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About the Submitted Manuscripts

November 25, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (0)

I've finally finished all of the critiques and all of the appointments. If you did not have an appointment scheduled, your work and my comments may still be in the mail, en route to you. Thank you all for your patience!

The submitted work was interesting and more diverse than I'd expected, and I wanted to ensure that I gave each partial my full attention. I quite enjoyed reading such a variety of work and hope that my comments are helpful to each of you.

One of the things I found most frustrating as an aspiring writer was the lack of solid feedback. Friends and family would tell me that my book was wonderful as it stood, while agents and editors would reject it without necessarily explaining why. So, my intent with these critiques was to provide you with something more definite, a precise area in which your manuscript could be made stronger and possibly some ideas for how to manage that. I like action plans, and this kind of observation is intended to help you make such a plan of your own. In the end, though, you have to decide for yourself what will be the best choice for your work. And you need to send it out to editors and agents.

Please keep me updated, particularly if you sell your work to a publisher. Leaving a message on my blog is the best place to let me know as that blog will be my focus after the end of the month - that's Alive & Knitting right HERE.

Good luck to all of you, and thanks again for the chance to read your work.

Q&A Day

November 25, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (4)

Well, after seven weeks of my nattering away at you, it's time for your questions.

Week Eight - Closing Comments

November 23, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

Wow. I can't believe the residency is nearly over. It's been quite the whirlwind these past eight weeks for me and I hope that this blog has been helpful to all of you. I was honoured to read so many submissions, and pleasantly surprised by the calibre of your work.

Thanks to all of you who have been stopping by the blog regularly and especially to those of you who have posted questions and comments. I also am indebted to all of my guest bloggers, and thank them for taking the time to not just contribute to the blog but to stop by and answer questions.

It was wonderful to see the Toronto Public Library offer a residency focussed on the romance genre, and I am honoured to have been the first writer chosen for this position. I hope that we've set a precedent for repeating this residency in future, and shown the library the level of enthusiasm for the romance genre.

One of the challenges for the romance genre within many libraries is visibility. Because romance is often published as mass market originals, and because mass market titles are often not catalogued by title - they circulate as "Mass Market Fiction" or "General Fiction", mingled with all other books in mass market format - there are no circulation statistics in those libraries for the genre. Without those stats, it's hard to assess the popularity of the genre. In other genres, like mystery, the book might have been published in two formats - so the hard cover edition will be catalogued, but the mass market edition won't be. There are still statistics for the title, though, because of the hard cover edition. Romance is very seldom published in hard cover, which is why you will find very few copies of my books, for example, listed in the TPL catalogue, even though there are many many copies of my books in the library's collections. What this means is that it's particularly wonderful that the library realized how important the romance genre is to its patrons, then went one step farther to make this residency possible. Thanks to TPL!

Finally, a comment for those of you who are aspiring writers. Think about joining Romance Writers of America, and the local chapter or RWA, Toronto Romance Writers. This group is tremendous source of information about markets and trends, and the local group is very supportive. You can find critique partners through TRW and attend workshops taught by industry professionals, as well as receiving a newsletter and having the option to join a number of TRW listserves. This is a great resource for writers, not just of romance, but of genre fiction.

Still up this week - we have a Q&A day on Wednesday, as well as some final comments from me about the work I critiqued for the residency. The closing reception is on Thursday evening, and there's a final guest blog from Eloisa James on Friday.

Readings for Writers - VI

November 11, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (2)

Today, some posts for you on the logistics of writing for more than one publishing house:

Serving Two Masters I
Serving Two Masters II
Serving Two Masters III

Week Five - An Abundance of Riches

November 2, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (3)

As we’ve already discussed, one of the amazing things about the romance genre is the tremendous variety of subgenres. A lot of authors write in more than one subgenre, or have written in more than one subgenre over time. There are several reasons for that, and we’ll review a few of them next week.

First, let’s have a peek at the popular subgenres within the romance genre. (If you want to have a boo at RWA's list of subgenres, click HERE.)

• Contemporary Romance
These are romances set in the here and now, often set in the United States. They can be published either as single title or series romance. There are subgenres even here:
    • military romance - in which one or both of the protagonists are in the services
    • romantic suspense - in which there is a mystery subplot to the romance
    • women’s fiction or mainstream fiction with romantic elements - in which the spine of the story is the female protagonist’s emotional journey. These are not strictly speaking romances, but there is frequently cross-marketing, especially as many authors move from writing romance to writing these books. Chick-lit is a kind of women's fiction, focussing as it does on the heroine's emotional journey but with a specific tone. Again, many romance authors made the cross-over to this subgenre so I'll mention it here. There is some chick-lit being published, but it is less popular than it once was.

