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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

9 Mistakes Contest Entrants Make by Mary Fechter

I've entered and judged TONS of contests in the past few years, including the Golden Heart. Below is a combination of mistakes I've seen and mistakes I've made. Some are nitpicky, but still make a difference in your voice, which I believe is the secret to your success. Let me save you some of the same heartache before you send off your baby!

1) Too many characters too soon.

Whatever you do, don't confuse the reader with two many characters. The simpler the better. I was told to remove three characters from the first scene of my contracted book, and was repeatedly dinged in Hot Shot for introducing another woman before the heroine.

2) Lack of setting.

Put the reader in the time and place right away, in each change of scene. Don't go overboard, but incorporate it in the action. I read an entry recently where the character was merely walking down the street, but the tension was layered in with sense of time and place, and the suspense built from that. Include as many of the five senses as make sense.

3) What's the problem?

Bring in conflict as soon as you can without sounding contrived, certainly by the end of the first chapter. Let us know why the hero and heroine can't just walk into the sunset right now, and it needs to be beyond the fact that he's a cop and she's a suspect. Go deep. Maybe you don't need to show it up front, but give us a hint at the conflict, even if you don't go into why.

4) Let your voice shine.

I can't tell you how many entries I read that sound like they've been through critique group one too many times. Don't let well-meaning critique groups erase your voice. Be ware of passive voice, as well. Those sentences that start with "It was" and "There was" are pretty easy to rearrange, most of the time, which keeps your writing tighter.

5) No ending hook.

I know this has been discussed, but I think it's important to have hooks, or at least strong sentences, at the end of each scene, and especially at the end of the partial. Let that editor or judge feel she HAS to know what happens next! I've manipulated many contest entries (spent hours deleting words or sentences to meet the contest requirements) so I could end my entry on a strong hook.

6) Wordy sentences.

Usually this is a problem in the hero's POV, but many times it's a clarity issue. Nothing wrong with breaking an idea into two sentences or more.

7) Talking Heads

Watch for long stretches of dialogue with no tags. Give action tags or something, every few lines, to ground the reader in the scene and clarify who's speaking.

8) Commas.

Most of the mistakes I see are in dialogue.

If your character is addressing someone, that should be separated by a comma.

“Mal, I don’t think you should open that door.”

“I don’t know what to think, Bella!”

When using a tag with quotation marks, and the sentence is a statement (not a question or an exclamation), you punctuate with a comma.

“I’m tired of this. I’m going home,” Maddy said.

“So sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Ben muttered.

When using the tag before the quotation marks, you separate with a comma.

Rolling his eyes at her, he added, “And then we can go home.”

These are the main boo-boos I see in judging contests. Most people know how to separate items in a list, but may insert a comma where it's not needed.

For example:

The dark, blue dress clung to her figure. No comma needed here because A) dark describes blue and B) you only need a comma with more than two adjectives. Can I think of an example at 1:30 AM? No, I cannot.

Also, there should be a comma between an introductory word (like also, or no ;) ) and the rest of the sentence.


I've known two people who finished their book for the GH and then waited to submit till they knew if they finalled. Who has that kind of time in this business? Submit, submit, submit (as soon as it's polished, of course.) And then write something new!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Downunder Finalists – Was it Worth it? By Trish Morey

Downunder began a love affair with the Golden Heart Contest way back in 1993. Joan Kilby wasn’t exactly a Downunderer way back then but we’re more than happy to adopt her. It wasn’t until 1998 that we saw our first home grown golden girls with both Fiona Brand and Cathy Sneyd finaling. It was my own turn to party five years later when 2003 rolled around.

Maybe a sluggish start, but since then we’ve had another eight finalists hail from Australia and New Zealand – Tessa Radley in 2004, Sandra Hyde and Karina Bliss in 2005, Abby Gaines, Christine Wells and Anna Campbell (our first double finalist) in 2006 and Bronwyn Clarke along with another double finalist, Mel Scott in 2007. Not only finalists, but Downunder has scored three Golden Heart wins in three successive years, with wins to Karina Bliss, Christine Wells and Bronwyn Clarke.

With success like this, it’s easy to see why the Golden Heart is now firmly in the sights of many budding romance writers Downunder. But what were the hardships and difficulties of entering the contest from the other side of the world? Finaling is obviously nice, but was it worth the effort?

There’s no doubt the Golden Heart is tougher to enter when you’re off-shore, simply due to the tyranny of distance. A package of Golden Heart manuscripts weighs enough to make your postmaster’s eyes light up with dollar signs and your hip pocket nerve start to bleed. Some of our golden girls have paid in the region of $70 to ensure their precious package arrives and arrives on time. This is on top of the entry fee, so entering this contest starts to get pricey. (Aside: Final, and you’re looking at airfares of anywhere from $2500 to $4000 and that’s just to get to Nationals and it starts to become a very expensive exercise indeed.)

Tessa Radley had a great suggestion for postage. She advises, ‘The cheapest way to enter from down under is to pool together with a group of other writers and buy a box from Fedex. Then pack as many manuscripts as you can in, and split the cost. That way you’re also able to track your entries and be certain they arrive by due date.”

Working out when you have to get your entry away is another big hurdle. Postal time (you really have to allow two weeks if you don’t choose to go the courier route) really cuts into polishing time, so your manuscript has to be ready to go extra early.

Because of this our golden girls were unanimous – the Golden Heart is not for beginners. The costs are high and feedback is negligible, so you want to make sure you send off your very best work.

But even if you send off your very best efforts, what about cultural differences? The Golden Heart contest is, after all, an American contest. Does our Aussie/Kiwi vernacular translate? Here’s what Fiona Brand had to say. “I think the cultural differences can be a small barrier, particularly with humour and subtlety, but they can also be a plus--Down under manuscripts will always stand out.”

So to summarize, it’s going to cost you a decent amount to enter, you’re going to have to keep an eye on that time line and your best bet is to send off your very best work (good advice for everyone!) and with a dollop of luck on the day, your manuscript might stand out as fresh and innovative and a worthy finalist. But was it worth it for our finalists? Listen to the evidence.

Joan Kilby says, ‘I didn't sell my GH book but having finaled definitely got editors' attention for subsequent submissions. Paula Eykelhof was one of the judges and she remembered me when I later submitted to SuperRomance.’ Joan now has more than a dozen SuperRomance and Everlasting titles to her name, as well as a RITA nomination for her very first book to her credit.

Fiona Brand sold her Golden Heart story to Silhouette Intimate Moments and now writes for MIRA and Desire. Fiona said, “I think finaling made it look like I could go places in publishing, which is useful!’ A subsequent RITA nomination for Fiona backs that up in spades.

Cathy Sneyd eventually sold her finalist story but only after she’d sold historicals to Kensington under the name Kate Silver. Now Cathy writes super sexy Victorian historicals as Leda Swan for Avon Red, and is “loving every minute of it”. As to whether finaling in the GH helped her career, Cathy says, “I don’t think that finaling in the Golden Heart made much difference to me at all. But it did give my confidence a boost when I needed it, when I was thinking about giving up because I was finding the whole business too frustrating.”

Tessa Radley sold to Silhouette Desire in 2004, her GH finalist become her second sale, after what Tessa admits was “a LOT of re-writing!” In her words “Of all the contests I finaled in, the GH is definitely the one that resulted in the most editor and agent interest. From my perspective, the number of friends I made among the finalists in my year made the entire experience a really positive one.

Karina Bliss from New Zealand took out our first ever Downunder Golden Heart win in Reno, 2005, to much screaming applause from the Downunder contingent. Karina says, “I never sold the winning ms. BUT, I did have another ms with Superromance (my first sale) and after the ceremony my eventual editor, Victoria Curran, came up and introduced herself to me, so I'm sure winning helped to tip the scales.”

