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Starting Out #11: How to write a romance novel

Once upon a time, I wrote a romance novel (or two). It was an interesting experience and an invaluable part of my apprenticeship as a fiction writer; it also brought me into contact with the Romance Writers of Australia, and many of its members.

Today’s guest for the Starting Out series is Juliet Madison, one of those people who came into my world as part of the great RWA community. She also lives up the road from Fibrotown, so I’ve always taken an interest in her journey to publication.  I asked her to share the things she’s learnt about writing romance along the way.

How To Write A Romance Novel: The Top Ten Things I’ve Learnt On My Journey To Publication
Since I started writing fiction three and a half years ago, a lot has happened in the industry. Bookstores have closed, publishers have merged, and the digital revolution has taken off. One thing that’s remained the same, or is perhaps even stronger now, is the fact that readers still want more stories, especially romance. Whether it be contemporary, historical, romantic comedy, paranormal, or any other sub-genre, there are hungry readers out there waiting to devour books.

There are tons of writers out there too, hungry for their stories to see the light of day. Although not all get traditionally published, never have there been so many opportunities available for writers to get their books into the hands or e-readers of readers.

My writing journey led me to a publishing contract with Escape – the digital imprint of Harlequin Australia, and my romantic comedy novel Fast Forward was released in February. This is what I’ve learnt along the way:

1. Writers need to read
Reading can help improve your writing. Make time to read books in your genre, and even outside your usual genres. The more you read the more it stimulates those parts of the brain that help you associate words with images and emotions. Plus, it’s fun, and helps you keep abreast of what’s out there in the marketplace.

2. Show, don’t Tell
You’ll hear this phrase A LOT in your writing journey. What it means is to focus on showing the reader what’s happening rather than telling them, and the best way for me to explain this would be to ‘show’ you (using a snippet from Fast Forward, of course!).

Telling: 
I felt hot and anxious, so I asked the beautician what was in the face mask.

Showing: 
My heart raced and I squirmed on the bed. “What’s in this stuff? I’m on fire!”

3. Everyone needs goals
And I’m not talking about your own goals here, though of course it’s good to have them! I’m talking about your character’s goals. Every main character should have a goal – something they want – which helps to define the purpose of the story. They also need motivation – why do they want this? Then, the thing that makes a story interesting – conflict. What will get in the way of them achieving their goal? If you can define these three elements, both for your overall story and for each chapter, you’ll be well on your way to creating a page-turner.

4. Know your ‘hook’
Can you sum up your story in a sentence or two? And does this sentence have a distinct premise that is intriguing and unique? If not, you need to work on your story hook, that is, the thing that makes your story stand out in the crowd. If you’re writing romance you may be writing to a trope – a commonly used theme such as friends to lovers, lovers reunited, enemies to lovers…etc, but you need to find out what makes your story different from others. For example, my hook for Fast Forward is:

Aspiring supermodel Kelli Crawford seems destined to marry her hotshot boyfriend, but on her twenty-fifth birthday she wakes in the future as a fifty-year-old suburban housewife married to the now middle-aged high school nerd.

A less intriguing premise could have been:

A twenty-five-year-old model travels to the future to find her life is not what she expected.

5. End each chapter with a hook
Yes, I like hooks 😉 To create a story that readers don’t want to put down, you need to end each chapter with something that will make them want to turn the page and keep reading. This could be a cliff-hanger, a question, an unexpected interruption, a discovery, a realisation, a decision, or anything that leaves the reader hanging and wanting to know what happens next. Not every single chapter needs to have a huge cliff-hanger, just make sure that the majority of your chapters end on a hook, especially the first few, to make sure you keep a reader’s interest.

6. Get feedback on your manuscript before submitting
You’ve finished your novel, you’re proud of yourself, you can’t wait to get a publishing contract, you open your email to send it to as many publishers and/or agents as you possibly can …

STOP.

Take time to get some objective feedback first. Find a compatible critique partner and swap manuscripts, find a student editor who needs practical experience, or pay for a freelance editor to check your manuscript. They might discover problem areas that need fixing, grammar that needs correcting, and help you polish and fine tune your word choices and overall writing to increase your chances of publication.

7. Writing organisations are a valuable resource
I joined RWA early in my writing journey and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Join RWA or your local writing organisation or group (or all of them!) and get connected with other authors and publishing folk. The benefits are making like-minded friends, learning about your craft, entering competitions, and discovering exclusive opportunities and events. It was through an RWA conference that I first discovered Harlequin Escape who are now my publishers.

8. Don’t assume anything

Don’t assume that you’ll never get published, don’t assume that your book is not good enough, don’t assume that your book IS good enough, don’t assume that once you’re published you’ve got it made, and one thing that I almost made the mistake of is ‘don’t assume that a particular publisher won’t like your book’. Let them be the judge of that.

When I was shopping Fast Forward around, I was interested in Escape Publishing but at first I didn’t submit because I assumed that for a Harlequin imprint my book wouldn’t be ‘romantic enough’. Although the main focus of the story is on the personal journey and identity of the main character, her journey is inextricably linked to the romance of the story, so I decided to send off an enquiry first. I was told as long as it had a significant romance and a happy ending they’d consider it. Five weeks later I had an offer of publication in my inbox. If I hadn’t taken a leap and put my work out there, I might still be shopping the story around today.

9. Embrace digital publishing
If you really want to write a book and get it published, by all means aim for a print publisher if that’s what you want, but stay open-minded and consider whether digital publishing would also be a good option. Ebooks are still ‘real books’, they’re just read on a screen instead of on paper, and more and more people are embracing the new technology, including publishers. Digital imprints are popping up everywhere. Publishers have to be more selective when it comes to print, and there’s only so much shelf space in bookstores, so digital is a good way to reach more readers and have more long term exposure for your books. It’s also faster, meaning your book can be for sale much quicker.

10. Don’t obsess over your baby
Your book baby, that is. Your first novel, your pride and joy, the book you spent months and possibly years slaving over is finished. You want worldwide print and ebook distribution, audio books, and a Hollywood movie deal. Naturally, we’d all love this! And go for it – aim high, I say, but it’s important to remember that if you want longevity in this industry you’ve got to keep writing books.

So send out your polished manuscript, then write the next book, and the next. Don’t obsess over one book. I did this a bit with my first, and then when I noticed some great opportunities and competitions, I realised I needed some more books up my sleeve. So I wrote another book, and then another. My third was the first to get published, and my second is being released in December. My first – my baby – is still being revised and improved (because I didn’t know these ten things that I know now!). And even if you get rejection after rejection, just remember: You can always write another book. Yes it takes time and energy and commitment, but keep writing, keep moving forward, and things can only get better.

Good luck!

Visit Juliet Madison at her website, or say hello on Facebook or Twitter. You can buy her first book here, via Escape Publishing.

If you enjoyed this Starting Out post, you may also like: You’ve signed a publishing contract… now what?; Which excuses are holding you back?; or Learning to embrace the editing process. 

Have you ever tried writing a romance novel?

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