For the past few years I’ve helped judge contests for new romance writers. And each year, I see so many similarities in the entries. So I thought I’d jot down a few tips for new romance writers, based on what I’ve encountered as a contest judge. Here they are, and I hope you find them useful!
1) Remember that romance is… well… romance! That means that the connection and conflict between your hero and heroine have to be at the front and center of your story. Yes, you can have secondary characters and subplots, but those characters and those subplots all have to further the hero or heroine’s growth. And keep in mind that when the main characters are growing, they need to acquire the self-knowledge and skills that will help them overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of their happily-ever-after.
2) Romance is commercial fiction, so it has to appeal to a wide audience. Try not to pick a topic that’s too obscure, no matter how interesting it is to you. For example, if you love to meditate, it might be tempting to make your heroine practice some exotic form of meditation, and then connect with the hero at a meditation retreat. But that may not be something that grabs the attention of a lot of readers. However, if your heroine is a female race car driver, and your hero is the reluctant driving coach, well… a lot of people really like race cars! In fact, I’m jotting that idea down in my notebook… that sounds like a fun story to write someday!
I’ll confess, I’ve teetered into obscure issues, and not always with great results. My third book, Convincing the Rancher, and my fourth book, Wild Horses, both dealt with pretty specific issues, (alternative energy and wild horses.) Some readers really connected with, and loved the stories. But to other readers, the books felt too much like ‘public service announcements’. So take it from me… if the set-up for the story is too obscure or serious, you may lose some readers!
3) Engage your reader by jumping right into the action. So many beginning writers start with pages and pages of backstory. All of that great background information can be withheld, and inserted into dialogue, or into the hero or heroine’s thoughts, at a time when it’s relevant to the story. Or maybe you, as the writer, need to know all of that backstory, but the reader only needs some of it. And readers definitely don’t need to know all of it in the beginning! I know this is hard. I really do. If it makes you feel any better, I had to cut out a few chapters from the front of my first two books before I got the hang of this. And I occasionally still fall into the backstory swamp!
4) Include information about the setting, but not every detail. Describing setting is like salting food. A little really brings out the flavor, too much overwhelms everything. Again, I feel qualified to speak about this because if you read my books you’ll quickly realize that I LOVE to describe the setting. And I’m sure I go overboard once in a while. (Or fairly often!) I try to correct my over-descriptive tendencies by asking myself: what are the details that will give the reader a strong sense of time and place? And I challenge myself by asking: how can I create a great ambiance using the fewest possible words?
5) Stay in one point of view. Romance novels are emotional stories, so readers need to be firmly kept in the hero or heroine’s point of view so they can experience those emotions. Be careful not to ‘head-hop’ where you change point of view accidentally, in the middle of a scene. Pick the character who has the most at stake in the scene and stay in their point of view. Make the reader feel whatever it is that the character is seeing, feeling, and experiencing in that moment.
6) Watch out for a narrator’s voice, or your author voice, intruding in the story. Remember that your characters only know so much, at any given point in a story. You as the author might know that they’re about to fall down a cliff, but they don’t know it yet. So don’t have your characters worry that they might fall down a cliff! And avoid the narrator’s voice that tells us something like, “little did she know, a cliff was right around the corner.” Stay inside your character’s head, feeling what he or she feels, seeing what he or she sees, and your readers will probably keep turning (and enjoying) the pages of your book to the very end!
7) Let your unique voice and spirit shine through. You are unique and special and have a perspective that no one else has. If you’re not sure of your author’s voice, try doing short writing prompts. Read authors with a strong voice (Jill Shalvis, Kristen Higgins, Marina Adair, Lia Riley, Kris Fletcher, Carolyn Brown are a few that come to mind) and ask yourself what it is that makes their voices unique? Then go back to your own writing and try to discover what it is that makes your voice yours, and try to stay in touch with that spirit while you write.
And most of all… Happy Writing!