Writing The Romance Novel
By Nathasha Brooks-Harris
As I toured the country in support of my books, one question came up all the time: “I wanna be an author; how do I write a romance novel?” It is assumed that you are familiar with the Romance Formula you’ll use to plot your novel. It is also assumed that you know the basic elements of writing and will continue to study the craft. Keep reading, because I’m about to give you the real deal about how to write that romance novel you’ve dreamed about writing..
ATMOSPHERE IS EVERYTHING
One of the first things you’ll want to do is to prepare your physical environment for your future writing sessions. That means that dust bunnies, overly friendly pets, clinging children, and anything else that will distract you, will have to go. No, I don’t mean throw them out forever, just temporarily for the amount of time you set aside each day to write. Get a desk, a comfortable chair and a good light for your area as well as the fastest computer with as much memory as you can afford. If you don’t have an office, that’s okay. Partition off a part of the bedroom, dining room, closet, bathroom, basement or a large closet and claim that space for your own. If you want to write, the lack of space won’t stop you. If you have to, you’ll write in the bathtub or anywhere you can. Just let everyone in your household know that is your space and tell them not to touch anything in that area for fear of pulling back a nub! A bookcase filled with reference and writing-related books of all types should be in that area as well. Get rid of the television, but do bring along a portable CD player with a stack of your favorite CD’s. They can help you with the writing process by putting you in the specific mood you need in order to craft given scenes. Grab some water and healthy, non-fattening snacks such as dried fruit, nuts, plain popcorn, but leave the real food in the kitchen until after you’ve completed your page quota or put in your time for that day. You know that after you’ve eaten a heavy, delicious dinner, you’ll want to relax and/or sleep. The time you’ve allotted for your writing is not the time to get the “itis,” so do yourself a favor and chill on the food! The main thing is that your work area should look professional and be clean and neat. If it needs cleaning, clean it. And please dust often to keep your equipment clean and so you won’t have sneezing bouts, which will take time away from your writing.
SET SOME GROUND RULES
Now that your work area is all set up and ready for you to begin your novel, do it! Dare any and everyone in your home to bother you during whatever time you’ve deemed as your writing time. Make sure that they understand that unless it involves fire, a serious illness, blood or death, everything else can wait. Have them to screen your calls. Better yet, let the voicemail pick them up. It’s probably just a pesky telemarketer, anyway. They WILL call back. Don’t move your butt from that chair even if you are stuck and don’t know what to write.
At that point, get the daily newspaper, choose one story and fictionalize it. That’ll get you writing again. Then, pick up what you originally wanted to write but couldn’t.
The point here is many people give lip service to wanting to become an author these days. If you put in the work and are serious about it, others will respect that. If your loved ones see you taking it seriously, they will too. And if they don’t, write anyway. They will once you’re published and they see your name written prominently on the front cover.
LAY THE FOUNDATION
The next thing you should be doing is planning your novel by doing pre-writing work. This will take time—lots of it—if you want to do it right. The best way to organize your pre-writing materials is to buy a loose leaf binder and divide it into sections. Then, begin filling it up.
Begin with an idea, a basic theme of your story. Write a preliminary plot from beginning to end. Don’t worry; it will be raw. Just write in order to have something to build on. You’ll fix it later. Within that plot, you should have characters. Now, comes the fun part. Develop them by filling in a character sketch on each of them. That sketch will explore them physiologically, psychologically, and sociologically. Write in what they were doing before your story begins and what they’ll be doing after it ends. Write up what types of drama they went through in their childhood. You need to know that because whatever happened then will manifest in their adulthood. You need to write as much as you know about their parents. A character sketch goes into as much detail as possible. The more detailed, the better. Good plot comes from good characters, so you definitely want to do the work.
By now, you should know where you want to set your novel. Setting is time and place. If you’re setting it in a place that’s unfamiliar, begin researching that location. It’s best to set your novel somewhere you’ve been, but if you cannot physically get there, surf the web or gather and study travel brochures. A quick call to the Tourist Bureau of the specific country or the Chamber of Commerce of a given city will yield a large packet of free materials. Those will get you started.
Find message boards related to the places you’re setting your novel in and ask real people some questions. No one can describe the sights and sounds of a particular place than someone who lives there. Then incorporate those things in your novel. If certain flowers or trees are indigenous to the region, find a way to use them in your novel.
