Writing Tips

The Romance Heroine Mystique

Who is this woman in your romance novel?  As you sit down to write your book, you may start out casting yourself as the heroine, because, let’s face it, you’re awesome, you’ve been through a lot, you’re loveable and you should write what you know, right? Maybe you envision Julia Roberts as your heroine and write America’s Sweetheart circa 1991 into the story (this is what I would do). Or maybe she’s a composite of different women you love. Even writing this blog post is hard because the romance heroine is a bit elusive. Sure, she’s strong, feisty, the girl we root for, loveable, able to match wits with the hero, but how do you define her je ne sais quoi?  I wish I knew!

As an editor, I see several kinds of heroines. These are just a few:

1. The Perfect Woman: She recycles, gives to the poor, and her only flaw is that she worries too much about others and not enough about herself. I usually dislike her. In real life, I would rather have Melanie as my friend, but in a novel, Scarlet is more interesting.

2. Ms. I-Don’t-Have-Time-For-a-Relationship-Because-I’m-So-Focused-on-My-Career: She’s all about work because her father wanted a son and she feels compelled to please him. Maybe she works hard so that she can close herself off emotionally and forget about the man who did her wrong. Sure, this woman exists in real life and we can love her. In a romance, though, Miss Career needs to be less cliché and have one highly unproductive trait to balance her work-perfection.

3. The One-Man-Ruined-My-Life Heroine: This conflict doesn’t often ring true, unless the bad breakup is recent. Sure, one bad egg can put a girl in a fetal position for days with hand in a bucket of Milk Duds and Xanax but often it’s a long line of bad relationships that will have a heroine saying “no more.”

4.The Bad Girl: I tend to love this heroine but only if she’s bad on the inside. Forget the leather jacket, tattoos, multiple piercings–too obvious. The effective Bad Girl heroine is the one who enters a party, determined to cause trouble. My most recent favorite Bad Girl is Gossip Girl‘s Blair Waldorf. She is highly manipulative, totally nuts, but quite literate, witty and sensitive. I root for her happiness above all others. (I like Lily, too)

5. The Sad Sack: This heroine can’t catch a break. She got dumped, is orphaned, broke, pregnant, still in love with a jerk ex, just got fired, has Post Traumatic nightmares, is being used by mean sibling, etc…and walks around in a gloomy fog. True love will bring her sunshine, and yet, why bother reading? Life is hard enough.

6. The Mixed Bag: We are all mixed bags, and this is difficult to capture on the page. You want to shoot for this because in the end, your heroine should be three-dimensional, unlike any other, a person you want to spend oodles of time with, and someone memorable.

Your heroine is the one you have to love the most. Readers can hate the hero off and on before falling in love with him. He is usually an easier sell. Your relationship with your heroine needs to be secure from the beginning and carry through your book. Piece of cake, right?

And now, I’m about to watch Mad Men where I can follow some great heroines, such as Joan, the ultimate mixed bag–and, best of all, a redhead!

Romantic Life Lessons

Some of My Favorite Romances on Screen

First I’ll put out the disclaimer that I love drek, as well as the classics, and you can’t help what touches you emotionally. Without shame (maybe a little), I will list some of the movies that hit me hard and showed me the power of love.

Notting Hill: I’m not sure why I love this one because Julia is consistently mean to Hugh and he keeps caving to her. Maybe it was the awkwardness between them or the loveable insane roommate Spike. All I know is that when she says “indefinitely” at the end, my eyes fill with giant Julia tears.

Frankie and Johnny: This flick got panned but I watched it over and over for about two years. I totally identified with the depressing Michelle Pfeiffer role and it seemed so lovely to me that such a sad-sack could find true love. How can you not adore Al Pacino?

Deja Vu  blew me away and I was in dreamland for weeks over this indie. A couple, both with other spouses, fall in love and find themselves constantly reunited through a long string of coincidences. Each time I watch it, I blubber like a baby–though after the 107th viewing, the heroine seems pretty whiny. Proceed with caution…and abandon!

Love Affair was deemed a mistake of a remake of An Affair to Remember.  But I love it! Annette Bening is endlessly gorgeous and fun to watch. She and Warren Beatty have this warm chemistry, so much so that even Katharine Hepburn agreed to be in it.

P.S. I Love You: I’ll confess, I’m not a big Hilary Swank fan, in that I don’t need to watch all her movies. But she is adorable here as a shoe-obsessed widow trying to find her way. Plus, she and Gerard Butler generate brilliant fireworks together. Kathy Bates is responsible for bringing on my torrent of sobbing toward the end–you’ll know where. You’ll see here how the human spirit is endlessly searching and finding connections.

