Posted On October 11, 2013 by Print This Post

Fifty Shades of Sweet with Heartwarming Editor Victoria Curran

Give a huge welcome to Senior Editor of Heartwarming Romance – Victoria Curran. She’ll be popping in and out to answer your questions about Harlequin’s new line today only – so don’t delay!

SnaggingKitaFifty Shades of Sweet

By Victoria Curran, senior editor, Harlequin Heartwarming

I’m so glad to be a guest blogger this week but have to apologize right off because I found out a day ago that my brother is flying into Toronto with his family to celebrate Thanksgiving weekend with us—Canadian, don’t you know—and I’m out of the office today as a result. But I promise to keep dashing into Macdonald’s for their wi-fi and am happy to answer any questions you may have.

This month marks my ten-year anniversary with Harlequin, so I consider this my anniversary party! And I guess what follows is my thank-you speech? Before Harlequin, I was primarily a magazine journalist (trade and consumer press, writer and editor) with some corporate communications contracts publishing newsletters. During my romance editing career I’ve worked with our Series authors on Harlequin Superromance, Harlequin American, our inspirational Love Inspired romances, our action/adventure fiction (which has absolutely nothing to do with romance, but I have to give a shout-out to Mack Bolan and the hard-working Gold Eagle authors), and now Harlequin Heartwarming.

Footprints in the SandHeartwarming, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is our clean romance series. We’ve been testing it with refreshed editorial from other series for two years and, because the test was a great success, proving there’s a growing demand for wholesome reads, in June we launched with original editorial. And now we’re actively acquiring stories, 70- to 75,000 words, because we publish four books a month…which may explain why my hair is rapidly turning gray and I’ve got bursitis from sitting disease!

  • What Heartwarming is: clean or sweet = no premarital sex in the current story and minimal cursing; respectful of wholesome values; unpredictable and emotional roller-coaster storytelling driven by characters acting based on their motivations


  • What Heartwarming isn’t: inspirational (no faith element); sweet = kind and polite characterization/action; tepid storytelling where readers can see the happy ending before the story is really out of the gate

I believe the same rules of romance storytelling apply whether you’re writing clean or grittier sexy books. Above all readers want their happy ending, but they want to wonder how on earth the hero and heroine will ever get together—and each chapter should raise the stakes and tension and make that happy ending seem more impossible so that readers can’t put the book down, they have to turn the pages.

Orange Blossom BridesSome of the books we’re not contracting for Heartwarming misunderstand the kind of “sweet” romance we’re looking for. In the industry, it’s generally agreed that “sweet” means no sex. But we’re seeing a lot of what I call “dating books” where characters are internalizing all sorts of deep emotion but when they see the other romantic character all they can think is how attracted they feel and how amazing the other is, and then their actions are nothing but good and kind and mutually respectful—“sweet” behavior. That’s not gripping storytelling and it’s low stakes romance (because usually some external plotting introduces the missing confliction and tension). It’s also not motivated storytelling. Nobody wants to read all good and nice until the ending. Not even readers who want clean reads.

The answer to raising the stakes in low stakes romances is almost always in the existing backstory. What is that one thing the hero/heroine wants more than life itself before he/she meets the heroine/hero? It’s stronger if heroine’s goal ran her directly against hero’s pre-romance goal. Intersection rather than parallel stories (I call those “us against the world” stories). And the highest stakes? As per Robert McKee in his great book STORY: by choosing love they stand to lose that one thing they want more than life itself. Clearly that kind of high stakes is easier to do in a romance with life-and-death situations. But I believe it was McKee, who in his three-day workshop, relied heavily on “Titanic” as an example of high stakes romance. Not because of an imminent iceberg collision but because the heroine believes she is one kind of person and to give up the person she believes herself to be is a form of dying, so she struggles against falling in love and becoming the person the hero draws out of her. We want to see active struggle—active, not in their heads; love comes at a high cost. And will that cost be too high? Readers will have to read to the end to find out.

Here are some notes I’ve given authors to avoid romance clichés, raise the stakes and make the journey to the happy ending more unpredictable:

Do you feel you need to introduce this secondary character for plot, to give the heroine’s dad someone to love so the heroine can move on without worrying about him needing her? Does this not let your main character off the hook and make her path easier? How much more powerful would heroine’s decision to leave be if her dad is desperately lonely and needs her to stay?

