Writing Tips

Tuesday’s Romance Pet Peeves

iStock_000011486725XSmallIn my romance reading, I encounter things that prompt a secret eye-rolling event, which I try to suppress because of karma. I know how hard writers work, pouring out their hearts in page-turning content, but these peeves weigh heavily on my mind. This is one editor’s opinion–and these peeves don’t stop me from buying books by multiple offenders.

Peeves:

1. Lately, I’ve been seeing many f-bombs in submissions. Why? Is the f-bomb so f-bombing romantic? You go along, eyes flowing over lovely prose, hero and heroine having a nice iced tea before embarking on their mission to quiet a coup d’état in a fictitious country. Suddenly, the hero says, “Oh, %&$*, who sweetened this iced tea?”  I curse like a sailor sometimes, but it has to be a special moment, like when I drop a stitch ten rows earlier and have to start over (f-bombing lace knitting is not fun). I either lead up to cursing with steam coming out of my ears–or I hit White Hot Rage. The romance f-bombs I’m seeing are coming out of nowhere, like in mundane speech. If you have to curse in your romance, make your swear meaningful…and rare.

2. A heroine who is described as having a “generous mouth.” I’ve seen this description since the 80s. I’m sure it’s even older. Is there another way to say this? Big, giant pillow lips? A charitable mouth (generous and charitable, practically the same thing). I wish I knew the answer… Again, if I see “a generous mouth” I won’t put down the book.

3. Saying your hero looks like Brad Pitt. I used to think it made perfect sense to compare your hero to an A-list actor. Who doesn’t think Brad Pitt is hot? Well, I don’t because I was born with a defective gene. I tend to crush on the actors who  A. look as if they’ve been beaten up several times B. have played Satan and C. do the voiceover for car/orange juice commercials (Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Bridges, Donald Sutherland). As the years go by, your actor reference could date your book. Thirty years ago, if your hero resembled Michael Douglas, I would have known exactly what that meant. Now would be a different story. Your own description is more than enough to conjure that amazing hero for your readers.

And that is it for this Tuesday. Happy reading and writing!

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

How to Impress an Editor

Female fictionI was thinking a lot this week about what pleases me as an editor free coffee, a day of no meetings, Starbucks downstairs. Often it’s an writer’s preparedness, flexibility and niceness–and talent, too. Over the years I’ve met a lot of authors at conferences and came up with a list of ways to stand out to an editor. Of course, it’s more important to deliver the best work possible, but in addition to this, some tips to remember:

If you find a giant red shoe chair as in this picture, please contact me immediately. Must have!

Don’t worry about being nervous (you should see me the day before I travel). Just come prepared and ready to talk about your story, however you want to pitch it.

I’m not a fan of elevator pitches, but I give kudos for persistence.

Edit your work thoroughly. It’s so satisfying to see a proposal that is typo-free and grammatically sound. Never leave all the work to the editor.

Know the publisher. As with a job interview, you want to investigate a company and read its books, understand each imprint, and the submission process. This will give you more control, as well. Informed is well armed–and a confidence booster.

Professionalism: Be nice. I can’t say that 100% of writers I’ve worked with are sugar and spice and everything nice, but a professional/cordial demeanor certainly motivates me to work harder. It’s crazy, I know, but if a person asks me politely for help, I want to do whatever it takes. Barking and ordering makes everyone miserable. Isn’t life is too short?

Optimism: The more positive you are about your work, the more I want to know about it. Writing can be a lonely business, but regardless of the storm cloud over your head, pretending optimism can go a long way, even if it’s only for 10 minutes with an editor. Then get yourself a piece of cake (that’s what I do).

Flexibility: I love when a writer can take criticism and make her story even better than she’d imagined. Revising doesn’t hurt. And if it does hurt too much or feel off, maybe you’re getting questionable advice.

Know a little something about the editor you’re pitching to. This is not a must, but I tend to remember people who are aware of what books I work on, my author base, maybe my favorite band (Duran Duran). It’s called narcissism.

Never give up on this dream. I always love hearing about a writer’s first sale after years and years of writing. I’m a prime example, though I didn’t try to publish as actively as most romance writers. After decades, I even took a break to not write and sometimes you need those hiatuses. No matter what your situation, just don’t give up on anything that you want so passionately. This will impress an editor.