How could I not include a classic? Notorious: Cary Grant is deadly sexy, the all-knowing hero who helps guide a drunken Audrey Hepburn toward a more virtuous path. Great on-screen sparks in the scandalous kiss of its time.

Romantic Life Lessons

A Romance Editor Meets Her Own Prince Charming

Let this story be a reminder that you never know what’s around the corner or when Mr/Ms. Right will appear. Having read romance novels for thirteen years and serial dated/monogamized for twenty-five, I gave up on true love. The weird part was that I didn’t much care. A girl is just fine by herself (I still believe this) and I didn’t relish the idea of more romance, making more small talk and waiting for the vanishing act/the red flag/other shoe to drop. It had happened a million times before. Dating in Manhattan was feeling too much like a greasy buffet.

Then out of nowhere, when I didn’t care (August 10, 2009), I got a Friend request from a familiar name. The popular boy from high school, a few years ahead of me, that fun, adorable class clown. I realized his appearance in my life had to be a divine gift. This “Friending” began a four-month whirlwind correspondence, though I proceeded with some caution. That “knowing he was The One” feeling one hears about–I finally had it! Suddenly, those romance novels didn’t seem so implausible.

Here is our story told in a few different places:

The Rachael Ray Show

The New York Times wedding section

The New York Times wedding video




Uncategorized, Writing Tips

My Top Three Grammar Pet Peeves:

It’s the substance and not so much one measly typo that will attract an editor’s eye, but bear in mind, that an editor notices both. Having read thousands of submissions, I can spot the writer who really takes her/his work seriously. She’s the one who obeys basic rules of grammar and proofreads her work. I’ve heard at conferences, “Well, the editor will fix all my typos.” Sure, but handing in sloppy work will guarantee a rejection.

Here are the three mistakes I see most often:

1. Lack of comma with direct address: This one really confounds me, especially since it’s a common mistake made by educated people. Thanks for the strudel Dave. You’re welcome Marcy. Arggggh! Make sure you put in those commas so that I don’t think there’s a strudel named Dave. Example: Thanks for the strudel, Dave.

2. You’re or your: With Twitter, Facebook and texting demanding a fast turn-around time, it’s easier to confuse “you’re” and “your.” Remember that “you’re” is the contraction for “you are.” “Your” denotes possession. Example: You’re awesome! Your dog just ate my flowers.

3. Typos: Spell check isn’t enough. You have to read through your entire manuscript and not just look for the red and blue lines. Read carefully. Then, get a friend to read it. After this, you should read it again and then hand in to an editor.

The bottom line: If you’re a writer, become a fan of grammar. It will show you as a professional rather than an amateur.

Uncategorized, Writing Tips

My Top Three Chapter One Romance Writing Pet Peeves:

1. The literal running-into-him introduction to the hero: The heroine—let’s call her Sally–is so adorable but she’s really clumsy. She opens a door and whoosh, she finds herself looking at the hero’s rock-hard chest. He stares down at her, his eyes dancing with amusement over her klutziness. Chemistry ensues. We editors see this “meet cute” all the time and we’re tired of it.

2. Starting a novel with someone driving: If I had a penny for how many manuscripts begin with the hero/heroine in a car, I’d be rich! It seems logical, doesn’t it? You begin with the character’s arrival Somewhere Important. This can work, but it’s a big cliché. Can’t you start with the knock on the door or a more active opening?

3. The first chapter info dump: Sally is brushing her hair in front of the mirror. She’s thinking about the boy who dumped her. Gosh, she’s been through so much. There was her parents’ divorce, the time she broke every bone in her body trying to save a daredevil child, the death of her cat and her grandmother’s fight with leukemia. Sally may have had a hard life but you can sprinkle in her tragedies throughout the manuscript and not just in the first chapter.

If you can avoid these three, you’re on your way to writing an original first chapter. Good luck!

Romantic Suspense, Writing Tips

Adding Suspense to Your Romance Plot

My best advice is to start simple with suspense. The biggest mistake I see is when a writer throws in everything but the kitchen sink to their romantic suspense novel. The heroine discovers she’s pregnant, by the cowboy down the street who has amnesia and can’t remember that he’s the father of another baby on his doorstep left by his ex who just died in a car crash but he never forgot the heroine.

Think of your plot as a growing circle and not a line that keeps getting longer. For suspense, you need to build momentum. It’s much easier to think in a line. This happens, then that. A linear plot is not so compelling for the suspense reader. We expect the excitement to build, growing in layer to that big, unforgettable ending. Instead, you might see something like this: The heroine falls down the stairs. She dusts herself off and then gets mugged. After that, she gets hit by a car. The hero comes along and then they both get kidnapped. Long story long, too much happens. It’s not how much you put in the story, but how you tell it. For a suspenseful romance novel, you don’t need a lot of ado to get to I Do.

