Friday, March 20, 2009

What Makes It Romance...

In my role as an editor, I often get manuscripts that are mechanically well done, plotted perfectly, paced well and have a good story to tell. And then I reject them.

Despite authors thinking that I am a cold, calloused crusher of their dreams, I truly am not. I’ve been known to even give inadequately formatted, run-on sentenced, gaping plot hole, no punctuation manuscripts a fair chance.

So why the rejection?

Because TWRP publishes romance. We have lines, to be sure. There are 14 varieties, in fact. But the main stories that TWRP readers want to see is romance.

So, how can you tell if your story is the 50% required romance that TWRP delineates in our guidelines?

Here are a few simple ways to check. These ways are not infallible, nor do I use them as a baseline. But I am recommending you should, because I know what I need to see…and you may not be as confident.

First, let us assume for the sake of expediency, that your book is 100 pages long. In Microsoft Word:

Click on Edit
Click on Replace
Type Hero’s name in the top menu bar
Type Hero’s name in the bottom menu bar
Click Replace All (this changes nothing, you’re simply looking for the count)

If your hero is only mentioned 200 hundred times (twice per page) in the book, you might want to check those scenes. In most books I contract, the hero and heroine’s names are usually mentioned a minimum of 3 times as many pages as there are in any of the books. So, for a 250 page book, the hero/heroine’s name usually comes up at least 750 times (and most of the time, more often). Repeat the exercise for the heroine. I do not use this method to determine a story’s worth. I’m simply suggesting it as a tool you can use to make sure you have your hero/heroine on the pages as often as possible.

Therein lies the key. The story is about hero/heroine and their developing relationship. It is not about how his aunt Thelma raised him from infancy, or how her beloved cousin was raised by wolves and when he came to live with her, his wolf-like ways warped her for life. The baggage that both hero and heroine carry should be limited to a few paragraphs. You can expound on this baggage throughout the book in single paragraph bytes. An information dump at the beginning of a novel that lasts more than 20 pages usually means the author doesn’t have a firm handle on the developing relationship. I have been known to make exceptions, but for the most part, grab my attention in the first 5 pages.

Another issue that gets a virtual pink slip is secondary characters. No secondary character should have more than a page of “air-time.” Again, exceptions can be made, but in general, avoid the use of secondaries for any longer than a page. I don’t need to know their life history, how their life intertwines with the hero/heroine, or much beyond the fact they are loyal minions/best friends and they’ll stand with the hero/heroine.

The relationship. A relationship cannot be started on page 51 with a single hot look or bolt of desire. That’s a physical reaction. To develop something, you need to first know what it is, how much you care for it, have the desire to make it grow, and continue your faithfulness to see the project to the end. Relationships are not simply about a visceral reaction to outward stimuli. It really is about getting to know the hero/heroine. Why does he like her and vice-versa? Try hard not to use what he/she sees – basing it on looks is not the way to move a relationship forward. What character traits attract him/her? Kindness to small children and puppies? A flair for the dramatic to offset a hum-drum life? Outrageous behavior? A soft, sweet personality? An ability, such as being on a SAR team? Ask yourself this: If you were blind, what would attract you to a person besides voice? Use the senses to develop the relationship.

From there we come to character. Character is what makes a person shine from within. You can develop character with a single word.

“I’m not a morning person!” Angela growled.

George grinned, picked up his mug and stepped outside to enjoy the sun rising over the peak of the barn’s hay loft.

We not only know that Angela is grumpy in the morning, but George knows and gets out of her way. And he finds something he enjoys doing while he’s waiting for Angie to become human. Both characters are established by the word “growled.” We know that George is patient AND kind. Therefore, despite Angie’s growl, we understand that there is something implicit in her character that keeps George from snapping or getting angry. What that is we don’t know – but the mystery will keep us reading.

Our final problem area is emotions. The one thing you need to remember is that the hero and heroine must always be heroic. Nothing less. They can be angry, they can lie, they can get cruel, they can even kill. But the underlying reason for ALL those negative emotions must be heroic – they are angry because the villain kicked a dog, they are lying because they’re protecting a witness, they are cruel because they’re undercover and must show they’re a member of the gang, and they kill because the villain threatened to set off the warhead. In each of these cases, they need to have a crisis of concience. We must understand they suffered for having the negative emotion. Emotions develop motivation, character and the relationship. Use them wisely.

Addendum: Heroism is placing the needs of another above your own. You might call it courage. But in romance, every time the hero or heroine acts, they are looking out for the needs of the other...or others. Every shortcoming or failure to meet the need should create an emotional response (mental or physical) in the book. (Jamie's note: Answering a question on what heroism is from comments).


NicDarienzo said...

Well said, Jamie!

Donna B said...

Nice post! I'm gonna keep this one handy!

marye.ulrich said...

Great information. Thanks.

Debra St. John said...

Thanks, Jamie. These are great reminders. I love the counting hero/heroine's names trick...I'm going to try that!

Kathy Otten said...

Many, many years ago I had a contemporary mss. rejected because the hero wasn't heroic enough. At the time, I had no clue what that meant. I always wished the editor had explained that statement. I also think I'll try counting the hero/heroine's name. Now I'm curious. Thanks for sharing the tips.

CJ Parker said...

I'm going to print this out and how it to a friend of mine. I'm doing a crit of her first two chapters, and I think you've managed to say what I was trying to put in words to make her understand.

Mary Ricksen said...

Thanks for the information.
I think I use their names probably too much.
But I do use secondary characters to set the scene, give a bit of ethnic origin. I'll have to limit that more I guess.
Good question, What makes a hero, heroic enough?

Emma Lai said...

Great information and explanation, Jamie!

Clare Revell said...

Thank you. I just worked out the number of times their names are used and I'm well over the three times. That doesn't include the nickname she has for him.
I've bookmarked this one so I can come back to it.