2006 finalist, Abby Gaines, is now writing for both Hqn SuperRomance and Nascar while Double GH finalist, Anna Campbell, is happily penning tales (and RT top picks!) for Avon. “The double final,” Anna said, ‘got my agent to submit my manuscript. It arrived on editors' desks with that great credential behind it. Within three weeks of finaling, I'd sold at auction to Avon.” In fellow finalist, Abby’s words, “I don’t think the GH final was what made the sale, because the editor had already told me they were very interested in two of my mss. But I think it gave them a nudge to pick up the phone and make The Call!’ Abby’s finalist story in fact became her second sale.

2006 Golden Heart winner, Christine Wells, had this to say. “Scandal’s Daughter finaled in the short historical category. I sold it to Berkley after I finaled but before I won.” I asked Christine whether she thought the GH had an impact on her selling, “I don’t think it hurt! When my agent sent out submissions to editors, she put in the email subject line that I was a Golden Heart finalist so I think it does mean something!”

And here’s how Bronwyn Clarke, our 2007 winner, sees the win as impacting on her career – “The publicity following the GH final and win generated several queries to me from leading agents and major publishers, and these resulted in an agent offering representation and a publisher offering a two book contract for the winning book and its sequel.”

There you have it. So far, out of twelve Golden Heart finalists, ten have sold and we know it’s just a matter of time for the remaining two. As one of those, Mel Scott concluded, ‘It doesn't guarantee a sale though if you have a manuscript you consider submission ready then it's definitely worth a shot.’

Do you have a manuscript ready to go? Are you going to give it a shot?

Trish Morey sold to Harlequin Presents within three months of becoming a Golden Heart finalist in 2003 and is currently working on her thirteenth title for the line, but without doubt, one of the best things about finaling in 2003 was getting to know and make friends with her fellow finalists, the wet noodle posse.

Introducing Trish Morey

Trish Morey entered the Golden Heart for the first time in late 2002 with a manuscript that had already been requested by Mills & Boon London, but Trish figured it wouldn't hurt entering anyway. It didn't:-)Trish learned she was a finalist and meanwhile two editors in the Richmond office independently read her manuscript, one judging for the Golden Heart contest, one reading through the slush pile. Both passed the manuscript up to the senior editor and Trish received *The Call* on 18th June 2003 just in time to pick up a pink ribbon at Nationals. Fun!

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Distinguish yourself with dialogue

By Norah Wilson

My topic was going to be BEST GH TIP EVER: Your entry does not have to exactly echo the first 50 pages of your full. However, that concept was pretty well covered during the comments on an earlier blog on cutting your entry. So I’ve opted to discuss dialogue instead.

Great dialogue can help lift your entry out of the GH pack. One of the keys to great dialogue is giving each character a unique voice. How many times have you judged an entry where, were it not for dialogue tags, you couldn’t tell the hero’s voice from the heroine’s? That’s something that jumps out at me when I’m judging.

Men tend to use fewer words, to speak more directly and bluntly, while women tend to use more words and to communicate more…tactfully. We also approach problems differently. Women seek to build consensus, while men are more inclined to want to take charge or act unilaterally. These are sweeping generalities, but they can help you construct convincingly male or female dialogue.

I’m addressing dialogue here, but that male/female feel should color not just the dialogue, but also the narrative when we’re in a character’s POV. If you’re in female POV, there will likely be more introspection in your narrative than if you’re in male POV. The tone of both dialogue and narrative should be different if your POV character is a cop than if he’s a doctor.

For the purpose of today’s discussion, I will use an example from one of my unpublished works (SURVIVAL LESSONS).

“If he doesn’t want to go home, there’s not a helluva lot you can do about it.”

She swallowed with difficulty. “I know. I just have to see him, to know he’s all right. I need to understand why he left like this.”

He looked away from the naked fear and pain she knew he must see in her eyes.

“Okay, let’s go roust him.”

Tommy took much longer to climb out of the low-slung car than she did. Nerves jangling, she waited for him. Together, they crossed the concrete walk to the front door, Paige slowing her footsteps to match Tommy’s pace.

It took three or four minutes and several jabs of the doorbell to get a response. Eventually, a shirtless young man wearing jeans and a bleary-eyed expression opened the door.

“Yeah?” The young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty, scratched his chest.

“I’m looking for my son, Dillon Harmer.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, lady. You know how many people came through here last night?”

“He must be here,” she said, feeling the bubble of anxiety in her chest expand again. “That’s his car over there. The black Toyota.”

The young man craned his neck to get a look at the car. “Never saw it before.”

“He’s just under six feet tall, slight build, blue eyes-”

“Think Toby Maguire,” Tommy interjected, “but darker hair.”

The young man’s brow smoothed. “Oh, him. Yeah, he crashed here, I think. Lemme check.”

The door closed again, only to reopen a minute later.

“Mom?” A flush-faced Dillon emerged, tucking his shirt into his jeans. “God, what are you doin’ here?”

There are four separate characters in the above exchange: Tommy (a cop who’s been forced off the job by injury), Paige (a worried single mom), the young man who answers the door, and Dillon (Paige’s teenage son).

You’ll notice I’ve used a number of different techniques to attribute dialogue, including dialogue tags, stage business, internal monologue, or simply letting it stand alone. Make sure you mix it up with your entry. He said/she said are excellent tags and are virtually invisible to the reader when not overused. Tossing the character’s name in there occasionally is good, but once I’m anchored in a scene between just the hero and heroine, he/she will do. I don’t want to read their names every three lines. And I really don’t want to read their names frequently in the dialogue itself. Of course, once you get into three or more participants in a conversation, you’ll need to use more names.

Now, let’s try the same scene again without dialogue attribution:

“If he doesn’t want to go home, there’s not a helluva lot you can do about it.”

“I know. I just have to see him, to know he’s all right. I need to understand why he left like this.”

“Okay, let’s go roust him.”

It took three or four minutes and several jabs of the doorbell to get a response. Eventually, a shirtless young man wearing jeans and a bleary-eyed expression opened the door.


“I’m looking for my son, Dillon Harmer.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, lady. You know how many people came through here last night?”

“He must be here. That’s his car over there. The black Toyota.”

“Never saw it before.”

“He’s just under six feet tall, slight build, blue eyes-”

“Think Toby Maguire, but darker hair.”

“Oh, him. Yeah, he crashed here, I think. Lemme check.”

The door closed again, only to reopen a minute later.
“Mom? God, what are you doin’ here?”

Can you detect the difference between my cop and my worried mother? Between the adults and the teenagers? As mentioned, the narrative should smack of the POV character’s style and worldview. If I’d written it from Tommy’s POV, the narrative would not have indicated that a “shirtless young man” opened the door. Had I been in Tommy’s cop POV, I might have said, The door was opened by a white male, probably 20, wearing baggy jeans and a thousand dollars worth of ink. Tommy neatly slotted him into the future felon category. If I were in a teenager’s POV, the narrative would be different again.

A word about jargon. Used judiciously, I think it contributes to believable, distinctive, authentic-sounding dialogue. If your hero is a trauma room doctor, he might refer to a gunshot victim as a case of “acute lead poisoning” (ER slang). If he’s an FBI profiler, he might use the term UNSUB (unknown subject) to describe the unknown perpetrator of a crime. Obviously, your jargon needs to be readily decoded from the context, without necessitating an explanation.

Now, take a look at your own dialogue. First, take a step back and look at your scenes to see how they look on the page. Is the male dialogue shorter and more direct? Are the scenes done in male POV shorter than those done in female POV? If not, you might need to look at the level of introspection or wordiness of your hero.