How can you rough up and move hero closer to his goal rather than smooth his path and ease the romance: If he’s desperate to connect to his kids and he’s failing, and this woman starts making headway with the kids, is his reaction automatically relief and inviting the heroine on a date? What if it made him feel worse about himself, made him jealous of a stranger doing what he can’t? What if he avoids her, rather than embracing her? Or tries to compete with her? Or tries to belittle her? What if these reactions embarrass him and make him angry at himself? What if this good connection she makes with the boys brings out complex dark emotions in him rather than appreciation and gratitude? And what if he wasn’t as self-aware of why he feels so awful, so angry? What if the book is a journey to self-awareness for both?

You’ve successfully created a fallen hero who needs to redeem himself in his own eyes, and a widowed heroine, who lives for her son. The challenge is that as soon as they meet, the hero is instantly attracted to the heroine and she (while resisting slightly at first) is quickly attracted to him and how he rides to her rescue—and we don’t see the complex strongly motivated characters trying to get what they originally wanted. Now they just want love. Predictable journey to happy ending?

Victoria-SummerillPhotographyWEBMotivate your characters to act in a certain way, and then let them act. It will force the other character to react, setting off a chain of action and reaction. In first meeting it’s not advisable to let hero see past the heroine’s original action into her more predictable vulnerability with quivering chin and dropping eyes. Sometimes authors do this because they don’t trust that readers will like their independent characters. But readers respond to honest, original moments and satisfying action and reaction, so try not to think about the readers’ reaction yet. It’s all about the characters you’ve created.

If the heroine’s response is to be in the hero’s face, how can she show that other than the more obvious hands on hip and tossing hair and raising chin? Maybe it’s walking to his car, getting in and driving it away…or maybe it’s rolling up her pant legs and starting across the field to find help on her own… ?

It’s strange that the hero stays mum about the fact that he’s taking care of the B&B heroine has just told him she’s trying to go to. And when she wants to call the owner he doesn’t say, “That’s me”. I’m not sure what his motivation is to keep quiet here. What would happen if he did speak? Would that be a more honest exploration of action and reaction?

Annoying as he was/she sighed, realizing how annoyed he must be with her, she wasn’t typically an inconsiderate person: Annoyance and rudeness aren’t high stakes.

She needed to keep reminding herself of how obnoxious he’d been earlier: If she has to remind herself of obstacle, it’s not a real and active obstacle.

What was wrong with him?: Clue that character is behaving out of character. It’s in a ton of romances: the hero or heroine who cannot believe the attraction because it’s out of character. Much more interesting: What happens that’s in character for a unique individual an author has created. That’s something we don’t read everyday.

Donald Maas has a good chapter about low tension, and how there must be tension on every page—he uses “the tea scene”/best friend supportive chat scene as an example of low stakes, traditionally, in his Writing the Breakout Novel workbook. Try to avoid what McKee calls “writing on the nose”. If two characters are in a scene, they need to each be trying to get something from the other—there has to be tension and subtext and a winner and a loser at the end. Even in the tea scene.

If she ever found out why her parents got married: book relies on secrets (which isn’t the easiest plot device for novice authors…why not try eliminating all secrets and seeing how natural action/reaction can direct a plot. Too often secrets aren’t active because one person doesn’t know there’s this hidden conflict).

Heroine’s ex tracks her down and wants her back: convenient timing. External clichéd device imposed rather than resolution coming from acts main characters have taken that have led to a chain of actions and reactions. Victimized leads are more traditional; contemporary leads are more active and proactive—the victims of themselves not others.

I’ve gone on way too long, apologies! (I hope Carrie has cut this down before posting it….) (ed note – she didn’t, she loves every word of it!) Ultimately, we want to see all the meaty high stakes needs and tension and motivated action in our sweet/clean Harlequin Heartwarming romances that you find in a life-and-death bondage book like Fifty Shades of Grey. Just dig deeper past the surface sexual tension and give us that fabulous hero who watches the heroine leave the room…rather than watching her butt as she leaves.