• Historical Romance
These are romances set in the past, usually set before 1900 in the UK or the US. It is perceived to be more difficult to sell other settings, which simply means that your romance set in 13th century Portugal has to be much much more compelling in order to find a home in publishing. (It might, in fact, have a better chance of placement if structured as an historical women’s fiction novel.) Scotland is an extremely popular setting, independent of the time period. The most common settings are:
    • Regency romance - set in England during the Regency period
    • medieval romance - set most commonly in England during the Middle Ages
    • Gothic romance - typically set in 19th century England, featuring an enigmatic hero and a suspense subplot. These are currently undergoing a bit of a revival, and tend to be written in third person (whereas thirty years ago they were always in first person) and tend more toward the erotic end of the sensuality scale.
    • Viking romance - in which one protagonist is a Viking. Recent successes in this subgenre have been humorous or sexy time travels.
    • Victorian romance - set in England (or the colonies) during the Victorian era.
    • Colonial romance - set in Colonial America
    • Western romance - set in the western States in the 19th century. A subgenre of this subgenre is Indian romance - in which one protagonist is a native American.  It seems to me that this time period is much more vital as a setting for historical inspirational romances (see below).
    • early 20th century - there have been some romances published in recent years set in the early 20th century, although WWII seems to remain a hard line between historical and contemporary.
    • historical fiction with romantic elements - this is similar to women’s fiction mentioned above, in that the spine of the story is not a romance but the female protagonist’s emotional journey, and I include it here for the same reasons. These books have been enormously popular in recent years.

• Paranormal or Fantasy Romance
Technically, these are not the same thing, but the terms are used interchangeably so we’ll avoid the argument over semantics. These are more commonly set in the present or the future. Subgenres include:
    • historical fantasy romance
    • future-set fantasy romance
    • science fiction romance - often set in the future, but not necessarily. I distinguish this from future-set fantasy romance because science fiction romance often is set in space while future-set romance tends to be earthbound.
    • time travel romance - often between contemporary and the past, less commonly linked to future settings or between two historical settings
    • romances with ghosts, either historical or contemporary
    • romantic suspense in which the villain is not human
    • vampire romance - in which one protagonist is a vampire. This subgenre shows no signs of waning in popularity.
    • shape shifter romance, including werewolf romance - in which one protagonist is a shape shifter
    • urban fantasy romance
    • steam punk romance

• Multicultural Romance
In this subgenre, one or both protagonists is African-American. Usually it is both and usually the books have contemporary settings. Multicultural romances can also fall into any of the other subgenres listed under contemporary romance - military romance, romantic suspense, etc.

• Inspirational Romance
In this subgenre, the choices of the protagonists are informed by their Christian faith. This is huge and quickly growing niche.
    • historical inspirational romance
    • contemporary inspirational romance

• In addition to all of these genres, there is what I'll call the continuum of sensuality.
    • sweet romance - in which there is no explicit sexual detail or even activity. These often are marketed as Young Adult fiction.
    • sensual romance - in which there is explicit sexual activity
    • erotic romance - in which there is a great deal of explicit sexual activity. This is distinct from erotica in that there is an emotional romance driving the physical intimacy. For a number of years, erotic romance existed as an independent subgenre, but it is becoming simply the end point of the continuum and not a subgenre in itself. Some sexual acts - threesomes and BDSM, for example - remain beyond the realm of acceptability within the genre and continue to be labelled as erotic romance.

And finally, there is the question of tone.
    • Light romances are exactly that. Although all romance novels are comedies (not tragedies), light romances are more humorous. Romantic comedies fall into this category as does a great deal of Chick-Lit.
    • Dark romances are mores suspenseful and have (surprise) a darker tone. Gothics are dark romances, as are many romantic suspense titles. A vampire romance could be written either light or dark.

Many many choices, and many hybrid subgenres always appearing on the scene. Take a look at your work in progress and identify its subgenre. If you can identify what is unique or distinctive about your work, that’s even better.


On Wednesday this week - you guessed it! We’ll have some links to my past blog posts on subgenres.

Remember that Thursday, I’ll be signing books at Indigo Spirit from 12:30 to 1:30.

