New Online Course through Grenfell Campus

Prepare to Publish: The Business of Writing

How do I approach a publisher with a book or an idea? What should a submission look like? What are royalties and how do they work? How do I recognize a fair contract? Don’t wait until your manuscript is finished before learning all the practical skills you will need as a writer. Brush up your biography in advance and learn how to write a compelling blurb and a good synopsis. Through interactive online sessions, you’ll learn the “right fit” for your book.

Fee:                     $75
Date:                   2 Wednesdays, June 8 & 15, 2016
Time:                   6:30 – 9:00 p.m.
Instructor:           Paul Butler
Location:             Online (computer & internet access required)
Registration limited to 10 participants

Register at Grenfell’s office of engagement or 709-637-6208. Call me at 709 640 9440, or email: paul.butler@nl.rogers.com if you have any questions or have trouble registering.

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How to Write a Romance, Q and A with Three Experts, Part II

Welcome to part 2 of the Q & A with three highly successful romantic novelists: USA-Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs author, Kate Robbins and bestselling YA author-turned romantic suspense writer, Robin St. Croix. This round is a free for all. Any or all of the authors were invited to answer any given question.

Question: cough …cough…do I need actual sex in my novel? In mainstream fiction the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene or perhaps even an ellipse, something that justifies leaving the scene and returning when it’s over. It looks to me that if people do make love in romantic fiction, then it’s erotica; the reader expects to take part directly. What are the potential hazards? What words must be avoided? How do you get the right tone?

ROBIN: I’m also going to challenge you on your point that “the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene.” That may be your personal instinct, and it’s certainly true of the English literary classics I studied in university, but in modern fiction it’s all about the story itself and not about society’s comfort levels or censorship. In my opinion, if sex serves the story then it needs to be there, if not, it’s gratuitous and should be edited out. Of course, there’s a whole industry built around erotic shorts that proves me wrong, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Speaking of erotica … I think you’re referring to what we in the biz call “heat levels.” A sweet romance (where there’s one peck on the cheek at the end of the book) would be a 1, whereas erotica is a 5. So it’s not whether characters have a romantic relationship, it’s whether they’re holding hands or swinging from the ceiling. Romance is a very wide genre; there’s dozens of subgenres and different heat levels within each one. With romance, the reader only expects one thing: a happy ending. (More on this below).

A note of caution here: if you set your readers up for a steamy sex scene and then don’t deliver, you’re dead in the water. You cannot leave the reader listening at the door. You must bring them into the bedroom with you and allow them to live vicariously through your characters.

Finally, to answer your question … nope, you don’t need to put sex in your romance if you don’t think it’s warranted. Sweet romances don’t contain sex but instead focus on the relationship between the main characters.

Here’s the thing about sex scenes … they are brutally difficult things to write. No one will believe that until they try to write one – and I’m guessing you’ve tried already which is why you’re asking the question! Here’s why they’re hard … sex is not the kind of thing that lends itself well to running commentary. We do it. We don’t describe it. Ok, sometimes there are words … but try writing them out. They look ridiculous in black and white, don’t they?

Love and sex are all about emotions and sensations, not words. Throughout history mankind has been trying to articulate the emotion of love, but it’s beyond words. With sex scenes, there’s the immediate problem of vocabulary … we all know what the parts are called, but use any term – Latin, colloquial, slang, euphemism … at best they look out of place on paper. At worst, they’re laughable. My solution? Focus on the anticipation.

KATE: Just as there are authors who have comfort levels with sex, readers do as well. In romance fiction there are what’s called steam levels. They go from one, which is very sweet, maybe a peck on the cheek or everything happens behind closed doors and is referenced after the fact—to five, which is very descriptive and may require a new headboard. 😉

I think it all comes down to the author’s comfort level. There’s an audience for all steam levels, thankfully. Romance readers know what they like and gravitate toward authors who can deliver. 🙂

The correct tone will flow from your characters. If mine want raunchy sex, I let ‘em have at it. I am pretty sure in all cases, I have let my characters guide me in terms of the nature of they sex they enjoy, i.e. when, where, positions, etc. I am bound to a certain historical era and so therefore the words I use must have been used at that time. Etymology dot com is a great tool for this purpose.

