Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What Makes Great Romantic Leads?

Last week I started talking about what we at Intrigue Publishing look for in an incoming Romance manuscript. Today I’ll talk a bit about the two most important elements of a romance novel – The two lead characters who will become romantically linked.

Romance novels are always character driven, so readers need to really like and care about the heroine and her hero. And remember, conflict is what makes a story. I understand the temptation to make the male lead a muscular, handsome guy who blows in and sweeps the female lead off her feet. But good looks are not what makes a great romantic leading man. What readers really want is a man who’s vulnerable and shows deep emotion.

This man needs to have a past worth escaping. That could mean a single traumatic event or just a challenging childhood. Maybe his mother hated him or his last woman broke his heart. It’s okay for the hero to look and act totally confident, but inside it’s better for him to be insecure.

So we start with a man who is damaged, and he meets a woman who pulls him in and sees past his tough exterior. She is the key to his redemption and by the end of the book he should be a happier man, a changed man, and we should see that it is all due to her.

The female lead should be troubled as well, but in some different way. If you boil down popular romances, I think you’ll find the most common plot to be some variation of the damsel in distress being helped out of a jam by the man. In the process she learns of HIS big problem and helps him solve it. Often his problem is learning to trust, or getting over the woman who broke his heart, or just learning to be open again.

If you start with a strong man, remember the woman needs to be just as strong. If she starts out as a timid, insecure woman (historicals often call for this) the story should gain courage by the end of the story, and be prepared to stand up for herself.

Even if they appear to be perfectly matched, these two people can’t fall in love right away. They have to have conflicts, and problems and issues to Their relationship should not be static or smooth, but rather should be dynamic.

If you want your leading couple to engage the reader and be realistic, then they must each be a fully developed character with flaws, strengths and realistic motivations. Then you must take those two characters and push them into one of the  commonly recurring literary devices or motifs with which your readers will be familiar. I’ll offer a few examples of these next week.

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.