Romantic Life Lessons

Are Teens Interested in Reading Romance?

What do young people read these days?  Unless it has to do with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Vampire Diaries or Twilight, teens seem more immersed in texting, their iPhones, Facebook, TV and reading from technology.  When I was a teen, television marathons often kept me from reading, but there were some classics back in the 70s and 80s that I devoured.  Thank goodness, my father was clueless when I handed him Judy Blume’s Forever and Wifey to buy for me when I was 13.  I read the supremely racy Princess Daisy five minutes later. Evolving into a Romance reader, I turned to those little books at age 14 and spent long hours in my dorm room reading Penny Jordan and ignoring my World Civ homework.

Years later, I now have two nieces by marriage: one is 16, one 18.  Both want to read more adult books, but I wouldn’t dare send sexy Romances. They told me not to. These girls have seen all kinds of violence/sex on TV and love Desperate Housewives, Cougartown and Gossip Girl–interestingly, female focused shows.  The 18-year-old said I could send her “anything” so I found her historical, chick lit and romantic suspense novels that seemed tame.  She wouldn’t have wanted family-oriented romances (she has enough family in her life) and I’m sure her mother would have killed me if I’d sent her anything with sex in it.  Those books, a girl has to get on her own and usually through covert means.  If she’d been Christian, I would have sent her some Inspirational romance novels, which are great for young girls.  I’d love to encourage these girls to read for pleasure (romance!) as much as they can since they’ll become busy enough once they hit college and those terrible 20s when women spend every last second setting up their support systems, professional lives, and dating not necessarily to get married.

In any case, having two nieces gets me a little nostalgic for my teens when I discovered the Romance genre.  How strange to be an adult where I secretly want them to read Romances, but have to be protective, too.

Writing Tips

Romance Writing Checklist

You can save the candlelight dinner with chocolate cake and chilled wine for when you’ve completed your romance novel. For now, you have a book to write/finish/edit so it’s time to focus on the basics. Here are ten items for you to check before you submit your manuscript to a publisher:

1. Are your characters complex and interesting? We editors have seen it all. What we love is when your hero, heroine and secondary characters seem like real people. Everyone is different, right? So make sure your “people” unique.

2. Does the conflict/romantic tension carry through the entire story? In real life, you meet someone special and you live happily ever after (maybe not always, but let’s hope) without that grinding conflict one reads in stories. In a romance novel, the tension needs to last, make your readers stay up until 3am. If your hero and heroine have picnics every day, your reader will fall asleep.

3. Do you appeal to all five senses? This may sound cliché but the reader wants a tantalizing experience. Close your eyes and envision your scene: how it looks, tastes, smells, etc… Write it all down. Without going overboard, make sure your major scenes come alive.

4. Is your romance emotional and intense? There’s nothing worse than tepid tea. Well, there’s a tepid romance where the hero and heroine don’t feel anything or say interesting things. It’s like they’re made of cardboard. Give them some angst.

5. Does your story have a strong sense of setting? Some of us have no sense of direction. We need traffic cops to show us the way. Be sure to show your reader the sights and sounds of your setting, even if it’s Anywhere, The World. Setting adds richness.

6. Is your manuscript professional? Here’s a pet peeve of most editors: We hate typos. One here or there is fine, but a manuscript riddled with errors shows us that the writer doesn’t take his/her work seriously. To be a professional, one must present one’s best work, even if one is a bad speller.

7. How’s the pacing? Do you keep the reader’s attention from beginning to end? Do you have that dreaded sagging middle? Can you pick up the story in the middle and still love it? That’s another editor’s secret: Sometimes, we’ll skip a few chapters and read in the middle to see if the writing is as zippy as at the beginning.

8. Do you have exciting chapter beginnings and endings? Each chapter should be a gem. Begin and end with a bang.

9. How’s the sex? Even if you write sweeter romances, there should be some kind of sensual awareness between the hero and heroine. Make your readers ache for more.

10. Do you have a happy ending? This should be obvious with romance, though here’s one additional note: Because readers expect the happy ending, can you bringing something unexpected to this ending? Is there an element of surprise to wow the reader even more? Go for it!

Once you’ve gone through this checklist and are confident with your work, you are on your way. Okay, now you can splurge on that the romantic candlelight dinner.

Writing Tips

How to Spot Problem Areas in Your Story:

It happens to every romance writer. You have a polished piece of work in front of you, but you feel something isn’t quite right. Maybe you should go over it one more time. Maybe the editor will love it even though you kind of don’t. Does love matter if your book has great potential to sell? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Maybe you love your book but can’t let go of it. There are so many maybes, so many unknowns in this precarious world of writing Romance. Half the fun is the process, right?

