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!
Fifty 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.
Heartwarming, 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.
Some 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?
Motivate 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
- Romance: Finding your Own Happy Ending by Tessa Shapcott
- How to Write a Best Selling Romance with Melanie Milburne
- Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell
- Category Romance: Tips for Writing a Great First Chapter with Tessa Shapcott
- The Making of an Accidental Author with Adite Banerjie