This week the Romantic Novelists’ Association announced the nine contenders for the Joan Hessayon award. This award recognises previously unpublished writers who have passed through the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme and have gone on to have their manuscripts accepted for publication. An exciting feeling – congratulations to all nine contenders!
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that my own first novel, The Silk Romance, was accepted for publication after passing through the New Writers’ Scheme. (In case you’re wondering, I’m hoping to enter for the same award in 2014. Fingers crossed!)
The New Writers’ Scheme offers the help of an experienced romance author or editor who will read through your manuscript and give detailed advice on how it can be improved. I found the critique I received invaluable. When I look back on how much I didn’t know when I first sent off a manuscript, I find it incredible to see my progress in that time.
I passed through the scheme twice. The first year, I sent off just the first three chapters and a synopsis of the novel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was on the right lines, and my reservations were right. I received a four page, highly detailed letter explaining exactly why the story still wasn’t quite right, and some suggestons on what to do to polish it up. Here are the ten most useful things I learned, which helped me enormously:
- My fictional characters are living and breathing people. I have become used to this strange idea now! But when I first had a manuscript read I found it both exciting and strangely alarming to find that readers and editors take my creations seriously. Up until then, my hero and heroine were just people in my head. They are not – they’re alive!
- Because the characters are living and breathing people, they MUST have clear motivations and reasons for their behaviour. It’s not enough to say that the heroine has issues trusting people, for example, or that the hero is controlling. Readers expect to know WHY this is the case. What is it in the characters’ past that has made them this way? As my reader advised, ‘Keep asking yourself why/why not?’ If you give your characters a solid past they become well-rounded people that readers can believe in, even when they’re acting in the oddest ways.
- A romance story must contain emotional tension. As my reader said, ‘It’s about why the hero and heroine, so obviously attracted to each other, not only won’t admit they have fallen in love but feel that they can’t….Your hero and heroine should have goals that are in direct opposition to each other.’ The tension in The Silk Romance arises because the hero, Jean-Luc, wants the heroine, Sophie, to remain in France with him. Sophie, however, has made a family promise which means she must give him up and return to London. The situation appears impossible to resolve.
- Next is the question of plot. There must be a situation which FORCES the hero and heroine together. If not, why don’t they just part on page four, if they are in opposition to one another? What will force them to stay together throughout the course of a whole novel? In my own story, Sophie is obliged by her college to take up a work placement in Jean-Luc’s silk mill.
- Again on the subject of plot, my reader pointed out: ‘When you’re structuring a romance, you should be thinking about the plot not so much as moving your characters from A to B but as a series of situations that test their fears and bring their goals into conflict.’ This emotional conflict requires a lot of skill to sustain in an interesting way. (I’ve written a post on some page-turning romances I enjoyed here, which are all about emotions, not external happenings.)
- In a romance novel, it’s OK for the hero and heroine to have flaws, but they must come across as essentially likeable characters who readers want to get to know. This can be quite hard to do, especially if you have an alpha male hero, who can sometimes come across as an impossible arse. (I’ve written some ideas on this in a previous post on creating a charismatic hero.) Or you may have a heroine who makes mistakes. We all make mistakes, but your heroine shouldn’t be TSTL (too stupid to live! :) )
- The synopsis. Most romance publishers ask for a synopsis of the novel. It’s absolutely vital that the synopsis shows the above points clearly: characterisation, motivation, cause of emotional tension, and reason why the characters are forced together.
- The dreaded rewrite. Of course, after taking my reader’s advice, this meant that I had to substantially rewrite the first three chapters! But I took heart from my reader’s last words: ‘This is a story with lots of potential and although it does need some restructuring, and yes, some extra work, I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think once you get started!’ And my reader was right. At first, I was daunted, but now I never mind rewriting. I don’t find it too hard and, as a perfectionist, I enjoy the feeling that I am manipulating the words to get the best story I can.
- Handling rejection. Of course I was disappointed the novel wasn’t quite right, but the accompanying letter from the RNA’s president gave some very positive advice: ‘Always bear in mind that most published authors have experience of rejection. All writers, published and unpublished, need to be tenacious and determined…Have faith in yourself!’
- I resubmitted the entire novel the next year. This taught me another great lesson – in order to get a book written, you have to sit down and WRITE. No excuses or prevarication. If I’d missed the scheme’s deadline, that would have been it. I had to force myself to write, whether I felt like it or not, in order to get the book finished on time.
And so, with the rewrites, my reader felt the novel was finally OK second time around. What a great feeling! I submitted it to MuseItUp Publishing and they agreed to publish. Even greater feeling! The Silk Romance will be out as an e-book on May 24th, and you will find out then exactly how my lovely hero and heroine resolve their emotional conflict!
Are you a romance reader? If so, do you have any favourite authors who create great emotional tension? Or are you a writer yourself? If so, what lessons have you learned over the years? Please let me know in the comments – you know I always like to hear from you!