Now, try taking out all the attributions to see how well the dialogue stands up by itself. Is each character’s voice distinctive enough that if I knew the players in the scene, I could probably tell who’s speaking?

While you’ve got your scene pared down to its dialogue bones, ask yourself, Is my dialogue too “on the nose”? If the conversation is too exhaustive or explicit, it will ring false to the reader’s ear (no one ever says exactly what they’re thinking). Worse, if it’s too on the nose, it will cheat the reader out of a chance to collaborate with you by filling in the blanks. Not every question asked by a character needs to be answered fully—or at all—by the other character. They can respond with a question, deflect the question, redirect attention, go on the offensive, answer with body language, etc. What is NOT said often speaks louder than anything the characters’ can say. Paring down to bare dialogue will give you a great opportunity to see if you’ve left room for subtext.

Oh, and a last, last tip: Don’t make me read pages of introspection between one beat of dialogue and the next. By the time I get to the response, I’ll have forgotten what the question was.

Dialogue is the most fun you can have on the page, so go have some fun!

Further useful reading:

Punctuation with dialogue:

Fab article on dialogue:

Introducing Norah Wilson

Noodler Norah Wilson will be talking today about dialogue.

Norah is a three-time Golden Heart finalist. She was published by Dorchester in 2004 after winning their New Voice in Romance contest with the book that finalled in the 2001 Golden Heart, LAUREN’S EYES.

What's On Board This Week

We have another great lineup this week, and some more Noodlers are making their first appearance!

October 29 - Norah Wilson - ASSESSING YOUR DIALOGUE.
November 1 - Janet Mullany- POST GOLDEN HEART DEPRESSION
November 2 - Lee McKenzie - GOLDEN HEART MOTIVATION

Keep those comments coming for a possible critique!

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Fourth Week Winners

We have our FOURTHweek winners!

Congratulations to......
cm and her referrer India Carolina

I forgot to give Lindsey Faber her 5 page critique for referring one of last week's winners, sara lindsey

You each win a critique of the first five pages of your Golden Heart entry by one of the Wet Noodle Posse

Ladies, please email us asap at

Send us your email address and the category you are entering. You'll soon hear from Theresa Ragan, who will assign you a noodler and give you further instructions. Please email us by November 1.

Remember, you will need to send in your 5 pages by Nov 1 at the latest, but we encourage you to send earlier.

See all the rules here

Remember, we also will pick one Grand Prize winner on November 1. The Grand Prize is a critique of the partial you submit to the GH.

Congratulations again, FOURTH week winners!

Friday, October 26, 2007

It's Question and Answer Day!

Now is your chance to ask any question and the Noodlers will answer. Just leave a question in the comment section, and it will be answered shortly! You CAN ask anonymously - no worries.
So, three questions were asked ahead of time here we go:

1. How many times can you enter the GH with the same manuscript? Should you change the name? Or continue to enter it with the same title? I send the MS out and have received feedback on what the story needs to make it better. So I go and revise it…..which changes it from what I entered in the previous GH.

Am I wasting my time? Should I just shelve it and not bother to enter the GH?

2. The limit for a synopsis is 15 pages... now, what do you think is an acceptable minimum number of pages? I have a four page synopsis that covers the main characters/villain GMC, the inciting incident, turning points #1, 2, 3, the development of the romance, black moment,
realization, and resolution. I really don't want to mess with this by adding in some of/all of the scenes that take place between the turning points. But if it would help, I will. What do you think?

3. How "completed" does "completed" have to be? Suppose I have a manuscript which is finished--as in, I wrote 95,000 words starting from "Chapter One" and going to "The End."

Of course, six months have passed and "The End" is not as final as I once thought. There are giant things that need to change--the role of characters, the hero's motivations. I have a huge list, and a revised synopsis, and I'm in the process of deleting a bunch of extraneous cast members, bringing one of the subplots to the fore and pushing what I thought was the "main" plot to a subplot, and ramping up the conflict (lots of this).

There is no way I will have all the edits done by the GH deadline. Is it okay to enter the GH with a full manuscript that will show an obvious--and I do mean REALLY obvious--discontinuity where I stop editing?


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Be Kind to Your Judges' Eyes

As you finish up your manuscript and prepare it for its grand adventure in the GH, remember this one very important fact. The judge who reads your manuscript is predisposed to like it. This IS the GH, after all.

Judges who are also entrants do not judge in the category they enter, so you won’t be competing against the judges who read your manuscript. The likelihood that a judge will score you low because her best friend/critique partner/chapter sister is competing in your category is nil. The seven or so manuscripts she will read wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket of the hundreds of manuscripts in your category, so why would she bother?

Yes, your judge wants to like your manuscript, so why annoy her with mistakes that are easily corrected?

The most heinous of these are:
1. Not enough white space.
2. Tiny font
3. Tiny margins
4. Too many lines on a page
5. Cutting off your entry at a low point or just letting it fizzle out.

Let’s dispense with the easiest one first—-not enough white space. Simply put, lots of white space means lots of dialog. Readers, be they judges or the editor who reads your manuscript, are looking for a manuscript that reads quickly, and dialog is the best way to move the story along and allow your characters’ personalities to shine through. Think of your favorite television shows (remember Moonlighting, and more recently, Gilmore Girls?) where the dialog was smart and snappy and it was the characterizations kept you coming back week after week. Dialog is dynamic! Leave the long descriptions of country hedgerows to Thomas Hardy.

Look at your manuscript. Is the print so tiny you need a magnifying glass to read it? Is the text spread all the way out to the edges? Have you labored to squeeze as many lines on the page as is humanly possible?

If I’m your judge I may be predisposed to like your story, but I’m not going to care too much for you!

Early in my career I was given a piece of advice that I believe is golden. Pick a format and stick with it. If you’re spending time manipulating your manuscript differently for each contest you enter, you’re wasting time you could spend writing. While there is no universally applied standard manuscript format, most writers use the following:

1-inch margins all around
a 12-point font (usually Courier New or Times New Roman)
25 lines per page

I know writers who don’t begin each new chapter on a new page (again, enabling them to squeeze more words into an entry) but I still observe the advice I got from an editor I targeted for my work early on. She said to present the manuscript as if it was already a book, and specifically mentioned starting each new chapter 1/3 of the way down the page. Adopting a specific format came easy to me because I like the predictibility of routine and because I consider sweating those kinds of details a waste of time.

Yes, it’s true that Jack Kerouac first submitted On The Road on a roll of paper that resembled a scroll more than a book, but it’s unlikely his manuscript would have made it past the mail room today, regardless of how exceptional it was.

Last but not least, end your entry with a hook. Don’t just print it out to page 55 and stuff it into the envelope, even if it cuts your entry short by a page or two. When the judge finishes reading and picks up the score sheet you want her to be thinking WOW! not UGH. Or worse, be questioning your storytelling skills because you didn’t take the opportunity to be brilliant when you had it right there in your hands.


White paper, black ink, no glitter, perfume or hidden bribes of chocolate. Be professional Remember, when you final, this is the manuscript the final round judge, possibly an acquiring editor, will read. Good luck!


Don’t forget that Friday (that’s tomorrow! Eek!) is Q & A Day. We look forward to lots of Qs and a fun, free-ranging discussion.

Meet Karen Potter

Today, Karen Potter will be blogging on manuscript format, gently suggesting ways to help your GH judges to avoid eye strain and to help you avoid low-score-syndrome.

Karen’s GH finaling manuscript, The Old Fashioned Way, sold to Silhouette Romance in the fall of 2003 and was released as Daddy in Waiting in 2005.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Make Your Synopsis Intriguing


Yeah, I know. Everyone hates writing a synopsis, so don't feel bad if you do too. You can take comfort in knowing that chances are, your synopsis won't be any worse than everyone else's synopsis. But on the other hand, what if your synopsis is better than the others? What if it is not only good, but intriguing? Won't that give you an edge in the competition?

