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How to write a bestselling romance… (…the theory!)

helena fairfax, bestselling romanceThis week I watched an excellent workshop on writing women’s fiction, run by the Irish group Writers Web TV.  The afternoon-long workshop was free if you watched it live, as I did.  If you’re interested, it’s still available for download now, at 49 euros.  I can highly recommend it, for all writers of women’s fiction – or any commercial fiction.

So, what did I learn?

First up was best-selling writer Sheila Flanagan, on what makes a best-selling romance. (Well, aren’t we all dying to know that one?)

Here is a summary of her tips:

1.  Every word you write has to have a purpose.  Keep your focus on your plot, the direction of your story, and where you want your hero and heroine to end up.  You may have written the most beautiful description of sunset over Constantinople, an expert account of migrating geese, or a great row scene, but if the passage serves no purpose in the story, delete it.

And man up!  Try not to cry when your lovely words disappear from the screen! (The advice in italic is mine :) )

2.  Your characters need to be interesting people who you would like to find out about.  Imagine you’re going to a party.  There are always some people there who, although perfectly pleasant, don’t have anything much interesting to say.  Try and write about people who you’d like to have a conversation with.

One way Sheila Flanagan achieves this is by writing about characters who are totally unlike herself.  She has had a seamstress who made her own wedding dress (the author can’t sew) and an air-traffic controller who is an expert on 3-D imaging (she has no spatial skills :) ).

3.  When you are introducing your characters, follow the age-old advice: SHOW, NOT TELL.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this advice from writerly folk.  It’s easy as a writer to fall into the trap of “telling” the reader all helena fairfax, bestselling romanceabout your character.  For example:  “Jane was a health food fanatic, and had an obsession with her figure.  Whenever she visited John, she would become irritated with his unhealthy attitude towards food.”

That’s told you a lot about Jane and John, but in a boring way.  Sheila Flanagan read an example from one of her novels, in which the heroine looks in the hero’s fridge and makes a mental list of the contents: two cans of Guinness, a steak and kidney pie, etc.  From the contents of the fridge and the heroine’s reaction, we get the same picture, but in a much more vivid way.

So, these were Sheila Flanagan’s main tips on writing a best-selling romance.  Is it as easy as that?  Not exactly!  Best-selling writers also have a great imagination, can picture a scene in their heads and make that scene come alive for the reader.

I decided to take Shelia Flanagan’s tips and see how they compared with the novel I’m reading now: Laura Kinsale’s best-selling historical romance Flowers From the Storm.  This is the first time I’ve read this book, and I am loving it.

First of all, the main characters are immediately interesting.  The hero is a rakish Duke who suffers a brain haemorrhage and ends up in an asylum, unable to communicate and unable to use the right-hand side of his body.  The heroine is a Quaker who believes that all men are born equal, who refuses to address the Duke by his title, and who, unlike the devil-may-care hero, is impelled to tell the truth at all times.

Already we have two characters who are massively interesting, and who are in conflict.  As a writer, I admire Laura Kinsale for dreaming up and realising on the page two characters who are so different from her own world.  It’s  an ambitious project to write a male character who not only has serious mental health problems, but who also has difficulty communicating.  Communication is the writer’s key to describing a character, but Laura Kinsale has taken this on and succeeded excellently.

So, how does Laura Kinsale SHOW the characters, rather than TELL?  Well, here’s a passage I love.  I don’t think I’m spoiling the book too much if I say Madhelena fairfax, bestselling romance, laura kinsaledy, the heroine, marries Jervaulx, the Duke,  in order to get him out of the asylum.  Jervaulx is a member of a group of financial investors, but they have lost confidence in him whilst he’s in the asylum, and his creditors are demanding repayment of his loans.  In order to keep the finances of the group flourishing in the short-term, he must put on a show of spending, and regain the confidence of the financial world. Maddy thinks borrowing and the show of false wealth is tantamount to lying, and won’t agree.  She thinks it would be more honest to sell some of his land or goods.

There’s my lengthy explanation.  Here’s how Laura Kinsale SHOWS it most excellently well:

She sat down in a chair across from him, her face shadowed beneath the sugar-scoop bonnet she’d taken to wearing again.  “Thou ought to listen to me.”

…”You…listen!  Must be…duke.  Show…all…all well.  Disaster, Maddy!  This!”  He waved his hand over the letters.  “Edge…the edge of a cliff!  Fall everything!”

“I understand that,” she said.  “I understand full well that thou has borrowed beyond all sanity.”  She kept herself upright, with no emotion in her voice.

He heard the disapproval in it, nevertheless, and it infuriated him.  “Understand…nothing!”…He took a deep controlling breath.  “Maddy – when I came of age…debt…my father…two hundred thousand estate – every shilling encumbered!”  He set his teeth together.  “Today.  Value two million…income…a hundred thousand clear.”

“And a debt now that must make thy poor father turn in his grave.”

“Loans, yes!” he said furiously.  “Risk!  I am…Duke of Jervaulx!  They all know.  Not a …bloody widow-woman.”

But he looked at the letters and despaired; he couldn’t even read the claims on him at more than a snail’s pace.  He needed help – and would have cut his throat before he asked her for it now.  “You…here,” he insisted, reduced to that.

It’s a great passage, which shows the characters of hero and heroine in a far more interesting way than the explanation I gave, with subtle hints such as the heroine’s puritanical bonnet, and the hero’s final desperate ‘reduced to that‘.