Also this week, I'm hoping that we'll have an additional guest blog. Since there has been so much interest in multi-cultural romance, I've interviewed Selena James, Executive Editor at Kensington Books, on that very subject. Selena acquires for Kensington's Dafina line. My plan was for this to post on Thursday but I haven't received her replies as yet. The interview might post next week instead - I'll let you know when I know!

And on Friday, our guest bloggers will be Lyn Cote and Linda Ford, bestselling authors of inspirational romance, to tell us a bit more about that subgenre.

More on Submitted Manuscripts - Genres

October 28, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (1)

Another detail that many of the manuscripts submitted through the TPL have in common is that they are not romance novels. This is okay - I read in lots of genres and can provide feedback on these works - but it’s important that you understand what you’re writing in order to structure it in the most marketable way, and also pitch it to the right people.

First of all, any story that includes romantic elements, or a love story, is not necessarily a romance novel. A romance novel chronicles the development of a romantic relationship, between a man and a woman. It begins as close as possible to the moment that they meet and ends soon after they decide to make a permanent bond. There is usually a confession of love in between. Whether they marry or simply agree to be together for the duration will depend upon the particular subgenre - traditionally all romance novels ended in marriage, but in many genres now, there are other forms of commitments made instead. Whether or not they are physically intimate or not during the course of the book will also depend upon the subgenre of the novel.

What you need to recognize, though, is that the point of a romance novel is the story of the romance. That romance provides the spine of the book and is the reason for the book’s existence. All other elements will be subordinate to this main plot.

The other issue is that a romance novel must have all of these elements to be considered a romance novel. So, a romantic story that ends tragically is not a romance novel. A love story in which one protagonist dies at the end is not a romance novel. The H.E.A. is not negotiable. It is a critical element in reader expectation of the romance genre.

Other genres of fiction have their own reader expectations. A mystery, for example, will begin as close as possible to the discovery of the crime that has been committed - that might be the discovery of the murder victim - and will conclude with the criminal being revealed and punished. The spine of a mystery novel is solving of the crime. All other elements will be subordinate to this main plot.

Just to illustrate this more clearly, let’s take the example of a story which includes both a murder and a romance. How this story is structured will determine how the author will market it - i.e. what agents and editors that author will query, how the author promotes the work once it’s sold etc etc. If the book were to be marketed as a romance with a mystery subplot, the romance would bracket the work. The book would begin with the couple’s first meet, the murder would be shortly thereafter - or they might meet at the discovery of the crime. The book would focus on the development of their romance, with the puzzle of the mystery drawing them together and into conflict. (They might suspect each other, for example, but still be attracted to each other.) It would be common for the book to feature scenes from the point of view of both the hero and the heroine, perhaps alternating, and also characteristic for the book to be written in third person. The book would end with the resolution of the romance - i.e. their making of a permanent commitment - which means that the mystery would be solved before that H.E.A.

If the book, in contrast, was to be a mystery with a romance subplot, it would begin with the discovery of the crime. Again, the meet and the discovery of the crime could happen in the same scene, but the balance would be different in this version - there wouldn’t be as much awareness between the two protagonists. Typically, this version of the story would have only one protagonist and the other might not have any POV scenes. It might be written in first person, because that increases the emotional connection between the sleuth/protagonist and the reader. The book would end with the solution to the crime, which would mean that either the H.E.A. between the couple would happen before that, or that it would not happen in the first book. It is common for a series of mysteries with a continuing character to feature an ongoing romance that takes many books to resolve, because that diminishes the focus upon the romance in each mystery.

The two stories might have a great deal in common. They might even have scenes in common. But the tone and the emphasis in the description and the structure will vary, depending upon which kind of book the author decides to write.

Make sense?

Now, what if your love story ends badly? Well, you will need to structure it differently than a romance novel to place it, because of those reader expectations. Here are a couple of choices:

• Women’s Fiction
A genre that is closely affiliated with the romance genre is women’s fiction. You may find it confusing that many authors write in both genres, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that their different books are marketed in different ways. The women’s fiction books, for example, are less likely to be shelved in the romance section and more likely to be shelved in fiction.

A women’s fiction novel focusses on the emotional journey of a female protagonist. It begins when she is jolted out of the rhythm of her life by some triggering event and ends when she has resolved that issue or made her peace with the new form of her life. A women’s fiction book has one main protagonist in the spotlight - although there are ensemble pieces which tell the interlocking stories of four women, for example, one character is always more prominent. Often this character’s journey is more significant than that of the other characters - you can usually tell structurally which character this is because the book will open and close with chapters from this character’s point of view. The classic example of this kind of ensemble women’s fiction novel is THE SAVING GRACES by Patricia Gaffney.