I'm assuming here that you've already got a synopsis written. If not, get busy. If you're having trouble there, go look up Alicia Rasley's synopsis workshop at or Lisa Gardner's at

But here you are, looking at it and it bores even you. You know it's not going to enchant a judge or editor. Your story is a good one. So why doesn't that come out in your synopsis? Let's look at some things that might make it better.

Just like your story, your synopsis needs to open with something intriguing that carries the essence of your theme. I think it's a mistake to go overboard with a big shocker, or to be funny when your story is not a funny one. But find something that makes the reader want to read further. Look at your opening line in your manuscript. Can you find a way to pirate that into your synopsis opener? Or could you re-state your story theme in one sentence? Here's my opener for HIS MAJESTY, THE PRINCE OF TOADS:

Sometimes it takes more than a kiss to change a toad into a handsome prince.

Right away you know it's a take-off on the Frog Prince, and humor is a part of the story. There's even a hint of the conflict to come because you know just one kiss isn't going to do it this time.

Your resolution is as important as your beginning. Once you've found your intriguing opener, think of how the story resolves, and ask yourself how you can carry the same theme to create a strong resolution that ties up the whole story. Here's the ending for my Toad story:

What they share together is more important than her security and independence, for His Majesty, the Prince of Toads has become the Prince of Sophie's Heart.

Now you have the foundation. But filling in the middle is just as hard. But notice how the ending above pulled in the problem Sophie had to resolve before she found her true love? There's the true conflict -- Sophie's need for security that she could not trust to anyone else. Sophie is really the center of this story, but my hero also has a great deal of work to do before he can accept that Sophie really is his true love.

Conflict, not words, is what propels your synopsis, just as it does your story. Make the middle of your synopsis about the conflict. But also make it about the uniqueness of your characters. What makes this story and its hero and heroine unique? In a synopsis, you can tell instead of show, because you are summarizing.

When Captain Lucas Deverall returns from the Peninsular War to succeed to his deceased brother's title, he grudgingly decides to take back his wife. But even before he learns the circumstances of his inheritance, he encounters her at a New Year's gala. Shock sets in as he realizes the most beautiful woman in England is the same gangly, calf-eyed chit who tricked him into marriage six years before.
That's not how Sophie remembers it. She wishes fervently she'd had the sense not to scream when the drunken scapegrace crawled into her bed at her Uncle Harry's house party. True, she'd had a secret tendre for the handsome wastrel, until his scathing denunciation of her after their forced wedding. Then he went off to war without even consummating their union, and for six years she heard nothing from him.
Now the toad offers her forgiveness in exchange for his presence in her bed? Revenge comes more to mind.

Notice that Lucas's point of view of the conflict is immediately followed by Sophie's. If I were just explaining from an objective point of view, Lucas would look pretty bad. That's because he was immature and wild before he went off to war. He comes back changed, but that one incident is etched into his mind. This is the external conflict. But it's the internal conflict that really fuels the story, and it's their inner needs that keep them from relinquishing their old grudges. They have their minds made up about each other. That can't change until they accept the truth about themselves, and that's the real story. The rest of the middle deals with both the external conflict, Lucas's attempt to use his charm without losing his heart to win Sophie over, and Sophie's attempt at revenge, to steal Lucas's heart and break it, just as he did to her. But their interaction wears away their defenses and forces them to see themselves and each other as they really are now, no longer as they once were. And so they must change, or they will lose everything they truly value.

I said earlier, it's not words that fuel the synopsis. But that's not entirely true. My synopsis is a longer one because I chose to use extra words to give the flavor of the story. I chose to show rather than tell several points I might have left out, but I kept them because of their unique flavor. I could have told the entire thing in a page, but I didn't want to leave out the unique interaction that shows character growth in little steps of revelation.

Ask yourself what is the tone of your story. My story is a battle of wits and wills. It's light and humorous, yet with a deep understory as contrast. Wit obscures the depth of insecurity and tragedy both hero and heroine have suffered, and it demonstrates how they have learned to cope with life. But it also keeps them from growing into the next vital stage of their lives. So my synopsis has to reflect the wit of the story. If this story were darker, with its plot hanging on drama, my synopsis would have been written completely differently. So think about your word choices. What words carry the tone of your story? Be sure they are in your synopsis too.

I think the biggest problem most writers face with their synopsis is trying to tell the entire story in just a few pages. They end up with a bare bones skeletal outline that actually sounds like bones clattering along. But how else can they do it?

One problem is the wooden sentences that come from hacking down the plot to minimal words.
This is really two separate problems. First, the sentences start to have identical structure. Short, with subject then verb, and almost the same length. If you spot this, it's obvious you need to find ways to vary the structure. But the real problem is buried beneath the words. What you're really doing is trying to tell each point of the story. And yes, it's hard to pick out what points have to be there and what ones need to be left out.

What I'd suggest is finding words that generalize. Can you condense a section that describes an interaction into one fairly simple sentence. Instead of "He says she can't blah blah, but she says blip blipp", try "He persuades her to bleh bleh". Words like "persuade" or "convince" can work miracles. Find ways to say there is a disagreement over something instead of describing the entire conflict.

The same is true for your black moment. Condense it to generalities, but at the same time be sure you tell how this major change in your story occurs because of action by the hero and heroine and not anyone else. In my Toad story, Lucas makes the decision to help Sophie work through one of the most difficult times in her life by making his own major sacrifice for her. He might lose his leg to help her, but he runs the risk, not just because he loves her, but because she desperately needs his help to work through her own devastating dilemma. And this changes everything between them. So I can't just run this inner and outer conflict through a few sentences. It needs to be showcased for the drama it is.

Lucas, desperate to ease her pain, recalls the pure and perfect moments when they skated on the Serpentine, and he takes her to the estate's frozen lake. Sophie skates fiercely, aggressively, expressing the things she can't find words to say, advancing, then retreating, like Sophie herself. Even though excruciating pain in his knee warns Lucas he risks the loss of his leg, he joins her in a wild dash across the ice in the moonlight, that changes to a graceful dance like the flight of birds, and back to a gritty race, draining the last dregs of their energy.

And when you reach your conclusion, tell it in terms of how the hero and heroine have changed, so that they can now make choices they could not have made in the beginning of the story. This is the most intriguing part of your story, so give it full power through your choice of words.

(Oh, and did you notice the long, flowing sentences that mimic the graceful flow of skating over ice? Yes, that was deliberate.)

Choose the words that generalize, yes, but make them strong enough to carry the action. Tell your external conflict in general terms, but emphasize the turmoil in their hearts, and let the drama of internal conflict drive your synopsis.

Beginning, middle, end. Sounds simple. But getting it right is perhaps the hardest job we writers face.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing Tight (making every sentence count)

To me, writing tight means writing with clarity.

1. Simplify your sentences. Instead of writing: Jane hopped in her little yellow car, revved the engine and made the wheels sputter in the gravel before she took off toward the big city, toward the unknown. Write: Jane hopped in her car and headed for a new life in San Francisco.

2. Get rid of clutter. See Kim Blank’s article on Wordiness at

3. If a word is unnecessary to the meaning of a sentence, toss it.

4. Use the active voice. The dog bit the boy. Not: The boy was bit by the dog.

5. Adjectives and Adverbs. Don’t say “Jane mumbled unclearly” when “Jane mumbled” does the job.

6. Read your story aloud or have someone else read it to you.

7. Be specific. Don’t make readers work too hard to understand your character’s actions and motives. Don’t write: Jane’s childhood was horrible and involved many physical altercations. Write: As a child, Jane was beaten, raped, and locked in the closet every night.