I have to say that during the course of the workshop I was heartened to find out that I’m not totally unprofessional in the way I write.  When you sit by youself writing away, it’s easy to become disheartened occasionally, especially if you find you have to rewrite great long passages.  It was heartening to hear Sheila Flanagan confess she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in chapter 30 when she’s on chapter 5 (no, me neither!  I thought I was doing it all wrong!)  She also said that writing a novel is like growing a garden – you can’t just plant it in spring and cut it back once a year.  You have to be out every day cultivating.  And so she goes backwards and forwards in her novels, writing and rewriting, and moving text here and there.  Sometimes, even now, she hits a roadblock and doubts the novel will ever be finished, but with perseverance it always comes good.

I’m not alone!  Heartening words from an author who is eighteen books down the road.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this workshop, and hearing about all things writerly.

How about you?  Do you have a view on what makes a best-selling novel?  Do you have a novel you absolutely love, and if so, why do you think it works?

If you have any views or comments at all, please let me know.  I’d love to hear from you!

15 thoughts on “How to write a bestselling romance… (…the theory!)

  1. This was great to hear from a writer’s pov, who’s learning from another writer’s pov!! The most heartening was to hear that someone else goes back and forth dealing with plot and characters, not knowing what actually will happen 20 chapters into the story. Thanks for this info.


    1. Hi Margaret, yes, that really cheered me up to hear I’m not alone! Sometimes I think “I’m doing this all wrong”. But Sheila Flanagan has sold 18 novels worldwide, which really gave me back some confidence in myself. Glad you enoyed the post, and thanks for your comment!


  2. Another great post, Helena. Helpful to any genre writer.

    It’s tough to have spent a lot of time on an “award winning”…lol…descriptive passage only to discover it adds nothing to the plot and needs to be deleted.

    Thanks for sharing this info. and Kinsale’s book blurb.

    Susan Bernhardt
    The Ginseng Conspiracy coming 1/14


    1. Thanks, Susan! Deleting passages you’ve written is soul-destroying. I’m actually far more conscious these days of making every scene count – having learned several bitter lessons! And I can highly recommend Laura Kinsale’s book. I finished it in bed last night, with my eyes propped open with matchsticks :) Thanks for coming by, and for your great comment!


  3. Great post, Helena. Thanks for sharing. Yes, the old ax approach to our writing is painful, but often results in a better written, tighter book. A little like pruning a tree as opposed to letting it go off all on it’s own. It grows taller and stronger after a few limbs are lopped off. :)
    I guess we have to love our own words, otherwise we wouldn’t put ourselves through such agony to get them out there. Only natural taking a whack at them is uncomfortable to say the least.
    I don’t believe there is a formula for a best selling novel. The whole business is subjective. What you think is awesome, I might find boring. Something I’d encourage you to read, you might say, “What was she thinking?” The good part here is there’s lots of variety of readers and writers out there, so everyone can find what they want. :)


    1. You’re right, Marsha, we all have different tastes – and we all write different genres! It seems I’m not the only writer who suffers the agony of axing her fine prose :( Maybe we should put together a book of “outtakes” some time! That would be brilliant. Thanks for coming by, Marsha!


  4. Interesting post Helena. I magine that there is all sorts of advice out there for authors and aspiring authors and that as with everything in life there is always something new to learn, the secret being to find a way that works for you. iIhave not read this Laura Kinsdale book, but you reminded me it is out there, so thank you. I have read The Shadow and the Star and The Prince of Midnight and was impressed with both of them as she has a unique way of writing and her characters are always so fascinating. :)


    1. Oh, thanks for recommending those two books, TIna. I had wondered if Flowers from the Storm was her finest, but just checked those two you mentioned and they also have great reviews. Excellent! More for my TBR pile, and they are going near the top. Thanks for your comment!


  5. Helena, you certainly hooked me with the title of your article here. Alas, there isn’t a correct answer, is there, other than to keep writing and hope some gems will float to the top to develop all those words into a fabulous romance novel that readers will enjoy. Actually one of my favorite jobs as a writer is to revise my ms by hacking out all the extra words and scenes and to discover much better verbs or phrases to create a more interesting, cleverly-told story. (I’m not really a cold-blooded writer. I hate losing the scenes, but I must admit, I copy and save them–just-in-case I can sneak those “exquisite words” in somewhere!) LOL.


    1. Hi JQ, you’re right, there’s no correct answer or formula – I wish. I suppose all we can do is take advice from the experts, and hope for the best! Like you I often don’t mind rewriting. When I first tried to write a novel, though, I found I was cutting great chunks, which was disheartening. With practise it’s now just a light prune! Good idea to have a folder full of “outtakes.” Thanks for the suggestion!


  6. Thank you for a very interesting post, Helena. I find it so hard to cut things down, and sometimes when I edit I actually end up adding too much stuff! I do keep the passages I do manage to delete in a special folder though, just in case I change my mind later…


    1. Hi Marie, I’m glad you found it useful. I think you would have enjoyed the workshop. I’ve tried to summarise Sheila Flanagan’s main points as well as I can. All the authors there mentioned editing and rewriting as a big part of the process. I don’t feel so bad now about all the rewriting of my present WIP! Hope your writing is going well. Thanks for your comment!


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