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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.


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

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