8. Show readers what happened instead of what didn’t happen. Strunk and White recommend, “He ignored her.” instead of “He was not paying attention to her.”

9. Don’t worry about writing tight during the first draft. Writing tight takes practice and should be done in the revision process. Writing tight doesn’t mean always writing shorter sentences. Clarity always comes first.

In a recent blog, when talking about cutting pages, Jill Monroe gave some good advice: Delete all words that are filters, such as could, just, and seem. Take out the passive was “ing.”

If you’re afraid writing tight will change your voice, try it and see. Take one page of your manuscript and follow these tips. You might not like cutting your beloved words at first, but when you’re done you’ll see that you’re writing is cleaner, tighter, better.

To add clarity to your writing you also need to watch for grammatical errors. See Colleen Gleason’s WNP article, Fixing the Top Ten Grammatical Mistakes of Writers, at

Feel free to add your own “writing tight” suggestions to the list.

All questions and comments are welcome!

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when I write fast and then don’t take the time to revise and revise again. Use what works for you. Toss the rest. Use your instincts. Believe in yourself and in your work.

Don’t forget that Friday is a special Q&A day. Post that day or e-mail Jillmonroe @ (no spaces)

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Importance of Opening Lines

By Trish Milburn

We’ve probably all heard that editors/agents only give a manuscript five pages, two pages, a page, insert small amount of our total work here, to make a good impression, to make them care enough to keep reading. Though we might not like this statistic, it’s a fact of the publishing life. So if you want to make your work, including any that will go before judges of the Golden Heart, stand out, start by focusing on your very first line. That first line or opening paragraph will set the tone for the entire book. It’s your manuscript’s first impression, and we all know how important those are.

How you craft an opening line depends on the type of story you’re telling, but regardless of the sub-genre you need it to instantly draw your reader in and give her a tiny snapshot of the type of story that follows. Here are some samples of great opening lines which members of the Wet Noodle Posse used in their Golden Heart-finalist manuscripts.

Want to convey humor right off the bat? Let Esri Rose show you how:

“Claire Pike could not believe her job was in danger because of a man who basically stuffed weasels down his pants.” -- Telling Lies, 2006 Novel with Strong Romantic Elements finalist

If you’re writing novels with romantic suspense or adventure elements, you may consider an opening that causes tension in the reader, like Mary Fechter created in her 2006 single title finalist, Don’t Look Back:

“The attack took place shortly after the morning bell,” the Secretary of State told the roomful of presidential advisors. Dr. Liv Olney gripped the edge of the conference table as she watched the attack on the wall of TV screens behind the Secretary.

There are first lines that practically beg us to read on to find out the meaning behind the author’s catchy and succinct opening, such as Lorelle Marinello’s 2003 romantic suspense finalist, Fairhope:

“Fairhope, Texas had Baptists, Methodists, and ghosts.”

What if you’re writing a little on the steamier side and want to make your reader’s temperature rise from the word “go”? Check out this sample from Jill Monroe’s Share the Darkness, an April 2004 Harlequin Blaze that finaled in the Golden Heart in 2003 as Longest Day of the Year:

“Ward Cassidy could think of better uses for an ice cube.”

For historicals, a sense of time and place, as well as story, are important. Delle Jacobs conveyed these as well as the hero’s goal in the first line of her 2005 Golden Heart winner, Lady Wicked:

“He’d have to marry the richest heiress in England if he meant to salvage this crumbling pile of rocks.”

A mixture of young adult and paranormal? YA is often in first person, so I used that and a hint that all is not normal in the most recent version of my 2007 YA GH winner, Coven:

“Hot tears burn my eyes as I watch the last of the black hair coloring disappear from the tips of my long, blond hair, draining away into nothingness.”

Remember that the first line, at most the first paragraph, is often all you get to make a first impression on contest judges. Yes, they have to read the rest of the manuscript, but it’s hard to recover from a bad first impression. So spend the time and effort necessary to make your opening lines sparkle.


Opening lines aren’t just important in the Golden Heart. In fact, the first round of the American Title contest, in which my manuscript, Out of Sight, is a finalist, is focusing on first lines. Check out all the finalists’ openers and cast your vote here.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Get Your Questions Ready - This Week's Schedule

I'm so pleased to announce this next week's topics:

October 22 - Tricia Mills - OPENING LINES

October 23 - Theresa Ragan - MAKING EVERY SENTENCE COUNT


October 25 - Karen Potter - BE KIND TO YOUR JUDGE'S EYES


Friday we have set aside for a special Q&A day. Do you have a question you want the Noodlers to answer? You can leaver your question in the comment section of this post or e-mail me at jillmonroe @ (no spaces)

Third Week Winners

We have our THIRD week winners!

Congratulations to......
Gillian Layne
Sara Lindsey
Belinda Peterson

You each win a critique of the first five pages of your Golden Heart entry by one of the Wet Noodle Posse

Ladies, please email us asap at

Send us your email address and the category you are entering. You'll soon hear from Theresa Ragan, who will assign you a noodler and give you further instructions. Please email us by Friday, October 26.

Remember, you will need to send in your 5 pages by Nov 1 at the latest, but we encourage you to send earlier.

Next week you all have another chance to win, but you have to comment again. See all the rules here

Remember, we also will pick one Grand Prize winner at the end of the month. The Grand Prize is a critique of the partial you submit to the GH.

Congratulations again, THIRD week winners!

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The Romantic Suspense in the Golden Heart

By Trish Milburn

To me, the sub-genre of romantic suspense is one of those best-of-both-worlds situations. For years, I’ve loved reading both romance and mystery. By writing romantic suspense, I could incorporate elements of both sub-genres in a single story. The important thing to remember in romantic suspense is that both the romance and the suspense elements are integral to the plot. Take one of them away and the story falls apart. One can’t exist without the other. This fact is apparent in the new definition and judging guidelines for the Romantic Suspense category of the Golden Heart.

Romantic Suspense
Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Judging guidelines: In this category, a suspense/mystery/thriller plot is blended with a love story, which is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

Notice in the judging guidelines that, at least for the purposes of the contest, the “main focus” of the novel is still the love story. Sure, your hero and heroine can be running from the bad guys or working together to identify the bad guy, but their growing attraction, their conflict that keeps them apart, and their eventual happily ever after are why the readers are going along on this journey with them. Yes, they want them to reach safety or put the bad guy behind bars, but they also want to see the hero and heroine work out their differences and find true love together.

That said, you can have each element play off the other. One type of scene that is fairly common in romantic suspense novels is where the hero and heroine have a love scene following some dangerous or life-threatening encounter. These scenes work because this is a normal human reaction — to do something life affirming like making love after a near-death experience. In those life-threatening moments, you realize how quickly life can be snatched away, and arguments and conflicts often fade in the face of possibly never telling or showing someone how you really feel behind all the bluster or fear of becoming intimate.

One pitfall that’s seen in some romantic suspense manuscripts is too much focus on the suspense. Remember, the romance is key. If you find more of your narrative and dialogue focusing on the suspense or mystery, you’ll need to rework it to avoid the manuscript actually being a suspense or mystery novel with a romantic element rather than the opposite.

Up to this point, I’ve been talking about romantic suspense manuscripts that are single title novels. But there are plenty of writers who write romantic suspense or romantic adventure for the category or series market, typically but not always targeted toward Harlequin or Silhouette. In fact, my 2004 GH winner in Romantic Suspense, Dangerous Kisses, was a series book. But at that time there was only one category specifically targeted toward romantic suspense, regardless of the book’s length or structure. Now if you write romantic suspense targeted toward the category/series market, you can consider entering this new category in the GH:

Contemporary Series Romance: Suspense/Adventure
Series romance novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship but may have more complex suspense or adventure subplots.

