Posted On April 22, 2015 by Print This Post

Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell

Welcome to one of my favorite authors (and people!) Kat Cantrell! I saw (and bought of course) Kat’s latest book in the store, and knew we had to have her back as a guest on RU. Comment for a chance to win both copies Kat’s latest series.

Kat_CantrellA little over three years ago, I entered a contest called So You Think You Can Write. One of my critique partners at the time looked into her crystal ball and said, “Not only do I think you’re going to win, Harlequin will take as many books from you as you can write.” Turns out she was right on both counts.

Since then, I’ve gone on to sign contracts for nineteen books and I just released my tenth book with Harlequin Desire. I’m writing four books a year, which I honestly would have considered lightning pace when I first entered the contest. Category romance is an interesting sector of the industry, often tagged as formulaic and maybe a bit old school. Once upon a time, when people talked about “Category”, they meant writing short books (usually between 50,000-55,000 words) with one of the Harlequin lines that publishes several titles a month, every month, like clock-work. But the rise of Entangled shows that readers like shorter books no matter who the publisher is, and indie publishing has exploded with shorter titles over the last couple of years.

cover_ex No matter who you’re writing for, the key is to write quality books and do it as often as you can. Category romance is often called formulaic and I’ve found that to be a blessing when trying to be so prolific. With that in mind, I’ve put together some tips on how to think about a shorter book because there is a method to the madness that can help if you’re trying to write both well and fast. If you can get the code down, you can repeat it. Because no one wants to write just one book.

The most important thing you can do is learn to outline. I know. I hear you wailing at your screen that you’re a pantser, and that works well for people who want to write long books and put out one or two a year. I’m not talking to those people. An outline is nothing more than a list of the turning points of the story. I think about my next outline while I’m finishing my current book. Whether you’re writing to a publisher’s deadline or your own, the next book is just around the corner.

What goes in the outline? The formula. It’s almost as bad a word as “outline”, isn’t it? No. Stop thinking like that. It’s your best friend because you want to write a consistently good story so your readers will come back for more. When writing a shorter book, you’ve got so little space to work that it’s critical to focus on the romance. Five short sentences can go in your outline: First meet with the romance set up, turning point one where the romantic stakes rise, turning point two where happily ever after seems possible, turning point three, which is the black moment, and the resolution.

Now expand on those sentences with your other best friend, GMC (goal, motivation and conflict). Your character’s GMC (goal, motivation and conflict) should be external and concrete at the beginning of the book and change into internal and emotional by the end of the book. And both the hero’s and heroine’s should tie so closely to each other, removing one element would cause the story to collapse. Don’t know your character’s GMC? Figure it out.

cover_exGMC is nothing more than creating complex characters who behave consistently and have qualities which make them heroic and likable. Additionally, you’ll give them flaws and quirks which make them unique, interesting and memorable. The characters makeup should create and maintain the GMC and plot. The reader must understand why the characters are the way they are.

The emotional conflict that drives the story is best served if it stems from the “love belief” or other moral belief (moral to the character, not necessarily society) of the heroine and hero working in opposition to each other, not from external forces. For example, in thinking about your characters—if they were trapped in a cave, what internal barriers would keep them from living happily ever after? This is that thing where you can’t have their conflict easily solved with a conversation. Because they’re going to talk. So what’s really keeping them apart?

The crux of the story should center on the emotional journey of the characters, not external plot. Your plot becomes a series of conversations (see, I told you they were going to be talking!) between your hero and heroine—set within the story world and consistent with the character’s professions or situations in life—about the issues which divide them. Each scene should uncover layers of their personality and allow them to know the other better, which challenges the assumptions they’ve made about each other. Each scene should remind them simultaneously why they want to be together and why they can’t and your GMC is the guide in each scene.

The external plot should serve to simply force the hero and heroine together. The emotional conflict is what keeps them apart. The stakes must be crucial enough that neither can walk away when things get difficult and get more crucial as you work through your turning points. Keep in mind that we’re talking “crucial” to the character. Make their backstory work to show us why X is so important.

