Romantic Suspense, Writing Tips

In Romantic Suspense, Do You Go with Predictable or Twisted–or Both?

iStock_000018846669XSmallMy disclaimer is: I don’t write romantic suspense. I wouldn’t know how. It boggles my mind how writers create a cohesive plot and then give us editors nightmares. With this genre you have to think of character, romantic intrigue and the “boo” factor. Where would I even start? Probably with the villain because I love the evil ones (only on paper).

Because I read so much romantic suspense, I can usually smell the ending within the first few chapters. I just hope the reader doesn’t. This is when I remind myself that suspense lovers read lots of suspense and try to figure out the ending. I’m sure that for writers it’s a constant worry–how to generate suspense while keeping the reader questioning and on the edge of her seat. This is where the villain can help out. In a romance novel, though, you don’t want the villain to outshine the hero and heroine. This can be hard to help because readers love to get into the minds of a twisted bad guy/girl. How did he/she become bad? If you think about it, writers are amateur psychologists, piecing together a person’s internal framework then documenting it. Then the writer has to make the two central characters even more interesting. Add the suspense and you have many sleepless nights for any reader–and, I imagine, for a writer of romantic suspense (you all deserve medals!).

As an editor, I see the following scenarios in romantic suspense:

1. A more predictable plot that most readers will still love. Some of us love our “comfort suspense.” (Bones, The Closer)

2. Several red herrings that throw me off before the obvious villain emerges, pointing a gun. (Agatha Christie sometimes, but I love her!)

3. A deepening focus on the characters. The edgier they are, the less I care that the suspense is uncomplicated. (The Killing, Breaking Bad)

4. A completely twisted story where I have no clue what’s about to happen and the author takes me to scary places (The Following, Hannibal, Breaking Bad). Recently, I was telling an author how twisted she was (she really was/is). I could hear her hesitation when she asked, “Is that a good thing?” It’s  a great thing.

I tend to love #4 the most but realize that readers love all four of these scenarios. They each have a place in suspense. We’ve seen just about everything, but if you add that there are a gazillion voices relaying these juicy tales, you haven’t read the same story twice. Just when I think I can’t be surprised, a writer will find a new way to shock me, to take me where I don’t dare go (but sort of want to). The best writers out there do this–lead you with language and/or story into a new or old place. You might have an idea what will happen, but you don’t see it coming–or maybe you do, but you want to go on this ride anyway.


Romantic Suspense, Writing Tips

Insert Brilliant Category Romance Title Here!

Can you tell that titling a book is not my forte? I’m responsible for four titles a month. For the life of me, I don’t know how it happens. My first step is to ask the author and editor for suggestions. We need to convey “romance” and “suspense” in one perfect title. No bland words, no clichés (or at least not too groan-worthy), nothing that’s been used before in the same line. I make lists of “hooks”, words that readers love to see. Then I check the sales history of titles with certain words. The choices are narrowed down to a few and I usually ask the author pick his/her favorite. Sometimes a title will just appear and I am extra happy if the author comes up with it. It saves me work!

For a category romance*, there are a few lessons I’ve learned when it comes to titles.**

  • Try not to be married to your original title. Maybe just co-habitate. Your story is what counts the most. Editors really do understand how meaningful a title can be for a writer.
  • Negative titles tend to tank sales***. The Reluctant Guy might evoke visions of a hero who won’t clean the bathroom or tuck in his shirt. Heck, he may not even rescue you from the elevator shaft or that pesky bank robber. Who needs a reluctant anything? I’d go for Her Hero in the Nick of Time instead. Actually, don’t use that title either but you get the idea.
  • Emotion in a title is good. The Secret Agent Slammed the Door. Night of Passion, Day of Regret. Maybe I wouldn’t use these but they indicate a feeling, a vibe.
  • Generic titles like Second Chances or Murky Waters fall flat. These work better for a single title, where the book is broader in scope and more complex. I would never title a category romance Gone with the Wind. Maybe Gone with the Handsome Sheriff. Your title should convey a specific message and not be too clichéd.
  • If you’re going to use a name in a title, make it interesting. Josh’s Choice doesn’t say a whole lot. We don’t know Josh. We all make choices, so who cares? Josh’s Woman says a little more, is kind of primal and attention getting.  I would probably use Josh’s last name D’Artagnan instead: D’Artagnan’s Woman.
  • Think wild and crazy. I try to brainstorm insane titles. This helps me through what is usually a painful creative process. Who’s that Man in My Shower? or He’s Coming at Me with a Knife! can forge a path toward a salable title. Plus, it just makes me laugh.

Sometimes I share the author’s feelings–that his/her title is better than the one we ultimately went for. We experience fluke successes with odd titles and failures with guaranteed hits. For some authors, the title could be The Pirate Prefers Grape Juice and it would fly off the shelves. My ultimate goal is to help sell the book, remaining as faithful to the story and author’s wishes as possible. Now and then, I will take a risk on a title that might not cause fireworks but fits the story more than any other. It’s a collaborative process–well, except for the writing, of course. Thank goodness for that!

*Category Romance = romances with the specific word length and guidelines, with happy ending guaranteed.

**These findings are not always true, but I’ve found them to be the case more often than not. There are exceptions.

***Did I mention there are exceptions?

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 Suspense

You know you read/write/edit Romantic Suspense when…

*You discuss with Romantic Suspense authors how to suffocate someone

*A  romantic evening involves watching Snapped and Deadly Women with your spouse.

*You kind of like the sight of blood but pretend it horrifies you.

*You can’t help but imagine a good stabbing to ruin a nice happy ending.

*You can see whoddunit before the victim is discovered.

*Halloween is scary, sure. Valentine’s Day is a much better time to kill people off.

*After the romantic heroine closes the door, something bad will happen.

*Carrying around a vial of someone else’s blood is weird but totally doable.

*You’re so happy at how boring your life really is.