Steam level will determine the words you use as well. A level one will be very mild with no explicit language. Level five? You can let your imagination run wild. My romances are a level four. 🙂

Question: Is romance escapism? And if so, is it helpful to make a list of the kinds of things that readers are escaping from (in the hope I can avoid replicating them!)

ROBIN: Yes, romance — like every story in every genre regardless of discipline — is escapism. Why else would a person pick up a work of fiction if not to escape into that world for a little while? Why watch television, go to a movie or the theatre? We do these things to relax, to get away from the pressures of the daily grind for a while. If we didn’t want a break we’d read non-fiction, watch a documentary or the news…Nah, you don’t need to make a list. You instinctively know what the pressures are.

KATE: A romance novel has one rule: it must have a Happily Ever After (HEA). Your characters and the unique balance of romantic conflict between them will make it unpredictable. Thinks like the internal versus external conflict and black moment will define your romance novel and set apart from others.

VICTORIA: Romance is total escapism. It’s one of the reasons why I read it. I didn’t know this about myself until my grandmother died. She left me all of her romance novels, and I read every single one of them. That’s what opened my eyes about the genre. I’d been full of the misconceptions non-romance readers have about this genre. You know, that’s it formulaic, easy to write, sexist, and porn. That’s not true at all. Romance novels may be easy to read, but that’s a testament to the writing of the authors. We write books that are enjoyable and accessible for all readers. As for making a list to avoid the things that readers want to escape from, I don’t think that’s necessary. Because of the HEA necessity of the genre, you can deal with loss, heartbreak, violence, etc. because the reader will finish that book feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I personally don’t read romances where characters lose a child or have miscarriages, but that’s because it’s a personal decision of mine. Plenty of other readers love those story lines, and it’s important for those books to be written. Think about how you can craft a story with those elements that will ultimately leave the reader feeling hopeful at the end.

Question: Do I need a happy ending? And if so, how can I avoid making it predictable?

ROBIN: YES! Happily Ever After (HEA) is what makes a romance a romance. If the characters don’t get together in the end, even if your magnum opus is worthy of the Nobel Prize, it isn’t a romance. It’s something else.

It’s not predictability you want to avoid, it’s cliche. That’s another very difficult thing about writing in the romance genre because frankly, it’s all been done before! The best advice I can give is to read as much as you can in your particular sub-genre of romance so that you know what’s on the market already. Then spend time innovating your ending. Innovation requires creativity. This is where you earn your paycheque. Your readers know that the characters will get together. What they don’t know is how. Give them a spellbinding how.

Question: Do romance characters move towards self-knowledge? Are there things about themselves they conceal from themselves?

ROBIN: Of course they do! The characters in a romance novel are no different than any other character in any other genre. Usually we (as readers) want our heroes to grow and develop from the beginning of a story to the end, but not always. Exhibit A: James Bond.

Thinking that romance is a genre of wooden, two-dimensional characters is where writers get themselves into trouble. They crank out a tired story, slap it up on Amazon and then wonder why it isn’t selling. There are a lot of poorly written romances on the market. I won’t argue that point. There are a lot of poorly written books in every genre on the market.

This is not amateur hour. The mark of a professional author is that he or she can write in a saturated genre while still innovating the characters, plot and ending payoff of the story. That’s not to say every book has to be “War and Peace” (or “Lolita” or “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”). A well-written beach read can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

VICTORIA: I think all characters must change somewhat in a book. That’s the nature of a relationship, isn’t it? To learn things about yourself and figure out how to be with someone while being true to yourself. There’s always an element of personal revelation there, where you learn something about yourself you might not have known. There are always parts of our personalities that we don’t realize about ourselves. It’s the same for our characters. A character in a romance novel is not some mythical-being unlike other characters. Characters are characters, regardless of the genre, with all the complexities that come with them. Some romance novels are plot driven, while others are character driven. So the stronger the character you create, the stronger your book will be in the end.