And now wrap it up. Your black moment is when it’s finally too much. One or both characters have had enough. But it’s the act of walking away (symbolically or physically) that causes them both to realize what they’ve lost. Love gives the characters courage to change the internal conflicts which have been keeping them apart. The resolution should show how the act of falling in love has completed the journey for both hero and heroine.

Easy, right? Another exercise you can try is to read books in a similar vein to the ones you want to write, and then deconstruct the “formula” for yourself. All good books have them. Your goal is to learn it and then make your story stand out through the unique way you put it together.

In the comments, let me have it! Formula: bad or good?

I’ll give away a digital copy of both books in the Newlywed Games duo, FROM FAKE TO FOREVER and FROM EX TO ETERNITY, in winner’s choice of format to one lucky commenter. Thanks for hanging out with me today.


Comment for a chance to win!

Join us on Friday for Miranda Liasson’s How Not to be Boring


Bio: Kat read her first Harlequin novel in third grade and has been scribbling in notebooks since she learned to spell. What else would she write but romance? When she’s not writing about characters on the journey to happily ever after, she can be found at a soccer game, watching Friends or dancing with her kids to Duran Duran and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kat, her husband and their two boys live in North Texas. She’s a proud member of Romance Writers of America®. Kat was the 2011 Harlequin So You Think You Can Write winner and a 2012 RWA® Golden Heart® finalist for best unpublished series contemporary manuscript. She writes passionate stories about smart, sassy heroines and the men who try to keep up with them for Harlequin Desire and Carina Press.
Visit Kat’s website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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39 Responses to “Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell”

  1. Ms Cantrell, this article is timely for me as I recently decided to stop writing pages upon pages and concentrate on my crafting skills. No contests or twitter pitches for me for a while.

    I think the formula makes the books more difficult to write than other genres where there is considerable leeway. Harlequins are all so different yet follow the same path.

    From my initial read alone, I discovered I rely too much on the external conflict, don’t have clear ( if any) turning points and finally use complementary rather than conflicting emotional beliefs.
    I’ve bookmarked your article as I will probably find more things when I read it again. We have an unexpected Irish heatwave so my brain is sluggish.

    I will also look for the formula in further reading of Harlequin books.
    Thanks for a very helpful article.

    Posted by Mary Fahey | April 22, 2015, 7:56 am
    • Thanks for coming by Mary! I’m glad the article was helpful, and do keep in mind that I like the formula and therefore I’m a good fit for Harlequin where repetition is key. 🙂 If you like leeway, you can certainly find another path that better suits your writing skills.

      But I think you’ve hit upon elements of your own craft that are definitely worth examining no matter what kind of book you ultimately want to write (external conflict, turning points and emotional beliefs). Good luck with your career!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 9:25 am
  2. As a reader, I love the formula. We want to know what we’re going to get, right? As a writer, I find it incredibly helpful to have that guidance. I think writers tend to think of outlines as being quite detailed but your system here provides a nice framework. Thanks!

    Posted by Kerrie Strong | April 22, 2015, 8:13 am
    • Thanks Kerrie! I agree, I do want to know what I’m going to get. 🙂 And yes, the guidance is what I love. I freeze if I have too many variables, so it really works for me. As an aside, my initial outline is literally less than ten sentences. I eventually blow that out into my synopsis because I have to submit one for every book I write, so it’s helpful to have that framework, as you put it. Thanks for coming by.

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 9:27 am
  3. Nice and succinct. As is the trouble with most formulas, the devil is in the details when it comes to implementation. Of course it is the ‘details’ that make the difference between a Model T and a Mustang, eh? (and both are ‘classics’)


    Thanks for the good advice and overview.

