Kate's Tips

I don't read 'how to write' books. Mainly because they terrify me. (There is an exception - Kate Walker's '12 point guide', which is practical and sensible and kind, very much like Kate W herself.) Writing friends of mine swear by plotboards and collages; I don't do them either, because I know I'd spend way too much time messing about with sticky notes and/or finding the perfect picture for the collage and note enough time writing!

It's horses for courses. If books and methods and collages and boards work for you, great. If they don't, then don't panic or start thinking that there's something wrong with you. It just means they don't work for you.

So my tips are a simply quick and dirty guide to romantic fiction. I've hit pain barriers in the past (either as a writer or as a reader), and these points are simply ways to get round the barriers. They're not a blueprint or something to follow to the letter: they're things to think about.

Cut for pace

In category romance, you only have about 50,000 words to play with, so we're talking about TIGHT writing. This means cutting for pace.

  • Lose most of the introspection and descriptive writing (it slows the pace, tends to be passive and gets in the way). Change it to action and dialogue, but ONLY if it moves the plot forward: otherwise, cut.
  • Avoid flashbacks (they slow the pace unless you're very careful with them - think of them as a seasoning rather than a main ingredient, and keep them short)
  • Keep the focus mainly on the hero and heroine
  • Use secondary characters to shed light on the main characters and/or move the plot forward, but DON'T let them take over. (I tend to include them because my books have a 'real-world' feel - but if you're writing an intense two-hander/glam fantasy, secondaries will get in the way and wreck the pace.)
  • Be brave about cutting - if it doesn't move the book forward, lose it. (It's not wasted work: it's been useful background for you and you'll know your characters better because of it, but the reader doesn't need the same amount of background.)

Beginnings

This is your chance to grab your readers and make them keep reading. So give them compelling reasons to keep reading:

  • Start with a moment of change, preferably using dialogue
  • Get the hero and heroine together on the page as quickly as you can - if they're not physically together, at least get the other one's name mentioned, in dialogue or thought (this is because your readers will have the strongest bond with the first characters they meet)
  • Start in the right place - if you need lengthy explanations (aka an information dump of the back-story), you're either starting too late in the action or writing the wrong story.

Middles

This is where your characters grow and start to change. It's also a good place to reveal secrets (or, in a longer book, introduce a subplot) and complications.

  • Watch out for saggy middles - if yours sags, you need more emotional conflict and tension to lift it. (NB this is not the same as arguing!)
  • Drop the bombshells here to increase the conflict rather than leaving them to the end of the book.
  • The end of the middle section is a good place to drop the biggest bombshell, aka the 'Black Moment' - where the characters seem to be in an impossible situation and the resolution isn't immediately obvious.

Endings

The resolution - all conflict (including the Black Moment) is resolved.

  • The climax starts at the beginning of the end: where the hero/heroine (or both) has a choice between two courses of action.
  • Doesn't have to end with a wedding or a baby - as long as we believe the hero and heroine will be happy together

Characters

In a romance, the idea is that your reader will fall in love with the hero, and identify with the heroine. This means you have to do it, too - if you don't, it will show on the page and your reader will lose interest.

  • Get to know your characters well, so they're consistent and have integrity - so you know how they'll react to a given situation. Motivation is really important - it often drives the conflict.
  • Dripfeed the information to your reader (aka 'show, don't tell')
  • Put enough physical markers in so your reader can 'see' your characters (but avoid the 'information dump' with three adjectives per noun - less is definitely more)

Conflict

This is crucial - without it you don't have a story. You need a conflict big enough to sustain a whole book and give the 'emotional punch' your reader is looking for. Your characters need a reason to be together (i.e. attraction) and reasons why they can't act on that attraction (i.e. conflict). External conflict comes from outside the hero/heroine to keep them apart (eg Romeo and Juliet's families). Internal conflict comes from inside the characters - it affects their attraction to each other and is resolved by them learning more about each other. Conflict is something that cant be resolved by just talking things through, and it's more than bickering and sulking (that's static and bores the reader - ditto 'he loves me/he loves me not'). Conflict should:

  • build tension
  • show the hero/heroine's motivations (i.e. a valid reason for their actions)
  • make the hero/heroine face a choice
  • change the characters (as the conflict is resolved, the characters grow)
  • increase as you go through the book (i.e. put bigger obstacles in the characters' path)

Emotional punch

Basically you're looking to take your reader into another world. Make her laugh, make her cry, make her angry on your hero/heroine's behalf, and make her punch the air at the end when the conflict is resolved and your characters get their happy ending. (So the emotional punch brings the story and the conflict home to the reader.) How?

  • Think yourself into your characters' shoes - with their backgrounds/personality, how would YOU react to a situation?
  • Think about the best and/or worst thing that's ever happened to you and how you felt - then translate that emotional intensity into how your characters are feeling at a high or low point of the book.
  • Add physical feelings to emotions - are any of your hero/heroine's senses really intensified? How? (And remember there are five senses, not just sight.
  • Use one tiny, telling detail as shorthand. What's the one thing that will show the reader that your hero/heroine's grief/pain/joy is so great that he/she can't contain it?

Show, don't tell

Think about it: would you prefer to watch a film where the characters talk for themselves and interact, or would you prefer to watch a slide show where the narrator only tells you what he/she thinks you need to know? Show rather than tell by using:

  • Dialogue rather than reported speech (i.e. 'she told him she loved him and he told her he loved her too' - reported speech is good for filling in the odd gap/skipping a period of time, but keep it to a couple of lines max)
  • Interaction between characters
  • Action (the reader need some introspection to get into the characters' heads, but too much slows the pace down)
  • The active voice ('the chicken crossed the road' rather than 'the road was crossed by the chicken' - active is where someone does something, passive is where something done to someone)

 

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