As I say, I’m happy to answer any question you may have. Bring it!


Join us on Monday for Fried? Frazzled? Frustrated? Ruth Harris on How to be a Writer in the Twenty-First Century Without Going Bonkers


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38 Responses to “Fifty Shades of Sweet with Heartwarming Editor Victoria Curran”

  1. Victoria, I was so pleased to see the Heartwarming line–in fact, I’ve already ordered several books and am reading through them now to get a feel for the stories.

    I was starting to believe there was no place for the clean romance I’m trying to write, and was discouraged because I don’t read or write sexier romance, yet I don’t read or write inspirational, either. I wondered if there was even a place for me in today’s market.

    But it’s very (heh) heartening to know that when I’m ready Heartwarming is out there. I’ll definitely keep your post as a guideline for when my first draft is done and I’m revising and ready to get it out there into the world.

    Thanks to HQ Heartwarming for putting the spring in my (writing) step again!

    Posted by Linda Fletcher | October 11, 2013, 8:35 am
    • Thanks, Linda! I’m very proud of the fact that we’re the first to publish a series in this niche. I had an agent tell me at RWA a couple years ago that nobody else out there is doing the non-inspirational clean romance. And then this past year he updated me that one of the regional inspirational publishers has also launched a wholesome line that isn’t faith-based… Glad we were there first–and that it’s clearly something readers/writers want.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 8:43 am
  2. I just wanted to say that including those “real life” notes & comments was incredibly helpful. When you tweak some of the more predictable “what if’s,” it can change everything.

    Posted by Dana Ortegón | October 11, 2013, 8:44 am
    • Thanks, Dana. I vagued my notes up to protect the innocent! And got permission to quote myself from the one author I relied on most heavily. (Most of the notes came from a Brenda Novak critique she bid on from me. I believe the critique was for her first book, possibly second. I bought her third book. Seeing the growth in her writing has been such a treat.)

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 8:55 am
  3. First of all, thank you to the RU faculty for having Victoria ‘speak’ today (waving at Robin :). She’s truly an incredible editor and her guidance/advice is priceless.

    Hi Victoria! If you wrote a craft book, I’d buy it. Just say’in ;). This post is excellent. I printed it as a reference and I’ll keep in on my desk as I work on my 2nd Heartwarming :). Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

    Posted by Rula Sinara | October 11, 2013, 8:53 am
    • Hi, Rula! I’m blushing, stop it. It’s a beautiful sunny morning north of Toronto where I live. I have so much cleaning and baking to do for the weekend…and all I want to do is get downtown to join my brother and his family on the boardwalk at the Beach. I think a clean house and homemade baking are overrated.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 8:58 am
  4. Morning Victoria!

    I’ll agree, a clean house IS overrated! That is until company arrives….sigh. =)

    Absolutely excellent article. No way was I going to trim

    How about the type of romance where he/she declare right away “I have NO intention of EVER falling in love again!” and then showing how they do? Is that overdone?

    Thanks SO much for taking time during your holiday to chat with us today Victoria – much appreciated!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 11, 2013, 9:09 am
  5. Hey, Carrie, interesting question…not straightforward to answer? The “I’m never falling in love again” is a tough sell to an editor. Possibly because it’s a tough sell to a reader. When we get that line drawn in the sand right off the bat–and it’s a romance, so reader knows better, that love is around the corner 200 pages later–do we believe it or do we roll our eyes.

    I think it’s a starting point. If the reason for this anti-romance stance is specific and original, we’ll buy it! Too often, though, the reason is the character has had a bad experience with love. And that is something we see all the time: once burned, never again. It’s a bit generic. A bit of a cliche. But readers will forgive anything if you can turn a cliche or a beloved trope on its head and make it fresh and original.

    Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 9:28 am
  6. This is a wonderful post full of such great insights to this deep and meaningful line. I’ve taken away so much from it. Thank you for sharing these invaluable tips!

    Posted by Karen Rock | October 11, 2013, 10:18 am
    • Thanks, Karen. Not that you’re biased or anything! (#HarlequinHeartwarming published Karen’s first romance–Wish Me Tomorrow–last month, Sept/13. She’s had great response to this uplifting story about a cancer survivor. So poignant.)