Judging guidelines: In this category, the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

Books that are targeted toward the Silhouette Romantic Suspense and Harlequin Intrigue lines immediately come to mind, but this category is not limited to those manuscripts. There are plenty of suspense or adventure stories (think hero and heroine running from the bad guys in the jungle, for example) that are targeted toward other lines such as Harlequin Superromance. These stories, though targeted toward a line that is not specifically about suspense and adventure, may fare better in this GH category than in the Contemporary Series Romance category against stories that focus more on hearth and home or those that revolve around sex and passion.

Whichever category you enter, make sure your premise, your writing, your characters, everything about your entry stands out. Romantic Suspense is a crowded field and thus a story has to have something unique to make it stand out.

Good luck to all the entrants. May your stories someday grace the shelves next to names such as J.D.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Writing the Paranormal -- Esri Rose

Paranormal covers a lot of ground these days. Werewolves, vampires, spaceships, time-travel, psychics, witches, ghosts, and my own favorite…elves. Like someone accepting an Oscar, I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone. It’s a hot market, so you won’t have to worry about there not being enough entries for the category. Instead, worry about entering pronto.

The Golden Heart guidelines merely specify that the paranormal elements are an integral part of the plot. In fact, paranormal is so inclusive, it’s easier to tell you what doesn’t make for a good paranormal romance than what does.

Flaccid World Building

Why do people read paranormal? Because it’s surprising. There are plenty of vampire books out there, but they all have their twists. It’s the twists that keep us coming back for more vampires (that, and all that…penetration). Ideally, you write paranormal because you enjoy the exotic details of dress, custom and physical differences, or because you think guys with pronounced canines are dead sexy, or because you enjoy seeing how an ad exec deals with Regency men.

Debra Holland, another Noodler finalist in paranormal, has this to say: “I suggest keeping a file or notebook containing the words you made up, the types of plants, animals, transportation, aliens, and anything else you'll need to keep track of. Sometimes you'll find yourself unexpectedly writing a series, and that notebook will come in handy!”

Make it detailed, and make it consistent. The same rules that help your heroine should also hinder her. Magic is all well and good, but it shouldn’t serve as a plot crutch. If you pull a new paranormal trick out of the bag whenever your heroine gets in a tight spot, your readers won’t believe she’s really in trouble, and narrative tension will fly out the window like a cute lil’ dragon. Which brings us to…

Deus ex machina

If a book goes along with nary a special effect, only to have an angel/talking dog/magic necklace solve the problem at the very last, that’s not a paranormal book. That’s a bad book.

Too Little Romance

Paranormal probably has more leeway than most GH romance categories in this respect. Still, Michael Crichton probably wouldn’t win a pretty necklace. Noodler and paranormal finalist Theresa Ragan has this to say: “I personally would not consider a time-travel with a mere kiss at the end to be a romance. If the hero and heroine haven’t met within the first 50 pages or one of the main characters disappears for a few chapters, I’m not going to be a happy camper.”

And Noodler Colleen Gleason, author of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, says, “If the paranormal element is an integral part of the plot, it can go in the paranormal category--but it doesn't have to. My books would be in the SRE category, even though they are paranormal.” Like other romance categories, paranormal still requires a happily-ever-after ending for your two protagonists.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Golden Heart Inspirational Category

In 2003 I had the thrill of winning the Golden Heart for best inspirational manuscript. The only thing better in my writing life was selling my first book a few months later. I hope I can give some advice that will help others as they enter this category.

Here is the inspirational category definition.

An inspirational romance is a novel in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are a major part of the romantic relationship.

Here are the judging guidelines.

In this category, religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are blended with and from a significant part of the love story, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

In the inspirational category the story can be contemporary, historical, or even futuristic. This category finds stories that cover a wide range of types, such as straight romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, or even romantic comedy. But whatever the type of story, the most important element in the inspirational entry is the intertwining of the spiritual journey with the romantic journey of the protagonists.

I have one caveat as I discuss this category. Although the inspirational category is open to any religious or spiritual belief system, my experience is with stories that deal with the Christian faith. However, I believe that these general principles will help any entry.

As I have already mentioned the hero and heroine must have a spiritual journey, and this journey should show some kind of growth in their faith. The hero and heroine may share a common faith, or one of them may be skeptical or unbelieving. However, by the end of the story the skeptical or unbelieving character will come to believe and find comfort or an answer to their problems in their faith. Even if the hero and heroine are both believers, their faith should guide them and be an integral part of their lives. You can't just stick references to prayer or attendance at religious services into the story without having faith as part of who the characters are. Their spirituality must blend naturally into the story.

Although spirituality must be part of the inspirational entry, you must be careful not to come across as "preachy" as you include this element. Of course, "preachy" can be subjective. So my advice is to make sure the spiritual aspect of the story is like salt--a little goes a long way. After all, as romance writers, we want to write a romance. We want to see our characters fall in love. As with all romances, the romance is the main focus of the story. The spiritual thread in the story can work beautifully as part of the internal conflict of the characters.

I have mainly focused on the spiritual part of the inspirational entry, because that is what makes this category unique. Here are a few other pointers to make your manuscript great.

  1. Make sure you have a beginning with a good hook that will have your reader eager to see more, but don't fool your reader by having a hook that doesn't represent the rest of the book.
  2. Make sure your characters are three-dimensional. Readers want to care about your characters. So make them real. Know what makes them tick and little by little let your reader see inside your character's thoughts and motivations. The spiritual struggles may be a big part of the character's back story that will help you flesh out your hero and heroine and make them real people with real problems that the reader can identify with.
  3. Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural, because dialogue can help with your characterization. In fact, read your entire entry aloud.
  4. Check your point of view for each scene. Most often the point-of-view character is the character who has the most to lose in that situation. Set the scene by weaving in details that are important to the point-of-view character.
  5. Check the pacing. Make sure you don't have long sections of introspection or description. Make sure something is happening that moves the story forward. Even long passages of scintillating dialogue don't help with pacing unless they have specific purpose.
Hopefully, these pointers will help you make your inspirational entry better. Please feel free to ask questions. I'll be around most of the day to answer them. Other members of the WNP are here to add their advice as well.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Introducing Merrillee Whren

Merrillee Whren won the inspirational Golden Heart in 2003, the year of the Wet Noodle Posse. She didn't sell that manuscript, but a few months later she sold her next book to Steeple Hill Love Inspired. She has gone on to sell seven more books to Steeple Hill, three of which are still in the pipeline. Her latest book, THE HEART'S FORGIVENESS, was out in July of this year. Her second book, AN UNEXPECTED BLESSING, won the RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Love Inspired of 2006 and most recently won the short contemporary category of The Maggie Award for Excellence, sponsored by Georgia Romance Writers. Her next book, FOUR LITTLE BLESSINGS, will be out in February 2008.

The Golden Heart Historical Categories

I finaled in the Golden Heart twice, 2001 and 2003, with the same historical manuscript, the one that became The Mysterious Miss M. (See that story here and my bio here). I love writing historicals and I wish everyone of you who also write them to have the special joy of finalling in the Golden Heart.

Your first task in entering the Golden Heart is to make certain your manuscript is entered in the correct category. The categories are fairly clear this year: Regency Historical Romance (“Romance novels in which the majority of the story is set against the Regency period of the British Empire”) and Historical Romance (Romance novels set in any time period prior to 1945, and taking place in any location).

Don't overthink this. If you believe you wrote a Regency Historical, enter it in the Regency Historical Romance category. If you believe you wrote a Historical-that-is-not-a-Regency, enter it in the Historical Romance category.