Romantic Life Lessons, Writing Tips

Express Editing

iStock_000000568002XSmallby Patience Bloom

A few months into my job as an editor, my boss came over, plunked a manuscript onto my desk and said, “Fix this.” My deadline was days–not weeks or months. I knew very little about what I was supposed to do, but trusted my instincts. I love an editorial challenge (usually) so I jumped at the chance to shepherd this project to its state of perfection. The prose had real sparkle, but needed pruning–correcting of typos, word choices and removing all mention of feminine hygiene products. I ate and slept this story to the point where I grew to love it, warts and all. By the time I turned it in to production, I developed separation anxiety and didn’t want to see it go (though part of me was glad for the sleep).

A year after this, my boss-adjacent came into my office and said, “Fix this,” then gave me a heavy manuscript. Deadline: three days. No sweat! Sure, I had a new artist boyfriend to distract me, but while waiting for him at the super-trendy Bedford stop in Brooklyn, I edited like a maniac, tuning out my surroundings and, sadly, the boyfriend. Could I help it if I was deadline-obsessed? It remains one of my favorite books. The relationship did not work out.

More recently–like say, in the last ten years–boss-adjacent decided to schedule a book and I had two days to edit it–on screen, which I hate. I took a few deep breaths, knowing I was about to embark on the mother of all editing experiences. With plenty of Sprite, M&Ms, and curse words, I carried out my assignment. Again, I loved the story within the first few chapters and twitched with panic when I had to let it go. Now and then, I’ll hear a song, eat an M&M, see a cafe, and remember the many hours I spent on a particular book.

All these express editing experiences were tests, ones every editor should have, though not the ideal condition. Recently (like within the past few years) and without too much guilt–maybe a little–I went to an editor and said, “Fix this.” She had the same reaction I did–eager to take this all-important test.

When you’re forced to edit too quickly, you focus extra-hard on two things: 1. not missing anything 2. not rushing too much. In some ways, express editing can be advantageous. You immerse yourself in the work and never lose your flow. I’ve edited books over months and sometimes the copyeditor will come back and I can hear her/him wondering, “What were you thinking by letting this go through?” Even with a year-long stretch, I try to stay in that one story. The momentum is not as strong as when my imaginary deadline Furies are screaming in my ears. Express editing is not my #1 choice, but I can see how much I’ve learned from it.

Writing Tips

Let’s Talk about Sex in Your Romance Novel: A PG-13 Post, Possibly Just PG

You expect sex in a romance novel, right? Like Julia Roberts’s* character in Pretty Woman, it’s a sure thing. When I first started working in this biz, reading books with sex in them was a novelty. My colleagues were amused. Then after my 300th romance, I started flipping through the sex scenes, bored to tears. So many writers write amazing sex scenes, but after a while, they seemed the same to me. In fact, for me, the sweeter romances, like the Inspirationals were more sensual and palpably romantic than the steamier ones, so I devoured those for my hot fix.

Over the years, my expectations for great sex scenes have dwindled as those for romantic tension have escalated. The foreplay/romance/character development became more fun and I care less about the sex. Often in the story, the couple has a simultaneous “release”, in the same position, and they crest the wave of ecstasy with fireworks booming. One of them wakes up to the other making breakfast, they don’t want to leave, but do and misunderstandings, vulnerabilities ensue. Another sex scene occurs close to the end, much like the first.

Just when I think I’ve read everything, a gripping sex scene will have me flipping pages so fast, my fingers are on fire.  I love it when a writer can surprise me. Here’s how it can happen:

1. If you have a sex scene at the beginning, make it charming and not gimmicky. Give it some build-up, like the heroine really, really wants to let loose. She’s determined that tonight is the night and is picking out her target. Or the hero is an expert at seduction. Or maybe they’re both challenged and just wind up in bed by some cosmic, delicious accident. I tend to dislike sex scenes at the beginning but sometimes I love them if they’re done right (no sensual dream of sex then waking up sweating to empty bed; this one hurts me).

2. Pardon the graphic note, but give them another position from the usual. I’m so embarrassed I’ll just move on to the next point.

