, I'm going to try to highlight Canadian authors - maybe you'll end up with a few new authors to read.

That's the plan and we'll see how it shapes up.

In addition to the manuscript evaluation and critique that is part of the WIR program, there are some events associated with the residency. They're listed in the sidebar - if you wish to attend the closing reception, please register with the library.

Enough admin - hello everyone! Watch for two more posts this morning.

Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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