Further, a women’s fiction novel may be written in first person, it may feature scenes all from the perspective of one character (with the exception of the ensemble pieces mentioned above). It may feature a love story that ends badly, so long as the protagonist takes a lesson from that amorous adventure. Typically, these lessons are positive ones.

Authors I would consider to be writing in this genre would include Luanne Rice, Anita Shreve, and Jodi Picoult. These works may be closer to literary fiction, and in fact the line between women’s fiction and literary fiction can be blurry.

• Historical Fiction
Historical fiction has changed in recent years. I think this is because of the success of authors like Philippa Gregory and also the shying away from history, religion and politics within historical romance. There are readers who love the inclusion of history, religion and politics in their fiction, and they, I believe, are the ones buying this growing genre.

Historical fiction now frequently features a female protagonist and is, in a way, much like a women’s fiction novel except that it has an historical setting. We follow this protagonist through her life - she might be a real historical person - from one starting point to an end point. There may be love, romance, politics, sex, murder, death, betrayal, etc., but it is all subordinate to the evolving emotional journey of the protagonist. Again, this work may be closer to literary fiction or it may be more commercial - that will depend upon the author’s voice. I’d suggest that Philippa Gregory is probably the most outstanding current example.

• Literary fiction
Unlike commercial fiction, literary fiction is less concerned with the specifics of story and more concerned with how that story is told. A strong voice and a dexterity with language is important for literary fiction. A compelling protagonist, a vividly portrayed setting, an intriguing conflict - all of these are good additions to the mix but you don’t need to have them all to have a successful literary fiction book. Virtually all of the CanLit authors we know and love write literary fiction.

The other thing about literary fiction is that it is more embracing of different settings or different segments of society than commercial fiction tends to be. If you are writing a story set in a locale that is considered exotic in commercial fiction, literary fiction might be a better direction to pursue. Michael Ondaatje, Anne Micheals, Salman Rushdie, Robertson Davies, Zadie Smith, are just a few examples of literary fiction authors.

There are authors whose work straddles these lines which I’ve marked in the sand - Shawna Singh Baldwin, for example, is marketed as literary fiction even though her stories feature strong female protagonists. You can contrast that, though, with the work of Amy Tan which is marketed as commercial fiction. Read them both and you’ll see the different in pacing, voice, language, even though they write about similar issues - namely the challenges to women in balancing traditional culture and modern culture.

There are also some hybrids that don’t have official names. Midway between women’s fiction and romance is a slice of the market which is sold as romance yet shares many traits in common with women’s fiction. ChickLit is often written in first person from the heroine’s point of view and may or may not feature an H.E.A. - that puts it closer to women’s fiction. Romances sometimes called  Mainstream With Romantic Elements feature a strong romance recounted from the point of view of a female protagonist, but are more likely to end with an H.E.A. than ChickLit was. The four “Coxwell” books that I published as Claire Cross were of this last type.

Remember that books that hybridize two genres never do so in equal measure. One genre is always stronger, and that one genre will always dictate the structure of the book. The genre will define the spine of the book, the opening or inciting incident, and the closing episode of the book. Deciding what kind of book you’re writing will help you to determine how it should be structured.

Those of you with ill-fated love stories in your books need to structure differently than those who are writing H.E.A.s!


Week Four - Submitting Your Work

October 26, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (4)

Publishing is a reasonably formal business - there are protocols for how book manuscripts should be formatted and how they should be submitted. Some houses provide this information on their websites. Some houses don’t, because they don’t accept submissions from unagented unpublished authors.

Generally speaking, an author previously unpublished in the romance genre will sell a first romance novel on a complete manuscript. That means you will need to write the entire book before you can sell it. There are people who sell on a partial - they tend to be agented and often have a very polished hook to their story. You could be one of them, but sooner or later, you’ll need to write the whole book so there’s nothing lost by planning to do so. Subsequent deals may be done on complete or partial books, with a gradual movement toward contracting on synopsis.

Let’s backtrack and define our terms.