Question: Where did this genre come from? I think about The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, sometimes credited as the first Gothic novel. It’s way too dark to be classified “romance,” yet the pacing and the lurid power seems to have opened the door which later became romance. I also think of Emily Bronte and Charlotte as possible forerunners, particularly in the depictions of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.

ROBIN: Love stories have been around since time began. They predate the written word. If you want to know the first English novel to be considered a romance, I couldn’t tell you. But the genre itself comes from the fact that we’re human, and there is nothing more human that the desire to love and be loved.

KATE: One can look back through literary history and see romantic stories in many places including Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology. Romance is something we have always held in fascination. The likes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have certainly added new elements to old stories as well. I read somewhere that Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca has been considered the first ‘modern’ romance, birthing the currently perceived genre. I don’t believe it is possible to narrow it down to one book, however. What a shame to leave out the wonderful additions given to us by Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Eloisa James, and Jude Deveraux. Elements like author intrusion accepted from these amazing authors 30 years ago are now unheard of and so the genre continues to evolve. The rise of ebooks and self-publishing have made it much easier for authors to get their books in front of readers and so the market has never been more flush with variations and new sub-genres. I think there’s never been a better time to be a romance writer. 🙂

Thanks to these terrific writers, Victoria Barbour, Robin St. Croix and Kate Robbins for their generous and thoughtful answers. If you want to know more about romance writing, take a good look through their websites and pick yourself a few of their books!

How to Write a Romance: Question and Answer with Three Experts

Welcome to the first in a two-part Q & A with three terrific writers, USA Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs historical romance writer, Kate Robbins, and bestselling Young Adult writer and about-to-be romantic suspense author Robin St. Croix. I am seeking expert advice on how to turn my battered fiction brain to the art of the romance novel.

First the background to my quest: Several years ago, I had an unnerving experience at a book signing. It was a large box store with a reputation for moving huge amounts of books, so I was grateful my publisher had booked me. Under the iron roof and the fluorescent lights there was more of a bustle than usual. I was excited by the possibilities.
And scarcely had I sat down at the end of the book aisle, but a large bristling mob of buyers — mainly female, I noticed — had gathered around my table. Who would have known I was so popular?

Actually I wasn’t.

Behind my table were shining copies of a book I hadn’t heard of, but the frustrated mob of buyers clearly had. I was sitting between them and the novel they craved. Before long I was being mobbed, and not in a good way. One lady literally shoved me aside as she reached over me for her copy. Another knocked me on the forehead with the spine of her  purchase. My (unused) signing pen skittered along the concrete floor and I was obliged to negotiate feet and shopping cart wheels as I retrieved it — to little purpose as it turned out.

The book, if you hadn’t guessed by now, was Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t try pressing the title hoping to find a link. I haven’t added it. Am I bitter? Yes.

At the time I was flustered. No doubt the literary snob in me came to the surface as a muttered something less than generous about the likely contents of this most popular of works. But something else happened too; somewhere in the dim inner recesses of my mind a faint voice had begun to chime: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Well not everyone admires Fifty Shades of Grey, although who can blame any of us for envying its success? And a number of very talented writers have turned their hands to the romance genre. Among these are some remarkable success stories who produce some excellent writing. I recently asked advice from three of these literary uber-achievers.
My first question is to bestselling author Victoria Barbour who scored big with her e-books even before Against her Rules and Hard as Ice became available in print format.

Question: I’ve started a romantic novel and I thought everything was going fine when I noticed I’ve given my heroine a mysterious love interest, a disinterested current boyfriend and an alcoholic ex-husband. I was aiming for romance, but I seemed to have crash-landed into the foam of a kitchen sink drama. And my heroine might be a little too sour, a bit too disappointed.

How do you keep things uncomplicated, yet interesting? And (related question) how complicated does my heroine’s life have to be before it gets . . . well, just too messy?