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 10:26 am
  7. Hi Victoria!

    Great post! Two books in and working on the third, I’m hearing your voice in my head whenever there is a decision to be made about tension and raising the stakes. Ultimately, I’m trying to write my characters into corners they can’t get out of…I just hope I can get them out in the end:)
    Wonderful post! And I agree with Rula-please write a guidebook:)


    Posted by Jennifer Snow | October 11, 2013, 10:34 am
    • Thanks, Jen. I don’t envy writers, I have to confess. As an editor I can usually tell, from my position of distance form the work, what is working and what isn’t, and I can advise. But, wow! You guys have to write them into those corners and get them out again. How on earth do you do that? If I can help, I’m there for you, Jennifer! Hats off to authors and their ability to make readers wonder “how on earth”.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 10:39 am
  8. Your examples with commentary are wonderful! So helpful. This post is a lesson all by itself! I have a tendency to have my characters behave and think oh-so-reasonable-grown-up… Boring. Heaves heavy sigh. So I’m letting them be brattier, crankier, more anxious, more afraid… I seem to be going through my own character arc here!! 🙂

    Posted by Celia Lewis | October 11, 2013, 11:05 am
  9. Hi Victoria,

    I’ve noticed a trend of ex-spouses getting back together. Does this work well? When I’m writing, I remind myself not to forget to include the joy of falling in love. Sounds like Heartwarming Romance.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 11, 2013, 11:11 am
    • Hi, Mary Jo. I think the second chance at love between exes is a harder undertaking for a writer. So I might advise novice authors to stick to new love. Now, let me think why I’m saying this…. Maybe it’s because couples who have split have such a rich shared history, that their interaction can sometimes be too domestic? Having said that, I once edited a WONDERFUL story by former Superromance author Amy Frasier, Independence Day, about a married couple with adult daughters, who were basically on the brink of ending their marriage because it was all too tedious and not exciting. They finally decide to recommit to discovering their love anew. Wow, that author knew how to weave a compelling story.

      I guess the more I delve into trends and “rule”, the more I’m prone to say write what you love, stick to the story you want to tell. And you’re right, don’t forget the joy of falling in love.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 11:20 am
  10. Ah, Celia, your growth to self-realization! I love it. I always say: dig deeper into character. Rough them up. Warning: I have one Superromance author who does this so well that we descend into what I (lovingly) call psych-babble. She digs so deep, her characters are paralyzed. So with every piece of advice, there comes a grain of salt. Hopefully!

    Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 11:15 am
  11. Victoria,
    Such an informative post. I love Robert McKee’s book. It’s one you have to read more than once.
    Have fun with your family. And Happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

    Posted by Roz Fox | October 11, 2013, 11:27 am
  12. Happy Thanksgiving from Vancouver Island. I’m in the VIC RWA chapter here with Lee McKenzie, I think one of your new Heartwarming authors, so it’s interesting to hear more about the imprint.
    I’d be interested to hear more about the Golden Eagle too though. Maybe you can do another post.

    Posted by Judy Hudson | October 11, 2013, 12:02 pm
    • Happy Thanksgiving back at you, Judy! A Gold Eagle blog–fun idea…. Please say hi to Lee. I believe her books were part of our refresh test. So they came from another series originally.

      Posted by victoria | October 11, 2013, 1:09 pm
  13. Great advice, Victoria. I read through them twice! I also love the picture of you in blue (the cat one too!)

    Kudos on being the first to do sweet 🙂

    Posted by Pamela Tracy | October 11, 2013, 2:11 pm
    • Thanks, Pamela. The cat picture is from a year ago last September when I found three six-week-old tuxedo kittens near the office on my walk at lunch. They each had homes with Harlequin employees by the end of day, which is kind of amazing. Would you believe Harlequin Toronto and Harlequin NYC have each found two more stray kittens since then? What is with Harlequin and stray kittens, I want to know.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 3:15 pm
  14. Thank you so much for an extremely helpful article. Would you ever consider a 50K-word manuscript?

