By Helena Fairfax (Guest Blogger)
Each year the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association runs a New Writers’ Scheme. At the end of the year members of the NWS submit a manuscript – or a partial manuscript – for a full critique by one of the members of the RNA. For two years I was a member of the NWS, and last year I became a proud graduate with the release of my debut novel, The Silk Romance.
I thought it might be of interest to share some of the things I learned through this excellent scheme. When I first started out, like a lot of writers I had no idea just how much I didn’t know! Some of the points on this list might seem obvious, and nowadays I take a lot of these things for granted, which just goes to show how much I’ve grown as a writer since being on the scheme. I owe my reader at the RNA so much for the way my writing has matured.
- 1. The first thing I learned was that my fictional characters are living and breathing people. When I first had a manuscript read I found it both exciting and strangely alarming to find that readers and editors take my creations seriously. Up until then, my hero and heroine were just people in my head. They are not – they’re alive!
- 2. Because the characters are living and breathing people, they MUST have clear motivations and reasons for their behaviour. It’s not enough to say that the heroine has issues trusting people, for example, or that the hero fears losing control. Readers expect to know WHY this is the case. What is it in the characters’ past that has made them this way? My reader advised, ‘Keep asking yourself why/why not?’
- 3. A romance story must contain emotional tension. As my reader said, ‘It’s about why the hero and heroine, so obviously attracted to each other, not only won’t admit they have fallen in love but feel that they can’t….Your hero and heroine should have goals that are in direct opposition to each other.’
- 4. Next is the question of plot. There must be a situation which FORCES the hero and heroine together. If not, why don’t they just part on page four, if they are in opposition to one another? What will force them to stay together throughout the course of a whole novel?
- 5. Again on the subject of plot, my reader pointed out: ‘When you’re structuring a romance, you should be thinking about the plot not so much as moving your characters from A to B but as a series of situations that test their fears and bring their goals into conflict.’ The emotional conflict is NOT plot-driven and therefore requires a lot of skill to sustain in an interesting way - as all romance writers know!
- 6. In a romance novel, it’s OK for the hero and heroine to have flaws, but they must come across as essentially likeable characters who readers want to get to know. This can be quite hard to do, especially if you have an alpha male hero, who can sometimes come across as an impossible arse. Or you may have a heroine who makes mistakes. We all make mistakes, but your heroine shouldn’t be TSTL (too stupid to live! :) )
- 7. The synopsis. Most romance publishers ask for a synopsis of the novel. It’s absolutely vital that the synopsis shows these points clearly: characterisation, motivation, cause of emotional tension, and reason why the characters are forced together.
- 8. The dreaded rewrite. In the first year of the NWS I submitted only the first three chapters, as I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction. After taking my reader’s advice, I had to substantially rewrite. But I took heart from my reader’s last words: ‘This is a story with lots of potential and although it does need some restructuring, and yes, some extra work, I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think once you get started!’ And my reader was right. At first, I was daunted, but now I never mind rewriting. I don’t find it too hard and, as a perfectionist, I enjoy the feeling that I am manipulating the words to get the best story I can.
- 9. Handling rejection. Of course I was disappointed the novel wasn’t quite right first time, but the accompanying letter from the RNA’s president gave some very positive advice: ‘Always bear in mind that most published authors have experience of rejection. All writers, published and unpublished, need to be tenacious and determined…Have faith in yourself!’
- 10. I resubmitted the entire novel the next year. This taught me another great lesson – in order to get a book written, you have to sit down and WRITE. No excuses or procrastination. If I’d missed the scheme’s deadline, that would have been it. I had to force myself to write, whether I felt like it or not, in order to get the book finished on time.
With my rewrites, my reader felt The Silk Romance was ready for publication. What a great feeling that was! And it was even better when my book was finally released. I owe the RNA and my reader a massive debt and learned so much through them!
If you’re interested to know what The Silk Romance is all about, here is the blurb:
Sophie Challoner is sensible and hard-working, and a devoted carer of her father. One night her grandmother throws a ball for her in Paris…and Sophie does something reckless that she can never forget.Jean-Luc Olivier is not a man to treat lightly. And so when fate takes a hand years after the ball and reunites him with Sophie in Lyon, he is determined not to let her go a second time.
But it seems the fates are conspiring against their happiness. Jean-Luc has secrets of his own. And when disaster strikes at home in London, Sophie is faced with a choice—stay in this glamorous world with the man she loves, or return to her family to keep a sacred promise she made her mother.
The heat of the day had turned cool when they stepped outside to the waiting car. Night had fallen. Jean-Luc held the car door for her wordlessly. Sophie slid inside, edging her way along the cool leather to the further corner. As she reached to click her seat belt in place, she felt Jean-Luc slide into the seat beside her. He turned, and their eyes met. What Sophie saw there dissolved her anxiety in an instant, and she drew in her breath in an unexpected rush of compassion. All the anger he had displayed inside the restaurant had left him. She was struck by the hollowness in his eyes on hers. Impulsively, she reached forward to catch both his hands in hers.
“I’m sorry,” she said, the words tumbling out of her rapidly. “I didn’t realise… If I could take that night back, I would.”
“Take it back?” His hands tightened fiercely on hers, his tone incredulous. “Sophie—”
Before she could react, before she even guessed his intention, Jean-Luc pulled her toward him with the sweep of one powerful arm. Her breath left her body in a small gasp. With his other hand he swept her chin up to meet him, and then his lips were on hers. In an instant she was responding with an urgency of her own. He was holding her to him with all the force in his powerful arms, her body so tight against his chest she could feel the violent thudding of his heart against her ribcage.
Dimly, she registered the car was moving. Her senses filled with the warmth of him, the urgent heat of his mouth exploring hers. With no thought of breaking free, she reached up one hand to circle it around his strong neck, leaning in towards him, pulling him closer. Her gentle, passionate response brought Jean-Luc to his senses. He pulled himself away, muttering under his breath. Sophie felt the grip of his hands on her shoulders as he pushed her at arm’s length, the force in him eating into her so that she felt like a rag doll under his grasp.
“What is it?” Her breathing was uneven. She tried to regulate it, to sit up straight, but was powerless to move. She saw the direction of his gaze fall on her long bare legs as she twisted herself under the strength of his grip. With a curse, he dropped his hands from her shoulders and ripped his gaze away, so that now all she could see was his stark profile.
“Sophie,” he began again huskily. “Sophie, this is not what I want.”
“Isn’t it?” In that moment, a hollowness rushed to fill her, so that she could barely bring herself to speak. She turned her own face away in bewilderment. Outside the window, the black waters of the river Rhône could be seen as they crossed the bridge, orange lights bobbing and rippling on its surface.
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Helena Fairfax was born in Uganda and came to England as a child. She’s grown used to the cold now and that’s just as well, because nowadays she lives in an old Victorian mill town in Yorkshire, right next door to windswept Brontë country. She has an affectionate, if half-crazed, rescue dog and together they tramp the moors every day—one of them wishing she were Emily Brontë, the other vainly chasing pheasants. When she’s not out on the moors you’ll find Helena either creating romantic heroes and heroines of her own or else with her nose firmly buried in a book, enjoying someone else’s stories. Her patient husband and her brilliant children support her in her daydreams and are the loves of her life.
You can find Helena on her blog: www.helenafairfax.com
on Facebook www.facebook.com/HelenaFairfax, or on Twitter @helenafairfax
Thanks so much for having me today, Lisabet!