3. Make the sex unexpected. What about in a coatroom during a party? In the car on the way to dinner, instead of peacefully at home in bed. Embarrassed again. Moving on.

4. As much as possible, cut out the cresting the waves, riding the hills of ecstasy, falling over the cliff with fireworks guiding them into the abyss of desire. An editor doesn’t register this. It’s filler. Filler’s not always bad, but see if you can make it less cliche.

5. For some, writing sex scenes can be difficult or just a big pain. Some may need a big glass of Pinot to get through it. What if you removed the scene? How would your book change? Is there a way to shape your story so that intimacy must happen and must be exciting? Think of your favorite sex scenes in movies or TV. How do they happen? I guess I’m suggesting that you look carefully at how to make this part more interesting for yourself and for the reader.

6. If your voice is sweeter, plunking down a sex scene right in the middle of your story might create an “ewwww” factor. If you don’t want one, don’t include one. It’s your book. And awkward sex is just funny.

7. Condom or no condom? Hmmm, good question, me. I used to be very strict about wanting characters to practice safe sex. Then I relaxed a bit. Sex in a novel should be an escape for the reader. If you can be safe in a sexy way, do it! Just recently, I read a story where safety was orchestrated beautifully. I’m not a stickler for this, though also not condoning unsafe sex.

8. Good sex in Romance comes from intimacy/chemistry. The way to an editor’s heart is to show the wild chemistry between two likeable characters. A really great scene will linger in my mind and encourage me not to skim those pages in the future.

Sex scenes can be memorable (Princess Daisy, p. 49, thank you, Judith Krantz). You can build a name for yourself that way. Or… you can close the door, which is just fine, too.

*I use any excuse to bring up Julia.

Writing Tips

The Swoonworthy Romantic Hero

In real life, bad boys tend to be just plain bad (at least this has been my experience!) and nice guys are awesome. I find the more nice guys open doors for me, treat me well, show some edge and relay their intellectual proclivities, the more I swoon.

In a romance novel, the rules of the game are different. Disclaimer: Our heroine we love from the beginning. She’s us, she’s fantastic, she learns a lot on her journey and we want to follow her. The hero is our foreign element, the object of our interest, the one who pulls our attention, the one our heroine aspires to have (at least subconsciously). He has to be exponentially larger than life. He has to be desirable on several levels.

Here’s my list of must haves for a hero:

He should have a good personality–but this can be hidden, too, under decades of ill treatment by what/whomever. Life has made him a bit rough. Show us why. By the end, the reader should see him as pure gold for the heroine, loveable on many levels–and unforgettable.

Make him hot. This can mean different things to each reader. I like a face that looks a little beaten up: Clive Owen, Daniel Craig, Gerard Butler, Russell Crowe (before he threw the telephone). I don’t know why. It shows character and hotness to me. Your romantic hero can look like anyone, as long as you bring out his “hotness.” Your reader will translate it to her/his own desirability needs.

Alpha or Beta but never Gamma:  Your hero can be tough with a soft underbelly, nice guy with an edge, but he can’t be a complete toxic jerk who kills small animals. He should be redeemable throughout. The best thing is to investigate the “hero” needs for whatever line you are targeting. If the publisher likes Alpha heroes, don’t send them your Beta hero who brings the heroine flowers every day (I’ll take those flowers!).

Make him different. I’ll never forget in one novel, the hero was on a stakeout, watching the heroine and eating those gross but delicious orange crackers with peanut butter. That was all it took for me to see this hero as unique. You don’t have to go quite that specific, but think about how your hero is an individual.

He has to do something. It can be scary to dive into writing a climactic moment, but make no mistake, your hero has to be heroic. He can’t be taking out the recycling while the heroine saves herself from a would-be kidnapper. He should act and be integral to the novel’s resolution.

Real Life vs. Romance: These two heroes can overlap at the end of the story. In a romance novel, the heroine sees the hero as her hero. In real life, may your true love have the basic qualities you want: his charming personality, his looks, some baggage okay, and loveable  quirks. He is heroic in your eyes (and very hot). I dunno, do I still have my rose-colored newlywed glasses on?

Good luck with your heroes!

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.