Sunday, February 17, 2019

What Makes a Good Romance Novel?

When Intrigue Publishing began publishing romance novels I must admit I looked on them as any other piece of fiction. Over time I’ve developed some guideposts to tell me if the manuscript I’m reading is likely to be a winner when I reach the end. Now it occurs to me that if authors know what I’m looking for they’re more likely to send in winners. So here are a few essential elements.

First, figure out what subgenre you want to work in. We like contemporary romances, but historicals are good too. Maybe you want to write a young adult romance, or a fantasy or paranormal book. If your heart leads you toward erotica at one end of the scale or religious romance at the other, then write that. But don’t bother to submit to Intrigue. We can’t serve those subgenres best. How do you choose? You should probably write the kind of romance you most enjoy reading. And when you submit be sure to clearly state which subgenre your book fits into.

We feel romance novels are perfect escape fiction so the setting is important. It needs to be clear enough that readers can get lost in your story. And be sure that you like that setting because like other romance writers you may want to create a series based on the first book. So you want the setting to be a place you and your readers will want to go back to again and again.

Contemporary romances usually have small, close settings. Small towns and college campuses are popular. Even in a big city, there should be a local place (a bar, a diner, an office, even a bookstore) where the main characters meet and hang out. This is where friends and neighbors chat and more importantly, gossip. It’s good to see a setting in a romance where the significant characters can’t help but see each other.

In an historical, your setting may be a village being attacked by barbarian hordes. In a paranormal, maybe the one forest where the shape-shifters can survive. Regardless of the place, the setting in every good romance must feel real. It should be a totally immersive experience. I’d suggest you create a map so directions remain consistent, and model the office, or diner where people meet after an actual place you’re familiar with.

Next week I’ll offer some tips about the main characters in romance novels.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Tips to Sharpen Your Dialog

Recently a fellow writer told me his dialog didn’t seem to work but he didn’t know why. When I read a bit of his work I thought I knew the issue he was sensing. I thought what was between the quotation marks was really good. The problem was, his dialog was ONLY dialog. So I made some suggestions.

He had gone to a style where he had almost totally eliminated dialog tags. What I mean is, he cut the “he said” or “she asked” after each comment. I agree that having those things after every spoken line can be boring and repetitive. And logically, if only two people are talking you shouldn’t nee them at all. But, in my opinion, that’s putting a lot of responsibility on the reader. And while most readers can figure it out, making that effort can pull them out of the story. I think it’s okay to make it easier for the reader. Throw in a “she said” every two or three exchanges, or even a “Mary said” to remind us of a character’s name. And if there are more than two people in the room, go ahead and tag everyone’s dialog. It can’t hurt.

I also think we should help our readers see what’s happening, like a movie. That means, tell them what these people are doing. No one JUST talks. They’re also sipping coffee, pacing the room, fiddling with the change in their pockets or following that person walking past just outside the window. Of course, for that to work, the writer has to be able to see the scene. I think figuring out what my people are doing while they talk helps cement their characters. It might help to show how interested they are in the conversation. And it will certainly help keep your readers tied to the location. If they can see where the scene takes place it has more impact.

My last tip to this writer was to try to include more emotional context to the dialog. When I started out I used way too many adverbs for this (He said angrily, she said hatefully.) I learned that adverbs in dialog tags are a major pet peeve of most editors. But stripping them out gave the reader less information about how the people felt. Over time I’ve learned to convey that same information by showing body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Where did he pause before answering? When did she give a big sigh? When did she cross her arms and turn her head with her nose in the air? At what point did he roll his eyes. These are all things people do to communicate their feelings, purposely or not.

So go back through your dialog and see how you could use these little tips to make your dialog stronger.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Do You Mean, Where's the Hook??

One of the first pieces of advice most fiction writers hear is that they need to start their story with a good hook. Almost no one will disagree, but there are a couple of problems. One is that not everyone thinks of the same thing when they say “a good hook.” It’s also true that there really is more than one kind of hook in a story.

If you’re telling me about your novel and I ask you, “What is the hook?” I’m thinking of he big idea that will grab people’s attention and make them think they might want to read it. This might sometimes be called the high concept. It might be something like, “a guy finds a way to bring dinosaurs back to life” or “Two brothers travel the country hunting monsters.” Many of us don’t need to know anything about the plots to know we want to read or watch those stories.

