Romance Writing Basics

March 29, 2013

When writing any genre fiction, it’s important to follow the rules. Genre readers have expectations, and your job as author is to entertain the reader and meet those expectations.

Begin with the ending. Romance novels end happily with conflicts resolved and mutual love expressed between the two main characters.

Story formula is basic and as follows:

  • Heroine is in her early to mid-twenties, either has a career or is working on one, believes in love.
  • Hero is older, established in life (career or wealth), lacks depth in interpersonal relationships.
  • Both heroine and hero are attractive to reader in some fashion (physically, vulnerable, sexy).
  • Secondary characters are as realistic as the primary, but their job is to produce conflict and complications for the love between the two primary characters.
  • Secondary characters are critical to plot development.
  • Typically, the two main characters have some misconception about each other, thus fostering conflict.
  • Romantic tension (conflict and attraction) permeates the story but admission of love isn’t done until the end of the book.
  • The first few pages lay the groundwork for the story.
  • Any flashback material comes toward the beginning, but after the reader meets the heroine.
  • Reader’s interest must be caught right away and sustained by developing each point in the story and everything in the story having a point.
  • Action must be sequential.

Follow the formula, and you’ve written the basic romance. There are variations within the genre, of course. For example, the heroine could be older, more mature. There could be physical characteristics not considered attractive, but endearing, in one of the primary characters. There could be a spiritual element.

And if you’re looking to publish your romance novel with a publisher, look for an agent or at least get the publisher’s guidelines and follow them, along with the basics.

Happy writing!


Beware the Flashback Trap

March 25, 2013

Fiction writers know their characters are as real as flesh-and-blood people. Every character is born and lives life in the writer’s mind. But, just as it’s impossible to lay out a real person’s life in one short story or novel, so it is impossible to reflect a character’s entire life in one work. Thus, the writer can only show what the character is doing at present and provide a glimpse of parts of the character’s past when warranted.

One device writers use to explain a character’s action or reaction is the flashback. As useful as flashback is, it also carries a trap of confusing the reader because too much gets crammed into the flashback, and the reader can’t sort it out or make sense of how the two (past and present) relate. The transition from present to past  requires skill and story space.
Here are some ways to trigger flashback into your writing.

  • Remind the character of someone in the past with a unique laugh
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with fragrance
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with body style (hulking, dainty, etc.)
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with music or song
  • Remind the character of a past event with a weather event or nature
  • Remind the character of a past fear with a sound
  • Remind the character of a past joy with fragrance, sound, music, etc.
  • Remind the character of  youth with a taste of  food or toy or sport, etc.

Once you’ve decided on your trigger, you’ll want to write the flashback scene. Here are some tips for that.

  • Make sure the reader can see the scene–describe it well.
  • Incorporate as many of the senses as you can so the reader sees/feels/hears/smells/tastes what the character does.
  • Be absolutely sure the flashback scene is critical to moving the story forward. If the story or novel will do just as well without the flashback scene, scrap it for this project. Save it for another day.
  • Keep the flashback compressed, but make sure there’s enough detail in it so the reader knows why it’s part of the story.

We’ve all experienced unannounced and unwelcome memories popping into our heads. Your characters can have the same experience. But memory ambushes don’t take up the majority of our lives, nor should they take up the majority of your characters’ lives. Instead, use flashbacks to explore meaningful past moments and enrich your story.

Happy writing!


Pre-writing Your Book (or Article)

March 22, 2013

One  stat somewhere says 80 percent of the population wants to write a book. Based on my many years of teaching, writing, editing, and publishing, that seems like a good stat.

But before you jump into writing, you might want to do some pre-writing by answering the following questions.

