It all began with an Instant Message conversation. I was chatting with Dee Tenorio, one of the hosties on the eHarlequin site. She was still unpublished then – this is going back years . We were talking about writing and as I’d read some of her novels I’d asked if she’d ever thought of writing for Presents. This took the conversation on to The 10 Most Important Things about Writing for Presents. I don ‘t remember much detail about that discussion, but I do know that the top three of that Top Ten most important things were:
And The Question Why?
Sometime later I was asked to do some writing workshops. I do some regular teaching here in the UK, at Writers’ Holidays and at festivals and of course the RNA Conference. This was an internet workshop with a writing group based round eHarlequin. Now where had I put those Top Ten Most Important Things? After a quick hunt I found them again, realised that really, they weren’t just for writing Presents but, if looked at within the guidelines of each line, they applied to all romance writing. I also wanted to make the Top Ten the Top Twelve, and then I used those twelve points for the workshop, which was a great success. Suddenly I found that people were asking me for the details of the ‘twelve points’ – but I realised that just giving them the points without any explanation wasn’t exactly helpful. For example, how do you define the difference between sensuality and passion? Or what exactly is that ‘vital vulnerability?’ And don’t people get all conflicted about conflict? So I put some of the details – this was a very very shortened form of the workshop – into a pamphlet and had that printed to use when I was teaching.
It was that pamphlet that I showed to a publisher when he asked me if I’d write a ‘How To’ book on writing romance. It needed a lot of expansion and detail, but the basic skeleton of the book was there. Could I write the whole thing? At the time the publisher was known for his educational text books, they had a set format, lots of bullet points, were like revision aids and quite frankly they were rather dry. I wanted my book to be different. I wanted it to be as close to coming to one of my writing weekend workshops as it was possible to be. I wanted it to be like a conversation, as if I was – as I had been doing in the original IM conversation – chatting with the reader about writing. And most of all I wanted it to be a workbook.
That had been the important part of the original workshop. At the end of each session, I had given the students a set of questions relating to the topic we’d dealt with and then added ‘Something to Think About’ and ‘Something to Write About’. Because the best way to put something into practice is to write about it yourself. And in the workshops everyone had said how useful they found those sessions. So they went into the book too.
The very first edition of Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance was first published in July 2004. As it was produced by a very small UK publisher, that first edition was only originally on sale in the UK, in a very small print run. But I was thrilled to be invited to the Romance Writers of Australia and RW New Zealand to talk about it and teach workshops based on it. It was while I was in Sydney that I learned that the book had been awarded the Best Book for Writers by the Cataromance web site. By 2007 that original print run had sold out and the publisher asked for a new edition. Obviously some of the details were out of date some lines no longer existed, others had new names, new guidelines. I also decided that if I was going to bring out a second edition, it was going to be an improved and expanded new edition as well as a revised one. I know a lot about writing romance but there are some things that only the authors who write for specific lines really know about.
And so I decided that the best way to make the book even more helpful would be to include advice from the horses’ mouths so to speak. Only I didn’t call it that – I called this new section From The Authors’ Desks. I sent out questionnaires to lots of my wonderful friends who write romance for many different lines – and 21 of them answered. So the second edition was not only revised and updated, it also had 40+ pages extra with advice and tips from 21 currently published authors. And at last I was able to see an American version of the book made available to order in USA bookshops.
Now that 2nd edition has sold out and I’ve been working on a 3rd. The third reprint of the 12 Point Guide To Writing Romance will be published on October 30th, with copies in America for November. There’s also exciting news of a possible Kindle edition coming up so watch this space or – rather, watch the Writers page on my web site. This one has just been brought up to date with the new names for the lines in the UK – nothing stays the same for very long in the romance writing world! At least in publishing it doesn’t – but if you want to write romance, then that’s a different matter. If anyone asked me today what are the three most important things to consider when writing a romance – then I’d still give the answer I gave to Dee, possibly ten years ago.
And Amy did ask. When she asked me to write this post, she asked me for my Top Five quick writing hints. So – well you know what the Top three are:
1. Characters - You need believability, motivation, feelings, a past, a life, relationships, passions, family… you need to know your hero and heroine really well, get deep into their character so you can show what motivates them. Without that they will just be a one-dimensional figures. Your novel can stand or fall on the character of your heroine A sympathetic, interesting heroine, one the reader identifies with and cares about, will hold her attention to the very last page.
2. Emotion – as the great Emma Darcy once said, consider the emotion that can be shown in any scene – and then double it! The reader picks a romance because she wants an emotional read. So from the start your reader is looking to enjoy and experience the emotions of your characters along with them. To achieve this, you need to get your reader involved with your characters and their situation/problems. It’s all about the emotional journey they make through the book. As the editors are always telling us – emotion is non-negotiable. Write from the heart.
3. The Question WHY? The most important question to ask when writing any sort of fiction is Why? Why? makes characters into rounded people with layers and depths to them. It gives them an inner character as well as the one dimension that appears on the page. Why? helps you understand their pasts, their hopes, fears and dreams. If you know why any of your characters behave as they do – and why it’s the only way they can behave in the circumstances then you will be able to draw out the emotion that your story needs and that the reader wants to read.
4. Conflict – Most people, when they hear about ‘conflict’ in a book, think of fights and arguments and battles. I prefer to call conflict the problem that stops your hero and heroine getting together. Conflict is important – without it, you wouldn’t have a plot – nothing to keep your characters apart – and moments of conflict and their resolution bring about that emotion a romance needs. But conflict has to be worthwhile – it has to be something that would really matter, something worth taking the risk of losing the love of your life for. Conflict doesn’t come from a complicated plot with lots of external problems put in the way of your hero and heroine but from deep, heartfelt emotions (there’s that word again!) So keep it simple but dig deep – as deep as you dare!
5. Vital Vulnerability - Total perfection isn’t appealing. It can be scary. It can be unbelievable. When you are creating a hero and heroine you want to create realistic people who are believable and sympathetic so that the reader will relate to them. That vulnerability will give more emphasis, more edge to the emotion and the conflict.
And one more important hint – one that isn’t exactly about writing but what you should be doing before you put your fingers on the keyboard. One thing I always say is – read, read, read. I know that a mistake I made when I started out was that I didn’t read enough romance and so I didn’t have a true sense of what sort of books were being written. The only way to get a real taste of the line is to read extensively – and read as many different authors as you can. Read what is being published now – not what came out five, ten years ago. Romance is a living genre, it grows, develops and changes – make sure you know what the editors are buying now.
What about you? What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given? Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance! Don't forget to leave your email address for a chance to win a copy of Kate's book. Drawing will be on December 31st.
Kate Walker, Harlequin Presents author and author of Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance
The above post was aired at IHeart Presents, October 2010. Here's a very nice review of the book