Chances are, if you aren’t wild about your story, an editor won’t be either. Here are a few red flags you should address immediately.

You get bored while proofreading.

You’ve read this story a million times but your attention starts to drift around Chapter 4 and so you skip a few pages to get to the juicy part. Warning sign! Your reader will want to skip as well. Do something radical and cut those skippable pages. Think of an even more fantastic event to occur to keep the reader’s attention. Throw a monkey wrench into those wonderful plans you had for your story.

You don’t care that much about your hero and heroine.

Sally Smith and Matt Steel are nice people but you’re not wild about them. You might snicker behind their backs about how perfect they are. If your characters feel flat and uninteresting, we won’t like them either and will feel they are mannequins brushing up against each other for 250 pages. Consider what makes a person so fascinating. Who captures your interest in a powerful way? What are the qualities that you admire most? Or meditate more on those characters speaking in your head.

You beat around the bush.

Does the heroine really have to learn a new baby blanket pattern before she joins forces with the detective assigned to find her missing child? Do they have to make love before embarking on a mission to foil an arms deal? Some novelists can weave in those details seamlessly. If you want your characters to dine on a sumptuous dinner of mushroom risotto and duck confit salad, be sure that the meal adds to the story instead of delaying it.

Your characters are Chatty Cathys.

Matt and Sally just go on and on because writing dialogue is easy. It fills up pages. You watch a lot of movies and you just know dialogue. Witty banter can make a romance. Look at Hugh Grant–so good with the wit in Romance, but it only is fun on screen. In a novel, make your conversation count.

Your eyes hurt and you have “screen nausea” from staring at the computer.

It won’t help your book if you feel like you’re going to throw up on your computer. You need a break. You have a hundred pages to proof, are on a deadline but, you know, nothing is so important that you can’t take a day away from your work. Go for a walk. Eat chocolate and indulge in a guilty pleasure. Do something that has nothing to do with your manuscript. You’ll come back fresher and ready to tackle that last bit.

So your story has a few problems. Whose doesn’t? As cliché as it may sound, it’s important for you to trust your instincts. If you didn’t trust them, you wouldn’t write. You write because you know you have a story and now it’s time for you to communicate it in the best possible way. Trust your gut, keep writing, tackle what you know deep down doesn’t work, take a break, and think about the joy a reader will get from reading your work. If you keep these tips in mind, you are well on your way. Happy writing!

Writing Tips

Finding a Literary Agent

You’re done writing The Best Romance Ever Written and are ready to send it to the publisher of your dreams. You go to look at the submission guidelines and see: Agented Submissions Only. You have that sinking feeling, like maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to toil away until all hours, ignoring family and why is the world against you? Then you think: Maybe they’ll make an exception for me. Sure, that’s a chance you could take, but consider strongly that Agented Submissions Only means just that–get an agent first.

The downside to going against these guidelines is that the Romance publisher might open your project, log it into their database and then send it right back. Following directions is generally a good idea. Everyone wants to send their manuscript to this publisher and you need to find someone to represent you–no exceptions.

Where to start? The publisher would love to help you because they do want to read The Best Romance Ever Written, but finding you an agent isn’t where they shine. Furthermore, it’s not ethical for them to recommend agents. Every editor works with different agents and they all would have different advice. Can you imagine the chaos?

Where do you turn? Agents are choosy about their projects, but they are also looking for the next big star. Your book may be exactly what they want…or not. That doesn’t mean your project isn’t worth representing. Their time is valuable and every agent is different. So just go for it. Here are some tips that will help put you on the path to Agent Bliss:

  1. Talk to your writing friends. Do they have agents? Do they have recommendations? This can be a subjective business, but by asking around you can get a vibe for who’s out there, who is actively seeking new projects and who kinda isn’t.
  2. Read acknowledgements. This is super-sneaky but your favorite authors often thank their agents in their books. Keep a list, check out guidelines and then take a chance. It may be a long-shot but what do you have to lose? At the very least, you can find out where the agent works and if he/she has other colleagues who might be interested.
  3. Go to conferences. Find out which agents are attending and then talk to them–and not in the bathroom or while they’re eating. Be fully prepared to communicate, schmooze, and pitch at the appropriate time. Don’t beat yourself for not saying the perfect thing at the perfect time.
  4. Scour agent blogs and lists. Even if you do a simple Google search with the words: agents, romance writers, you will see 2,710,000 results. Go through the results and make a list.

Take action and be informed. Steel yourself to receiving rejections (you will get them). Follow submission guidelines to the letter. Know that it is a long process to get published, so don’t rush and make mistakes. Be brave. If you do one thing each day to push yourself forward, you’re further along than you were yesterday to scaling that “Agented Submissions Only” wall.

Best of luck climbing!