The complete manuscript is precisely that. It’s the whole book, already written, along with a synopsis. It typically is printed out from a computer but is made to look as if it were typed - only one side of each page will be used; there will be at least a 1” border all around; the work will be double spaced and the font will be Courier. (12 point on 24.) There will be a header with the author surname, title of the book and page number - in case some unlucky soul drops the unbound manuscript and has to put it back in order. There will be an average of ten words per line and 25 lines per page, and people in publishing will calculate the finished length of the typeset book on the number of “typed” or manuscript pages. It will also exist in a digital file, most frequently one saved in Microsoft Word. Even if the book is purchased on the hard copy, the digital file will be required contractually from the author, to save keystrokes in typesetting.

(There is an escalating trend toward digital media in publishing, but generally speaking, publishers will only accept digital files of completed manuscripts from contracted authors. Agents can submit digitally to most of the big New York houses, but few accept digital submissions from unpublished authors. Small press and electronic presses, of course, may have different expectations.)

In contrast to a “complete”, a “partial” is a taste. Not everyone accepts partials, so you need to read the guidelines before you submit. A partial is generally the first three chapters of the book and the synopsis, altogether about 50 pages as described above. It is submitted, when it is submitted in hard copy, with a cover letter and an SASE. (And yes, it must be the first three chapters, not the three you like best.)

The synopsis is an entirely different kind of document than the book itself - it’s a kind of executive summary of what the book is about and how it is structured, one that gives the editor or agent valuable information about how to market the book and whether the book fits into their list. There is no dialogue in a synopsis and no surprise plot twists. Its tone is matter of fact and linear. It’s not the same as back cover copy, either.

The idea is that the editor or agent reads the beginning of the book and if he or she likes the work, reads the synopsis. If the synopsis is similarly interesting, the editor or agent may request the complete ms.

In raw terms, the sample chapters show that the author of the work in question is a writer, while the synopsis shows that the author is a storyteller. The chapters showcase voice, characterization, vocabulary etc., while the synopsis shows that the author understands conflict and its plausible resolution.

Synopses are not easy to write, but they are inescapable - the working writer will write many synopses, so you might as well begin polishing your skills. (There is a blog post lined up for Wednesday specifically about synopses, or you can search the library or web for more info.) A synopsis doesn’t have to be that long to do its job - once upon a time, editors looked for synopses that were about 10 pages double-spaced but it’s more typical to hear guidelines indicating a preference for five or six pages. That means you need to be succinct!

A thumbnail or a pitch is even shorter than a synopsis - they fit two or three to a page, double spaced, and are really just bare sketches of ideas. It’s unlikely that you will be asked for such a thing until you have established a relationship with an editor and a publishing house.

A cover letter rides with the partial or full manuscript, introducing the editor or agent briefly to both the story and your credentials as an author, as well as providing contact information.

A query letter, in contrast, travels alone. There are agencies and publishing houses that prefer to receive a query letter as a first contact from an author. If the query letter - which briefly pitches the project - catches their interest, they will ask to see the work. Some houses and agencies accept electronic queries now. There are many different strategies for writing short and effective query letters that lead to requested submissions. I’ll leave you to hunt down those suggestions yourself.

Finding a fit for your first book is a bit like starting a big jigsaw puzzle. It’ll probably take some time. Just as you pick a piece out of the puzzle box and decide whether it is sky or grass or border in order to find its place in the greater scheme of things, you’ll need to identify the telling elements of your book. Is it a romance novel? What subgenre of romance? What publishers publish that subgenre of romance? What authors do those publishers publish? What is consistent about those authors’ work and your work? What is distinctive about your work? What agents represent those authors? The more of these questions you can answer, the more data you will have to place that manuscript. Once you have a list of possibilities, you can follow the submission guidelines for each and begin your quest. You’ll probably have some waiting to do, but you can work on your next book during those intervals.


What’s up for this week?

Wednesday, there is a linked post for you on synopses, as well as a linked post to an analogy that may make the difference between book and synopsis more clear to you.

I've also put together some general comments about the mss submitted through the library for my review and critique - those will appear on Wednesday, as well. Whether you submitted a partial or not, you may find them interesting.

Wednesday night is also the Book Buzz online chat with me.

On Friday, we have a guest blogger - local author Juliana Stone has sold her first book (and another linked book) to Avon. She’s going to share her “first sale” story with you.

Readings for Writers - III

October 21, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (0)

Some posts about book structure this week:

• Stage Management

• Stage Management II

• Stage Management III

• What is Episodic?

• Fixing the Plot of the Episodic Book

• Fixing the Character Arc of the Episodic Book

• Prologues & Epilogues

• Flashbacks

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.

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.


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

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