But if your story is written and I’m critiquing it, “What’s the hook?” might refer to the opening scene. This isn’t about revealing the whole big idea of the book. It’s about some action in those first few paragraphs that pulls readers in right away and makes them want to know what’s going to happen next. And don’t worry, if you don’t write thrillers. This hook doesn’t have to be about people in jeopardy or set up a huge cliffhanger. A really clever puzzle can work well, since readers don’t know your characters yet. Or if you have a strong, interesting voice the writing itself can be the hook. Check out the first page of Moby Dick.

Separately, your key scenes should each have a hook. Some would say every scene but I think that’s excessive. But pivotal scenes must always give the reader a good reason to keep reading. One way is to pose a narrative question that the reader will want the answer to. You can present a plan and make readers want to know how they will unfold. Create tension that makes readers want to know how a situation will turn out. Hint at a secret, or give them reason to wonder if certain characters will get along when they meet.

It is also possible to present individual lines that are hooks. That could be just one sentence that grabs a reader’s attention. They can be funny (as in most James Bond movies) or punchy (Jeff Goldblum’s “must go faster” in Jurassic Park) or alerts that something’s going to happen (Harrison Ford’s “I got a bad feeling about this” in Star Wars.

So try to use ALL the hooks available to grab your readers, and when discussing your work, know which sort of hook you’re talking about.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Book too Short? Pt II

Last week I offered some help for a good novel that just doesn’t have enough words to attract a publisher. A too-short novel can be a troublesome animal, but you can get that word count where you want it to be with a little creative thinking.

 When look at your manuscript anew, start at the beginning.  Of course if the opening is working, you might not want to mess with it, but you also might be able to further flesh out the set up or mirror something about the ending. Sometimes beginnings kick off too quickly. You can probably slow things down a little without hurting the story.

 Next, check the ending. Maybe there's more to wrapping up the story than you thought. Look for any loose ends or situations you referenced but never followed up on. Subplots that are wrapped up near the climax are good candidates for places to add a step or two, or to make those storylines a little more complicated.

Good novels always have ups and downs in he middle. So look at any situation in which your hero might have won a battle a bit too easily. Think about ways to make your hero fail at that point, or to make them struggle a bit more for that hard-won victory. Not only would that take more writing to lay it out, but a failure where you once had a success would probably cause you to write an additional scene or two.

If your story includes an obstacle that is there just to slow the hero down It might not be moving the story along. Your story doesn’t need such delaying tactics. This is really a weak point in your work and, as it happens, this could be a good place to add words. You can make this obstacle do more than just stall the protagonist by adding to, or increasing, the stakes. Make changes so that the outcome matters, and let it create a change in your hero.

After all of that, consider what you can do with your stronger secondary characters. One of them might benefit from a character arc of their own. That would prompt you to add smaller subplots or extra layers in existing scenes. Those characters could be used to show another side of the problem, or mirror the choices the hero makes. Or this character might face their own problems that could interfere with the protagonist’s objectives.

So if your new novel is too short for publishers’ guidelines, don’t just stretch it – make it better!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book too short? Here's the Cure

More and more often, Intrigue Publishing receives well written manuscripts that don’t fit our submission guidelines. For example, we have found that, Y-A books aside, we do not do well with novels shorter than 80,000 words. Sometimes the prose is so strong and the story is so good that we return the manuscript and ask the author to expand it to a more marketable length. If your books is already well written (a solid plot, good writing, good subplots) this can be a real challenge. Just cramming in more stuff can make a good books worse. So what is an author to do?

In my own manuscripts I’ve found that I can actually add a few thousand words just by tweaking here and there, or adding one line of description to each page. You should also look at fleshing out some of the dialogue. That can actually make your book stronger.

If that doesn’t get you to the desired length you may have to add an entire scene or two. You have to be careful here. You don’t want to add a scene that feels like it was shoved in. It needs to serve the story and not disrupt the pacing. In the genres I write, it usually calls for introducing an additional challenge for the hero to face, and a scene where he overcomes it.

But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re an outliner like me you should first take a close look at the book’s structure. You may find that the beginning is too short, or there’s not enough happening in the middle. This process may highlight the perfect place to add a scene and fix the problem. Some places are easier to add than others.