  • Ask yourself why you’re writing the book (or article). Is it to entertain? To gain credibility in your area of expertise? To attract new clients? To educate?
  • Ask yourself who needs your book? The idea behind this question is to find a need and fill it.
  • Ask yourself whether or not your book is relevant. Sometimes writers write about things that interest them, but few others. That’s okay for self, but doesn’t work well in the marketplace.
  • Ask yourself who your competition is. You can become the premiere writer/authority/expert in your field, but it’s still hard to beat those who are already top of mind. You just have to be excellent, persistent, diligent, and maybe catch a break along the way.

As you ask these questions, be aware there is no such thing as a general public reader–no one loves every book. Whether fiction or non-fiction, book or periodical, everything published has a target market. As you figure out your target market, consider the following demographics.

  • Gender (percent of each)
  • Age group by decade (20s, 30s, 40s, etc.)
  • Income
  • Career
  • Education
  • Interests (like hobbies)

Readers have choices, and authors choose readers by writing to specific target markets.

Your job in the pre-writing phase is to create your writing persona and know who you’re writing to. Build your platform (yes, even fiction writers must market their books and do signings, interviews, talks in front of groups, have websites, blog, etc.). With today’s technology opportunities, you have more opportunity than ever to build your platform while writing your book.

Figure out your motivation for writing your book (or article), figure out who your reader is, figure out where your reader hangs out and be there.

Happy writing!


If Writing to be Published, Keep Submission Records

March 20, 2013

My last post offered tips on magazine query letters. This post is related to the same topic.

If you want to be published in periodicals, you’ll probably have several query letters out to various editors at the same time. Your proposal may have even been accepted, and you’ve got an article sent in, but not yet paid for. Whatever the case, it’s important to keep track of what you sent where and when you sent it. You can create your own form for tracking or do it by hand in a notebook. The important thing is to keep submission records.

Another thing you might want to do is create a list of periodicals for each query letter. If you get a rejection from the first magazine on your list, line through it and submit to the next one. Be aware that you can put yourself in a tight spot if you query the same idea to competing magazines at the same time if both editors accept your idea. That’s why I suggest you have a variety of query letters out at the same time–an article idea to a woman’s magazine, an article idea to a parenting magazine, an article idea to a niche market magazine such as one with a focus on a hobby or craft or specific demographic.

And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with having two different article ideas queried to competing magazines at the same time. You might query one woman’s magazine with a health article and its direct competitor with a finance article.

The point is keep accurate submission records.

Happy writing!


Magazine Query Letter Basics

March 18, 2013

I sold my first query to a Hearst magazine. I sold my first query to an award-winning regional magazine. I sold my first query to Woman’s World Weekly. I did it by following some basic rules.

First, I researched the magazine thoroughly.

  • Review the article titles on the front page (these are the titles expected to draw reader attention).
  • Review the masthead and compare names there with bylines (this gives you an idea of how much of the magazine is staff written).
  • Review the masthead for the name of the person to query (managing editor or articles editor are best, but if not listed, the third name down is typically the authority level you want).
  • Review the advertisers (advertising targets readership and helps you know who the readers for the magazine are).
  • Review the length of articles (gives you an idea what length the magazine prefers).
  • Review the voice of the publication (you want to know if it’s conversational, formal, academic, etc. so you can write in that voice in your query).

Next, write and rewrite your query letter so it’s no longer than three paragraphs.

  • Paragraph one is your grabber. I always made it the first paragraph of my article so it showed the editor that I could write in the voice the magazine preferred and I could grab the reader’s (editor’s) attention.
  • Paragraph two is your offer. This is where you describe exactly what it is you intend to write for the magazine.
  • Paragraph three is your close. Every query letter is really a sales letter, and good sales people know you always ask for the sale.

Finally, proofread, proofread, proofread. Editors are busy people and jump on any reason they can to reject an offer so they can move on to the next and work their way down their in-boxes. Make it easy for them buy you. If you follow my basic tips, you’ll do just that.

Happy writing!


Writing about a Captured Moment in Time

March 13, 2013

Whether you’re writing something short, a novel, or a non-fiction book, there will be times you’ll want to capture a moment in time in your writing.