You do have some other possible choices, however. Would your entry fare better in Romantic Suspense? Perhaps it would if you have a very strong suspense plot that obviously overtakes the historical aspects. Does your entry have strong paranormal elements? It might fare better in the Paranormal category, especially if it is a time travel, which is sorta a historical hybrid. If you have written a historical inspirational, you definitely will fare better in the Inspirational category, because it usually has fewer entries and less competition. If you have written a historical that is not a romance, but has romantic elements, it could belong in the Strong Romantic Elements category.

Most times you are safest with the Historical categories, but we can discuss any gray areas.

The elements of a good Historical Golden Heart Entry are nearly the same as a good Historical manuscript and are often a balance between “too much” and “too little.”

1. Make your time period and setting clear.

This is extremely easy to do. Put the date (month optional) and the location under (or above) “Chapter One” and at the left margin. For Miss M, it was “London, September, 1812.” It was important to my story to include the month. I wanted it clear they were in London, but I could have put “England” instead. I could have put “A Gaming Hell in London, September, 1812,” but I didn’t want to give that much information away.

You may or may not decide to use this “Place, Date” format in your finished manuscript, but for the purposes of the contest, it immediately eliminates any judge being confused about where or when the story takes place.

2. Use specific sensory detail that evokes the time period.

Here again, it is a balance. You want the reader to “feel” she is transported to the time period right away. The sights, sounds, smells, and tactile details you include are the vehicles that take the reader on that journey. But you do not want to use so much description that the reader is distracted from the characters. Don’t make a simple crossing of the street seem like a travelogue.

3. Make your characters accurate to the time period.

Paint a historically accurate picture of them with your historical detail, but, again, do not overdo it. “He adjusted his neckcloth” may be enough and “He adjusted his white muslin neckcloth, brushed lint off the coat of black superfine tailored for him by Weston, and kicked a stone away with his Hessian boots made by Hoby” is probably too much detail, unless you have a clear reason for using it.

4. Use words that are true to the time period.

I’m not advocating going back to Middle English if your book is set in 1400 (Chaucer, anyone?), but try to keep modern words out of the manuscript, even in your narrative. Make the language another tool to evoke a different time, a different place. For example, use the terms for parts of a castle: palisade, turret, porticullis, making certain the reader will understand them in context. (You don’t want the judge-or a future reader-to have interrupt her reading to look in a dictionary) On the other hand, don’t use words that are too inaccessible to the present day reader. For example, it may be better to just say “beer money” than to use the term “byrban.”

Don’t use words that are historically accurate but mean something else in today’s use of language. For example, don’t say, “He emerged from the camera;” say “He emerged from the workshop.”

Avoid anachronisms. No “ego trips” for anyone whose story is set before 1969. Or more subtle, no one should be “mesmerized” before 1829. To check a word’s origin use the etymological dictionary online. If it says the word came into being in 1842, don’t worry if your book was set a few years earlier. It doesn’t have to be that exact.

5. Dialogue

Make certain the dialogue evokes the historical period. For example, my Regency characters might say, “That is the outside of enough” rather than “Enough, already.”

Go sparing on dialect. My editors allow me to get away with very little dialect; you’d be surprised. One or two “thees” and “thous” are permissible, but very very few.

Contractions are permissible. Jane Austen used contractions, after all. On the other hand, if you like how your dialogue sounds without contractions, that is perfectly okay.

6. Don’t ignore history

Don’t set your story in England in June of 1815 and not have your characters thinking about an impending battle with Napoleon (Waterloo- June 18, 1815). You don’t have to get crazy about this. You don’t need to know everything that occurred in 1410 to set a story in that year. You just have to make certain nothing big happened in 1410 that would change your story.

It is my personal bias that characters should be true to the time period in their thoughts, desires, values, but many historical authors do very well with characters who reflect modern thinking.

7. No information dumps

It is important to show history, but not to necessarily show your knowledge of history. I might be able to tell you a lot about the politics of the Corn Laws, but the reader only wants to know enough to make sense of my using them in my story.

Don’t try to sneak in an information dump in dialogue. It is highly unlikely that my hero and heroine would sit around debating the pros and cons of the Corn Laws, and it would be boring for the reader if they did. Brief comments about historical matters do add to that historical “feel,” though.

8. Use your synopsis to explain

If you have historical detail that the judge might misinterpret, explain it in your synopsis. The synopsis is for telling not showing, so use it to tell what you need it to tell. In the synopsis you are explaining the story to the judge or editor or agent, not the reader, so it is perfectly okay to explain some historical detail that might otherwise be misinterpreted.

Have I forgotten anything?

What do you think of the new Historical categories?

What, if anything, is worrying you about entering your historical in the Golden Heart?

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Writing The Contemporary Series Romance

I love this category. The first romances I read were Contemporary Series, I finaled in the Golden Heart in Series Contemporary (Long) and now I'm published with Harlequin Blaze.

The category has undergone some changes - series is no longer divided into three different categories. Now only two: Contemporary Series and Contemporary Series: Suspense/Adventure. Trish Milburn, who writes as Tricia Mills, will be covering Romantic Suspense later this week, so you can get some more in depth discussion there.

First, let's look at what RWA provides:

Official Description: Series romance novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship.

Judging Guidelines: In this category, the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

Very true. The series book encompasses a wide range of styles: traditional, spicy, sassy, paranormal, sweet, small town, multicultural, exotic locales, medical, chick lit, historical to name just a few, but there's one thing universal - there's always a satisfying ending. That doesn't necessarily mean a marriage proposal within the pages of the book, most of my Harlequin Blaze books don't, but one where you know the hero and heroine will still be together working on their relationship after the book ends.

Check out the specific writing guidelines posted on Harlequin's website by clicking here.  

Your page count is limited, so your love story has to be the main focus - of course that doesn't mean you can't have intricate plots, secondary characters, subplots even secondary love stories. SuperRomance often has the feel and tone of a single title. You can find chick lit "Blaze Style" in that line - still the heart of these books is the central romance.

Moving The Story Forward

In most cases, you have less than 300 manuscript pages to develop two characters with personalities, goals, emotions and conflicts. Therefore your dialogue, your narrative, the action everything that's written on the page should always move your story forward. Exciting scenes with with tense dialogue and popping emotions can really lose their punch with long paragraphs of narrative.

Moving away from the action for characters to reflect keeps the story moving forward and are good breathers for the reader, but taut sequels can really lose their character development with huge amounts of information, backstory or flashbacks. Backstory can be important, but that kind of information can be included in others ways.

You can't shortchange your reader by leaving out the setting description, physicality and facial expressions. Make each paragraph have more than one function. Fellow Noodler, Karen Potter's "Daddy In Waiting" (Silhouette Romance, June 2005) second paragraph is this:

Jenny Ames turned the squeaky swivel chair to face the window and squinted into the bright sunlight of a perfect fall Cincinnati day. Spotting the cloud she suspected held her great-grandmother's restless spirit, she sighed.

With this two sentence paragraph Karen introduced us to the heroine, the setting, season, a hint of her personality and even an indication of her mood.

Here's a powerful example of using dialogue, and the tiny snippets of narrative to indicate mood and past between the hero and heroine in Trish Morey's debut Harlequin Presents The Greek Boss's Demand (January 2005):

‘I guess so,’ she managed at last. ‘At least I’m pretty sure we have. It was such a long time ago.’
A muscle twitched in Nick’s cheek. ‘Am I so hard to remember?’

So much is conveyed in the words. First: emotions, outwardly like the muscle in the cheek twitching, or the obvious need for the heroine to make light of their time together. His question "Am I so hard to remember?" Intriguing. Plus, the author didn't need to resort to a long flashbacks to establish an emotional past (that's obviously still NOT resolved) between these two.