    Posted by Rebecca Stevenson | October 11, 2013, 2:37 pm
    • Hi, Rebecca, thank you so much for your interest! Unfortunately, Heartwarming books have to be 70- to 75,000 words. We have other series at Harlequin with books in the 50,000 word length. Check out our web site to see if your story aligns with those series:

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 3:20 pm
  15. First, Victoria–Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your holiday weekend is pleasant & peaceful.
    I don’t have a question, this is more of an observation—resulting in a shout out to the Harlequin editors. I’d like to thank them for being so accessible for questions and for answering promptly. They’re always kind and helpful, even though it’s probably the 500th time they’ve answered the same question.
    Harlequin is a huge entity, yet it never feels that way due to the personal touch conveyed by this group. Thank you all & please know it’s noticed and appreciated.

    Posted by C.L. Howland | October 11, 2013, 5:57 pm
    • Sorry I went AWOL there for a few hours–dinner with the family. I’ll just respond to these final posts before I sign off for the night. I appreciate the positive feedback, C.L. We do our best to be on top of timely communication. Although I owe several writers apologies for being behind in my unsolicited manuscript reading. So many deadlines get in the way!

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 10:45 pm
  16. Ms. Curran: the mention of Harlequin Gold Eagle was made in passing. If it is so open, I would interest in writing action/adventure for the line. (My thriller has been accepted by a small publisher and will be released around the first of the year.)

    But unless I missed it somehow in your post, I cannot find reference to it either here or online at the Harlequin website.

    How can I find further information about the line?

    Thank you.

    Posted by Jim | October 11, 2013, 6:47 pm
    • Hi, Jim. I only mentioned Gold Eagle in passing because this is Romance University–and the action/adventure and sci-fi books aren’t romances. Gold Eagle publishes a handful of ongoing continuity series with established, regular heroes and they’re written by a stable of authors under the pen names Don Pendleton, James Axler and Alex Archer. We don’t publish individual action/adventure books, or thrillers, for instance. Think of these like the Tarzan books, or the Hardy Boys. Does that help? Feel free to contact me through Harlequin if you’d like to know more.

      Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 10:53 pm
  17. Thank you for the examples in your post – they help a lot! The covers featured with your post are beautiful – I like that they don’t show faces but avoid falling into the “headless hero” type of cover.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 11, 2013, 8:14 pm
  18. Thank you all for letting me blog today. I wish you all a pumpkin pie weekend!

    Posted by Victoria | October 11, 2013, 11:01 pm
  19. Great post. Very helpful since I entered a heartwarming in the SYTYCW contest. I love this line because as I always say, “I write the worst sex scenes” and would rather read and write about how and why people fall in love and not what happens in the bedroom.

    Thanks for the advice.

    T.D. Jones

    Posted by T.D. Jones | October 13, 2013, 11:53 am
  20. Victoria:
    Thank you so much for your most informative guidelines, you covered a great deal in such a succinct way AND with a good dash of humour also. You also sound very sincere and I would imagine that you are.

    I’m writing from Ireland and am wondering if you accept submissions from the Green Sod?
    I have submitted on three previous attempts to your UK Office and NO, I was not accepted but that’s all part of the learning curve. Now, I have a good feeling about this line and also I like the sound of your good self.
    So I’m hoping you might consider accepting a submission from Ireland? Thanks again for a great post and for all those answers you gave as well.

    Posted by Mary | June 18, 2015, 4:33 pm
  21. You mentioned the victimization from exterior as being overused. I’m thinking of a plot with a heroine who is a survivor of psychological abuse and now works to counsel victims of domestic violence but hasn’t given up on love, though she has reservations. Would you consider this too cliche?

    Posted by Tonya Swearingen | February 28, 2016, 7:12 pm


  1. […] answered several questions, so don’t miss the comments and her responses at the end. Click here to read ‘Fifty Shades of […]

  2. […] missed Victoria Curran’s (Senior Editor, Harlequin Heartwarming) post at Romance University, ‘Fifty Shades of Sweet’, it’s a must read with concrete examples for anyone targeting the […]

  3. […] Harlequin Heartwarming Guidelines and the current Community thread for Heartwarming here.  And here is Victoria Curran’s post on Heartwarming on Romance University. Good […]

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