You could be writing about the first time you did some activity such as a sporting event, the first time you met the love of your life, a favorite childhood memory, something life-changing that someone said to you, a favorite relative or teacher, etc.

Your moment could be painful or it could be pleasurable. Whichever it is, you’ve decided it’s worth plucking this specific morsel out of your life and saving it beyond your mental capacities by writing about it.

Because your captured moment is available to you every time you re-read what you wrote, you’ll re-experience it over and over. Each time you re-experience it, you will see it differently because everyone changes constantly based on new insights, new information, new experiences.

So how do you write about something so important?

  • Write using the five senses to describe colors you see, textures you feel, aromas you smell, sounds you hear, and anything you taste.
  • Use action verbs freely so you (and your reader) can see the environment (inside and out), the people, the activity.
  • Use adjectives freely as you focus on one point at a time. For example, if you’re writing about a room, draw the floor plan to help you describe what is where (doors, windows, furniture, etc.). Then show the decor, the people in the room (if any), the event that’s occurring in the room, etc.
  • Write freely about whatever comes to mind about that captured moment. You’ll have plenty of time to edit, tweak, and add more later.

When you take a step back in time and capture a moment that’s important enough to write about, you’ll see things you didn’t see previously, understand some things better, and junk things that no longer work for you. Try it sometime.

Happy writing!


Seven Reasons to Start a Journal

March 11, 2013

I wasn’t allowed much privacy growing up. I’m not sure if that’s because my father was insecure (he was a well-known businessman in a small town) or because he wanted to protect me. Either way, I learned to keep my private thoughts inside my head.

When I received a cancer diagnosis in 1996, one of the therapies suggested to me was to start a journal. As you can imagine, I was not thrilled with trying it, but I did.

I don’t use the journal to record my private thoughts, but I do use it to help my writing. I use colored ink (black and white pages hinder creativity), don’t allow anyone but me to see my journal (encourages me to be honest and open in what I write), and date (including recording if it’s a Monday or Thursday or whatever) my entries.

Here are seven reasons to start a journal.

1. Explore your creativity. You’ll be amazed at the ideas that flow when you allow yourself the freedom to write what pops into your head.

2. Get to know different parts of yourself. We all have sub-personalities (dark side, child side, etc.). Writing about them in a journal brings them to the forefront so we can draw on them in writing characters, exploring ideas, or creating plots and scenes.

3. Work out conversations before they actually occur. Whether you’re having a real-life issue with someone or your characters are in conflict, you can explore various solutions by working through the problem, letting out the feelings/perceptions (of both parties), and focusing on the issues in your journal first.

4. Access information stored in your subconscious mind. You’ve probably had thoughts come to you seemingly out of nowhere. Well, they don’t come out of nowhere. They come from within you. Allow those thoughts to come out when you free-write in your private journal.

5. Explore your dreams. When I taught the class “When the Muse Lets You Down,” one of the tools I encouraged students to use is a dream journal. I told them to keep a journal by the bed, grab the dream from their minds as quickly as possible (for dreams are quickly forgotten), then write down the day’s events (the day before the dream). Connecting the events with the dream is often a good starting point for understanding the dream and working out whatever is on your mind.

6. Use your journal as a task management tool. Perhaps you’re struggling with how to get from point A to point B in your novel. Perhaps you need to write an example to illustrate your point in your nonfiction book. Perhaps you’re speaking to a group and need to cleverly work in a sales pitch for your book. Whatever the task, manage it in your journal first.

7. Get in touch with your feelings. A journal is a great place to give yourself credit (brag all you want), to cuss out the reviewer who didn’t like your book, and to concentrate on your gratitude for those who support you (once you’ve figured out who they are, you can let them know for real that you appreciate them).

Writers are busy people. It’s easy to let things slip. Consider using a journal as a safe place to work on whatever needs your attention.

Happy writing!