    Posted by Nick | April 22, 2015, 8:52 am
    • Well, that’s true Nick. 🙂 Writing a novel requires a bit of je ne sais quoi. I almost included some details from one of my outlines in the article and decided against it because your details may wildly differ from my details. No matter what, you just can’t go wrong with focusing on the emotions in a romance because that’s what readers are there for. Thanks for your great comment!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 9:42 am
  4. Great article. Kat! I love your explanation of how “the formula” works for you, and declaring it’s NOT a bad word. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Sia Huff | April 22, 2015, 11:20 am
  5. Hi Kat,

    This comment was sent to us via email by Skye Michaels…

    This was an excellent article. There is definitely a formula although I do not outline. I probably read over fifty erotic romance books before I started writing them. I wanted to know how they worked, what was said, how far they went. There is no Naughty Books 101 to learn the craft. I started writing in this genre before I ever heard of Fifty Shades. My first books were very short (22,000 to 36,000 words). My second series got longer as I learned how to do it (50,000 to 67,000 words), and then I started to trying shortening them again and putting out a book a month last year. That was a killer, and I don’t think I will be able to keep up that schedule as life seems to have a habit of getting in the way.

    As for plot, I just start with characters and a few sentences in my head of what the story is going to be about and then just roll. In Cassandra’s Revenge, the idea was a woman and her best friend go on a BDSM singles cruise to Cozumel aboard the Golden Dolphin mega yacht which hosts secret BDSM cruises. On the first night she sees the guy who stood her up for prom fifteen years ago across the deck. She never saw him again or found out why he had not shown up. She recognizes him, he does not recognize her. Off and running. However, I see your point. I find that sometime near the middle of the story I get into a slump. It’s not writer’s block. It is more like “what the heck am I going to do next block.” Sometimes I’ve written myself into a corner or just haven’t come up with a credible conflict. I will usually think about it for a day or two and wake up one morning with the answer. My subconscious will have come up with an idea, and I’m off and running again. After twenty-six and three-quarters books (26 already published by Siren Publishing) I find this works for me although there are some hairy moments. But, everyone works differently and some writers need the structure of an outline. When I’m at a loss, I think I might be one of them! LOL – Skye Michaels

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 22, 2015, 12:35 pm
    • Hi Skye, our subconscious is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?? I find that sometimes I have to forget about a story problem overnight as well. 🙂 And congrats on writing so many books. That’s a huge accomplishment. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 6:22 pm
  6. Hi Kat,

    I’m a pantser and cringed at the word “outline” but knew you were right, so I forced myself to read on. I LOVED the way you broke this down! I’m going to really, really, try to make an outline for my next two books. We’ll see if it helps me write faster. I shall let you know… because you know I know where to find you! XOXOX

    Posted by Tammy Baumann | April 22, 2015, 12:46 pm
  7. Excellent advice! And a lot for me to think about with my current novel-in-progress. I started it as a pantser but found I need to do more research and also do an outline so I will know where I’m going. Thanks again!

    Posted by Pam | April 22, 2015, 12:52 pm
  8. Hi Kat,

    I would actually love to see one of your outlines, just to see how it all comes into action.

    I read (a lot!) and like catagory romance because they can be finished in a short time. And as a mother of 3,time is of the essence 🙂

    Posted by Lia | April 22, 2015, 1:41 pm
    • Hi Lia! I’m sensing I need to come back with an in-depth outlining post…We’ll see if the powers that be bite on that idea. Carrie?

      Thanks for taking time away from your mother duties to hang out with me!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 6:27 pm
  9. Afternoon Kat!

    Excellent, excellent article. =) I’m sure this one will be bookmarked a LOT!

    I struggle with the “love belief” or moral belief part….Mine always seems so wishy-washy! But I will take your advice and deconstruct a book or two, see if I can nail down what they’re doing that I’m missing!