Victoria’s Answer: That sounds like a romance I’d love to read! And so would many other readers. There’s a misconception about romance that it has to be simple and uncomplicated. There’s only one hard and fast rule about romance and that’s the mandatory HEA (Happily ever after.) The key to complexity is believably. Readers identify with believable characters. They need complexities to be real.

Complicated is great as long as it’s not convoluted or contrived. I never try to keep things neat and tidy. The stories I write come from what is keeping me entertained as a storyteller. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too messy…. as long as you can make it all come together in the end with a positive resolution. Her whole life doesn’t have to be perfect, but the relationship should make facing the rest of her challenges easier. Jaded heroines are great, especially if they do so with sassy and wit and strength. I’ve learned that you can’t please all readers. I’ve created characters that some readers haven’t liked at all. But I don’t regret that because those were the characters that the story needed. If you feel your story is getting too bogged down in tropes think about the heart of the story you want to tell and let that help you rise from the foam of your soapy drama.

Now I turn to bestselling author of award-winning Highlands Chiefs series, Kate Robbins:

Question: What about place? Your novels have sweeping landscapes, rising mists. I’ve set my novel in Mount Pearl — just joking . . . But my setting is indeed urban and contemporary. Yet the romantic dimension still has to be there. How much do you think my story could have in common with the historical romances you have perfected?

Kate’s Answer: A good setting is important in all fiction. In some cases it can be considered an additional character when it helps shape the plot. In historical romance, the key element, besides the romance, is the history and as such things like setting, clothing, and manners add a certain charm to the story. Breaking through strict propriety in the medieval era adds another layer of challenge for the H/h’s romance to blossom. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is readers get to learn what life could have been like during a certain time frame they find appealing.

In your case, being contemporary and urban, on the surface I would say the location and time frame are miles apart, but that should not matter if the romance is front and centre and the setting plays a role in the plot. Your characters may have barriers that their place and time present making it unique to them and allowing their story to stand apart from others in the contemporary genre.

Newfoundland set romance novels are a new beast, thanks to trailblazers like Victoria Barbour. I see them as a great opportunity to expose contemporary romance readers to a great location with a unique set of challenges simply based on where we live. And really, that’s part of the beauty of living here. We are the best kept secret in the world for a good reason.

I think your setting and era will be a large part of your novel and I very much look forward to reading it.

Next I turn to a bestselling YA author who will soon release a very intriguing series of romantic suspense novels under the name, Robin St. Croix.

Question: I’ve always admired your organizational skills. I know you have character maps and graphs and so on. In the past I have always avoided this to an almost superstitious extent. If I write it down, I always fear, it’s pegging a character too much and robbing him/her of independent life. Do I have to cast this superstition aside? Is planning more of an integral part of “genre” fiction than it is in mainstream or “literary” fiction?

Robin’s Answer:  Yes, I am freakishly organized. It’s a running joke between myself and Victoria Barbour. For me, having outlines is more about me and the kinds of stories I tell, and less about the genre in which I’m writing. I tell big stories with twisty plots. My YA series is one over-arching story told over 9 full-length novels. My romantic suspense novel “Masquerade” is one story in 12 parts. If I don’t map out what’s happening, my books will wander and the reader will lose interest. I have to know what the breadcrumbs are and where to drop them so that my readers can savour the endings. It takes time to write these big stories. There’s no way I can remember all the details without outlining.

For other authors, outlines don’t work at all — they find them restricting. (Although in certain sub genres of romance restriction is an asset.) In the end the only thing that matters is that you have a good story that readers enjoy. How you get there is entirely up to you. If you want to try mapping though, I highly recommend “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. It was developed for book editing, but works as a brilliant planning tool. (For an overview of what “The Story Grid” is all about check out Shawn’s YouTube videos. He also has a podcast)

The most important thing is that you have fun writing it. If it’s fun to write, it will be fun to read.

Great answers, all! In the next blog, I will talk to Robin, Kate and Victoria about how to handle a sex scene, the importance of escapism, and the origins of the romance novel. Stay tuned!