THE WRITING PROCESS: GRUELING BUT OH SO NECESSARY
By now, you should have a notebook or loose leaf filled with pre-writing materials. You should also know your characters almost as well as you know yourself. There’s no excuse not to start writing that book of your heart, so get started. Begin it now, not tomorrow. Write nonstop during that time you set aside to do it. Get your thoughts down on paper or computer screen and don’t stop to edit or correct spelling. That can be done later because those things will only slow you down and get you off track. If you get to a spot and can’t think of the right words, don’t stop to figure them out. Draw a line or a series of asterisks there and that’ll signal you to come back to that spot later and fill it in during the editing process. For now, the most important thing is to get a first draft written so that you’ll have something to edit and revise.
One of the most frequently asked questions is whether or not I believe in hiring an agent for professional representation. The answer is twofold: yes, I believe that an agent will help an author’s career immensely. But no, I don’t believe that having an agent is a necessity. A good agent knows the publishing business very well and can keep you from signing a one-sided contract that is all in the publishing house’s favor, not the author’s. A good agent can also negotiate better contracts for new authors than they could’ve done on their own.
People at the publishing companies know that first-time and new authors are hungry for a contract and to land a deal. So some of them, (not all), will exploit that fact and use it in their favor. Remember that publishing is a business and the bottom line is money! No agent can help authors get around that. Very simply, that means that an agent can only get you a fairer contract, not make your sales figures soar or money roll in for you. They can only set the basic groundwork for you.
New authors are usually offered a typical boilerplate contract that is offered to other newbies. Once authors prove themselves in terms of great, knock ‘em dead sales and name recognition, publishing companies are more willing to listen to them, give them better contracts and allow them more creative control of their future works. Sales equal money and that’s what publishers understand. So back to the original question: I would advise first-time authors who don’t understand jack about the legalities of contracts or about publishing to hire an agent as that go-between person to negotiate the contract for them.
Agents get 10-20% of an author’s total contract. Every time the authors get paid, so do the agents! They get the author’s check and take their cut off the top, and then cut the author a check from their account. That used to not sit too well with me because I liked to see my checks come in from the original source so that I’d know how much money I was really making. However, I’ve learned the hard way that having an agent is a good thing. It’s also necessary if you want to become a professional author. An agent is your friend and protects your rights and negotiates your contract. It’s better to let an expert handle that piece of your career so you can concentrate more on the craft—the writing. An agent knows what to do, how to say it, and how to get your wants across to the publisher. It’s wise to let her play the hardball and you write the books. That’s a winning combination. However, it’s not an easy task to get an agent. It’s almost as hard to get an agent as it is to sell the book. It’s like selling the book all over again and many agents are reluctant to acquire a first-time author because they have traditionally been hard sells.
If a particular agent interests you, ask people who are signed with that person and check with the Society of Agent’s Representatives. You might also want to check the National Writer’s Union to make sure that no complaints or lawsuits are lodged against that agent. If you decide to go the agent route--now or later in your career--good luck.
THE SUBMISSION PROCESS: HOW EASY IS EASY?
Submitting a manuscript is almost the easy part. My best advice is not to query a publishing company until AFTER you’ve completed the entire manuscript. Most houses won’t even look at a new author for potential publishing because they must make sure that they can finish a book. So many companies have been burned in the past by giving new authors a contract on a partial manuscript and the authors didn’t or weren’t able to finish a book. So have yours in hand, and then begin querying.
You should have a set of writer’s guidelines or a tip sheet and know exactly what specific houses require for their submissions. Some houses require a synopsis, query letter, and the first three chapters. Other houses want all of those things except instead of three chapters, want the full manuscript. Some other houses require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
A good query letter should have the company’s name, acquisitions editor’s name and title, but please spell it correctly. If not, the editor will know up front that you don’t pay attention to fine details. How will she be able to trust that “facts” in your book are accurate? In the letter, briefly introduce yourself and say what line you’re submitting to. Then, give her a thumbnail sketch of your manuscript in one tight paragraph hitting all of the key points. Perhaps the best way to do that is to outline your novel first and highlight all of the key points. When writing the synopsis, take them from that.
The next paragraph should be something about you and what you’ve written professionally. That’s pleasing to an editor’s eye because they know that you’re able to make deadlines and have some semblance of discipline. If you’re a member of any professional writing organizations, that’s the time to mention it.
In the last paragraph, tell the editor how and where she may contact you and thank her for her time. Close the letter and sign your name.
A synopsis can range between 3 to 20 pages depending on the house. Give the editor exactly what she wants. Don’t make my mistake of trying to be cute by squeezing a 12-page synopsis into 6 pages by changing the font! Follow the rules to the letter. If you don’t, it could cost you a sale.