Look at your major plot points. You have to have several steps to get to them, right? So maybe you can add one more step without hurting the pacing. Odds are you won't find it in act one. Usually there is only one inciting event that triggers the novel's core conflict. Act two is where you put most of the book’s turning points. The middle of the novel should be all about the protagonist trying and failing. You might be able to add a scene or two, or even whole chapters, without hurting the flow of the story.

Of course, you don’t want to add a step in your story that delays the plot. One safe thought is to look closely at your theme and your character arcs. Look for a situation that presents a plot obstacle AND a character issue. Or perhaps a new obstacle plus a thematic illustration. Reread your ending and see if you can add something to the middle of the book, an earlier failure that will make a later moment more poignant.

I’ll have more suggestions for filling out a too-short novel. Next week.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Is Your Fiction Literary?

At Intrigue Publishing we handle pretty specific genres of fiction: crime fiction in all its forms, Young Adult (or you might say New Adult) and romance. We’re clear in our submission guidelines that we do not publish literary fiction. And yet, we regularly receive submissions that fall into that category. I’ve decided that maybe different writers mean different things when they discuss those categories. “There’s a murder in my story” does not automatically mean it’s right for us. After all, To Kill A Mockingbird is definitely crime fiction, but it is also clearly literary work.

So, how do you know if your books is actually literary fiction? Here are three or four clues to look for.

Literary fiction tends to deal with broad ideas and big events. If you’re working more with the ideals an themes than day-to-day action, you’re probably working on something too literary for us. Sweeping social commentary about life in the Middle East? Probably literary. A story about a specific romance or an action-packed story about events impacting a couple of individuals trying to escape a terrorist attack? That’s more likely in our wheelhouse.

Pacing is also a clear giveaway. Genre fiction moves quickly from one plot point to the next. The entire story tends to take place over a fairly short period of time. So if your story takes place over generations, and you have a hard time pinning down the plot points, it may be too literary for us. Big romance may be an exception to this rule, but we also don’t want books over 100,000 words so they’d be cut out anyway.

The biggest difference may be that genre fiction is more plot driven, as opposed to character driven. A literary novel could be all about ideas, philosophies and themes. Genre novels are driven by the events.  So ask yourself, how does the reader learn about my main characters? Is it through introspection and inner monologue? If so, you’re building a literary novel. If you learn about these people by watching what they do, the actions they take, the decisions they make, then you’re in the genre track.

So create strong characters, but force them into interesting, challenging events and keep the pace up! Then you’re ready to submit to Intrigue.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Writing Holiday

For many of us, writing is a discipline. We get up every day with a clear plan to write for a specified amount of time, or to add a predetermined number of words to our work in progress. And we have a sense that to make any kind of progress, it needs to happen every day of our lives.

But what happens at the time of the most popular holidays. In my house Christmas is a time when family members abandon their normal daily routines entirely and gather together for group activities. This could mean board games, watching specific movies together, or entertaining other people’s kids. Shopping, cleaning, and cooking take up more time than usual. So how do we get our writing done.

I’m unwilling to abandon my writing impulses just because of family gatherings. But I have choose to rearrange my plans for two weeks every year. Instead of crafting new paragraphs I designate this time for gathering the raw material from which I will craft the paragraphs of the future.

Great fiction needs great characters. If you’re surrounded by my family, and probably yours, you’re drowning in them. So I try to be in it, but not of it, if you know what I mean. I observe their behavior, their reactions to situations, and silently try to describe them in words. How would I tell someone of this facial expression. I know he looks disappointed / joyful / grateful / bored… but what words would I use to describe that look in my book. Plus, I register how people dress, hairstyles, accents, all the attributes good characters will have in my next novel.

I’m also capturing dialog. Different people use phrases and sentence structures I would not, but everyone understands them. I get to hear people using baby talk to the grandbabies, and speaking in a very different way to the oldest relatives.

And drama? There’s no end to it, and I get to see how those tense situations get started, even among loved ones, and how they get resolved. People in my fiction will find themselves in these situations too, and now I can express it realistically.

So yes, I’m still working at being a writer, even in the chaos of Christmas morning. By mentally recording these experiences, I improve my craft, even if I’m not actively writing.