    Thanks so much for posting with us – I know you’re super busy!

    take care


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 22, 2015, 2:53 pm
    • Hi Carrie, thanks for having me! I find my biggest problem with the “love belief” is that I have a hard time thinking of new ones. So I try to couple it with other beliefs, like “I’d do anything for someone I love except ____” or “I’d never fall in love with ______”. In all my books, I try to make the blank about a particular theme, like in The Baby Deal, Juliana refuses to be in love with someone who takes too many risks. Of course I matched her with a guy who never met a plane he wouldn’t jump out of. Simple concept but oh, so great when you’re thinking about internal conflict. Why won’t she be with someone who takes too many risks? Because she’s scared of losing him, of course…See how it works?

      Maybe I should do a post on that too. LOL

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 6:32 pm
  10. I thought I was a pantser but I also work from a short outline like the one you’ve described. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by Heatherly Bell | April 22, 2015, 3:23 pm
    • Hi Heatherly! Really, the outline doesn’t have to be long and we won’t tell anyone you’re secretly plotting. 🙂

      By the way, I just downloaded your book, All of Me. Can’t wait to read it! FREEEEEE book, everyone!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 22, 2015, 6:35 pm
  11. Very helpful, thanks! Saving this article.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | April 22, 2015, 4:09 pm
  12. Thanks for sharing. and congratulations on an amazing career.

    I appreciate your tips on writing formula romance. And thanks for the reminder that the external plot is only there to force the H/H together.

    I’d love to be entered in the drawing. Thanks!

    Posted by Jackie Layton | April 22, 2015, 4:17 pm
  13. Kat, this was awesome. Thanks so much and much continued success!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | April 22, 2015, 7:28 pm
  14. I noticed in your bio that you started reading romance in the third grade! Wow! So young. I got hooked my freshman year in high school. I love the Harlequin line and was reading Harlequin Desire for a VERY long time before sticking to Harlequin Blaze. This post really helped because I’m a newbie in the romance genre. Before this, I was writing YA and I kept having a dream about a character that definitely wasn’t a teenager. So I decided to try my hand at writing romance since I’ve been reading them for so long.
    In one of your comments, you mentioned that you had thought about putting details of one of your outlines in the article and I wish you had. I consider myself a visual learner and would’ve loved to have seen an example. Could you still send me something via email?

    Posted by Evolet Yvaine | April 22, 2015, 7:39 pm
    • Hi Evolet! Yes, I was hiding that romance novel under the covers. 🙂 Good luck with your transition to romance.

      I think I’m going to be coming back soon with a post on outlining. Thanks for asking and for coming by!

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 23, 2015, 9:32 am
  15. Hi Kat,

    I use an outline, too. It’s my GPS and keeps me focused on the major plot points, even if I’m not writing in a linear fashion.

    Great to have you back! Thanks for a terrific post. (And no, I can’t read a book or watch a movie without deconstructing it.)

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 22, 2015, 11:04 pm
  16. Thanks for a great post, Kat. Yet another document to add to my ever growing Kat Cantrell words of wisdom file.

    Although I do outline, I’d love to see an example of yours.

    Posted by Gia Alden | April 23, 2015, 10:23 am
  17. This is AWESOME, Kat! Thanks so much! I’m sorry I’m late – I had an adventure day with my granddaughter yesterday, while her mommy and daddy brought the new baby home from the hospital.

    Huge congratulations on your success!!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 23, 2015, 11:25 am
  18. Fantastic post with loads of great advice for those of us hoping to someday be (like you) regular Harlequin authors. I particularly liked your advice on using the external conflict to keep them H/H together and the emotional conflict to keep them apart. I think far too many authors focus on the external elements and lose sight of the internal/emotional bits! I’ll be revisiting this post often!

    Posted by Margo Karolyi | April 26, 2015, 10:45 am
  19. Thanks everyone for having me! Tammy Baumann is the winner of the giveaway. Congrats!

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 27, 2015, 1:14 pm


  1. […] my last Romance University post, I mentioned the word “outline” and it raised some eyebrows. I’m hoping most of them were […]

  2. […] Cantrell presents Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often posted at Romance […]

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