Generally, a synopsis tells the entire story from beginning to end in the present tense. It hits upon the key points and moves at a pretty rapid pace. Don’t drag your story out because editors are on a time deficit and might get bored and put your manuscript down or toss it on the rejection/slush pile. You don’t want that to happen. Tell the story in a conversational voice as if telling it to your best friend. Use Standard English and proper grammar. Please check your spelling for typos. Don’t rely on spell check, but use a dictionary and your eyes. Computer spell checks don’t catch everything. If you’re asked to do a chapter by chapter synopsis, tell it the same way and make sure that you hit on all of the key points of each chapter.
NOTHING BUT A WAITING GAME
The hardest part of this whole process is the waiting. That is inevitable. However, don’t fall apart during that time. There are many things you can do while you’re waiting. Take a breather, first, and treat yourself to a day of beauty, a facial, a day on the town, a night of jazz, some great lovemaking with that special someone, etc. You deserve it: you’ve finished a book—a feat that many dream of but never achieve. Then come back to your writing desk refreshed and revitalized. You might want to begin the pre-writing chores for your next novel. If you’re not up to that just yet, write and submit some short pieces to other markets such as writing articles or fillers to magazines, write verses for greeting cards, write songs, write book reviews, write poetry, write short stories, etc. You get the idea. Sales made during that long, almost endless waiting period will do wonders for boosting your confidence. Just don’t wait too long to work on your next book.
This is also a great time to read everything you can about book marketing and promotions and begin to put together your marketing plan. Once your deal is in place, you’ll want to have some promo items with which to promote your book. You’ll also want to know about how to get yourself booked at literary conferences and other publishing events where you can read from and sell your book. Then, you’ll want to know how to set up book signings at bookstores.
When you do get “the call,” be calm. You might be tempted to act like a park ape, but resist that urge until after you've hung up the phone and the editor is out of earshot. Then, you can do whatever you want! Go for it. You’ve earned that right.
If you don’t get a call and receive a letter that your manuscript has been rejected, please don’t take that rejection personally. Buying a book for a publishing company’s roster is a very subjective thing. The editor has to believe in your book and that it can do well. She then has to pitch it to her bosses and to the marketing, sales, promotions and other department brass at a big meeting where all the attendees are hearing is the bottom line: how many copies will it sell, will it hit the bestseller list and will it earn the house back the advance they will pay you (the author)? If you don’t sell it right then, repackage it and send it to another company or two or three. Just let the editor know that it is a simultaneous submission. Be sure that you write a letter thanking the editor for reading it and letting her know that it has been sold and ask her to send it back to you in the SASE you enclosed. Publishing contracts go to those who stick with it! In other words, don’t give up. You can and will do it—if your work is good and you believe in yourself and what you can do.
MUST-HAVE TOOLS & RESOURCES
The first thing you should do is hone your craft. Read every writing technique book you can and even take a course if possible. Just keep writing and learning. Then, join professional organizations in your genre. For instance, if you write mystery, you should join Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. For romance, join the national and local chapters of Romance Writers of America. They are available online. These groups will keep you current in terms of what is going on in the field, who’s publishing what, good conferences to attend, and seminars coming up. You should go to as many of them as you can afford. Join readers’ groups to find out what fans in your genre like and don’t like to read. That information will be invaluable to you as an author. An online search for mystery, romance, or science fiction readers’ groups, for example, will get many hits.
I couldn’t live without the organizations Simply Irresistible Authors, Romance In Color, RAW Sistaz/Raw 4 All, Prolific Writers, SORMag, The GRITS, Sisterfriends, Romance Noire, the Frederick Douglas Creative Arts Center, and The Romer Review. The people at these organizations have been so supportive and have come to be wonderful friends.
In terms of tools, I have many I could recommend. Absolute must-haves are: The Observation Deck (a toolkit for writers), an atlas, Internet Search engines Mamma, Google, and Dogpile, and books such as Creating Characters: How To Build Story People by Dwight Swain, Dare To Be A Great Writer by Leonard Bishop, 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, The Timelines Of History, Revision by David Michael Kaplan, Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Deborah Dixon, The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD, and Writing The Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon.
There are so many good tools and resources available. You’ll have to look around and find what works for you and invest in them. They will help you greatly.
Let me conclude by wishing you the very best of luck with your writing quest. If you believe it, you can achieve it! Don’t let anyone take your dream away from you. Keep working at it and make it happen. You can do it. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will!
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Good luck on your writing quest and Godspeed!
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