The phrase She managed at last allows the reader to know it took her a moment to compose herself. Evokes a lot more than the words "she said" (although I'm a big fan of the she said/he said tag). Longer tags are most effective when used sparingly.

Dialogue can be one of your most effective tools and far more powerful than narrative. Instead of having a character think about the past - have her talk about the past with another character. Instead of telling the reader how she feels conflicted - show that to the reader with an exchange between the characters.

Even though in real life we have many co-workers and friends and family members in our life - try to limit your secondary characters. See if you can combine them into one or two people. Rather than having several lukewarm people populating your book, you now have one or two dynamic and necessary characters.

What to do with the synopsis?

Work at making your synopsis unique to your voice, not just a dry point by point coverage of your plot. If it's boring to write and you're dreading it - chances are that will reflect in your pages. Challenge yourself to make it exciting, sexy or emotional in the same vein as the line you're targeting.

And even though including how and when the two characters fall in love should be obvious, when getting too involved in the telling of your plot, it can be easily overlooked. I had this experience after sending in a synopsis to my editor. They do fall in love, don't they? she asked. Embarrassing moment.

The best piece of advice I ever received was to make that first paragraph of the synopsis match in tone to the back cover blurbs on your favorite series romance and the line you're targeting. There's just something about reading the back of those books that just MAKES me want to put them in my shopping cart - use that same marketing to hook in your reader judge.

I'll use the cover blurb on Tall, Dark and Filthy Rich for an example of what a first sentence of a synopsis could be. (I didn't write it, so I can't take credit for it.) "When a bad boy grows up to be a deliciously bad man..." When I saw that, I smiled because it perfectly conveyed the mood of the book, and used a favorite "hook" series readers enjoy.

I'm looking forward to the discussion!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Strong Romantic Elements category. Is it right for your book? -- Esri Rose

RWA introduced the Strong Romantic Elements (SRE) category in 2004. That first year, finaling titles (especially in the RITAs) suggested that the category was created for Women’s Fiction, where rugged yet understanding men were important subplots in women’s search to reunite with sisters, deal with life-threatening illnesses, or get their wayward daughters back on track. But subsequent years found the SRE awash in snarky Chick Lit and moody Paranormal, as well as moody Chick Lit and snarky Paranormal. The 2006 SRE RITA winner was a Silhouette Sensation, and the 2007 SRE RITA winner is a fictional account of young Anne Boleyn’s life. Confused? Welcome to publishing! Once again, the Golden Heart is great practice for the real-world book business.

First of all, you should be aware that RWA’s judging guidelines have changed for the SRE. Here’s the previous version:

Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements (previous)
A work of fiction not belonging in another category that contains a strong romantic element, such that one or more romances contained in the story form an integral part of the story’s structure, but in which other themes or stories may also be significantly developed. The word count for these novels is a minimum of 80,000 words.

Judging guidelines: Any kind of fiction, of any tone or style and set in any place or time, is eligible for this category. The romantic elements, while not the primary focus of the story, should be an integral and dynamic part of the plot or subplot.

Now the length of the SRE, along with all the other categories, is defined as over 40,000 words, and the definition is trickier.

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements (current)
Definition: A work of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries.

Judging guidelines: Novels of any tone or style and set in any place or time are eligible for this category. A romance must be an integral part of the plot or subplot, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

So the question becomes, What are the “traditional romance boundaries”? The answer to that is in all the other GH categories. Your job is to figure it out by process of elimination, but here’s my take on it.

Within the traditional boundaries of romance, your heroine has one love interest throughout the book. If your gal can’t decide between the hot-blooded werewolf and the coolly sensual vampire until page 368, you’d better put it in SRE.

In a traditional romance, your heroine and hero live happily ever after. Commonly referred to as the HEA ending, your romance had better have it, but now it looks as though the SRE needs to have something very close. Take a look at this text: “…the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” I added those italics, and I think they’re key. They may also be a direct response to the 2007 RITA winner, because we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn eventually.

Let’s say you’ve written the first book in a Regency mystery series where your pretty sleuth needs the help of a certain man to solve the crime. Your heroine and Mr. Tight Trousers bicker and waltz through the plot with the sexual heat turned to stew, but the question of whether they wind up together isn’t absolutely answered. Now, if the final scene reads like this…

“Eleanora…be my wife. Never have I found a woman who is so intellectually stimulating whilst at the same time so very responsive in a careening carriage.”

“Oh, Lord Musk, I would love to be your wife…someday. But let us first have two more adventures. The ongoing mystery of my father’s will (and the demands of my author’s contract) demand it.”

…I’m guessing that would have a chance in SRE. It’s romantically satisfying and optimistic, as far as the two principals are concerned. But look at this other possibility:

“Eleanora…be my wife. My carriage awaits to take you from your vile cousin’s house.”

“Lord Musk, while it is true that I have spent most of the book exploring my love for you, the last few pages have shown that my vile cousin is vile due to circumstances beyond his control, and also isn’t my cousin. Not only that -- the babe in my womb may not be yours, but his!”

I don't think you can call a cliff-hanger like that satisfying, and Lord Musk isn’t feeling optimistic. He’s in a world of hurt. The idea that there may not be a place for this kind of book in the Golden Heart may make your blood boil, but hey, they have to draw the line somewhere. It is the Romance Writers of America, after all.

Let’s look at one more piece of the definition puzzle: “The romantic elements, while not the primary focus of the story, should be an integral and dynamic part of the plot or subplot.”

A suspenseful SRE is not the same as a Romantic Suspense. In the latter, the spying, shooting and running are tools to bring the heroine and hero together. If the thieves were stopped but the couple didn't end up together, the story wouldn't work.

My 2006 SRE GH finalist, Telling Lies, was not the same as a contemporary romance. My heroine’s primary focus was finding out why she developed a split personality during her job as a Tarot-card reader. There were two love interests in the book, but if she had had to forgo both men to regain her sanity, the book would still have worked. The reason I could still enter it in SRE, however, was because the romance was integral to the main plot. Her choice of man was part of why she developed a split personality. And since she did get her HEA with one of the guys, it had a satisfying and optimistic ending.

The RWA definition also specifies that the romance, though secondary, is dynamic. Your heroine can’t start out engaged, have a lovely, trouble-free relationship where her man helps her kill the bad guys, and then marry him at the end. In that scenario, your main plot may be riveting, but the romantic subplot is not dynamic. Take it out of the book and it is bo-ring.

To sum up, the SRE is the place to enter a novel with a primary plot that is something other than a romance. Part of that primary plot (“or subplot”?!) had better feature a conflict-ridden romance with one or more hot guys, and your heroine had better end the book with a relationship that is both satisfying and optimistic. Now, as far as I know, whether she can be satisfied and optimistic with two guys at once and still final in the GH remains to be seen.

I'll be interested to hear what the other Noodlers think. The "satisfying and optimistic" romantic resolution is probably the trickiest bit for those writing a series with the same heroine throughout.

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Introducing Esri Rose

Hi! Esri Rose here (aka Kiki Clark). I finaled in the Golden Heart's Paranormal category in 2003 and in Strong Romantic Elements (SRE) in 2006.

Last year, Kensington read my SRE manuscript and liked it, but they weren't sure how to market it. So they asked if I had anything else, and I offered my 2003 GH paranormal.
Bound to Love Her will be published in May of 2008.
The debut-author price is $3.99.

"A delightful fantasy sure to appeal to
anyone who loves wit, mystery and magic!"
-- Kathy Love, USA Today
bestselling author,
Fangs for the Memories.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

The Current Young Adult Market and the GH

By Trish Milburn

The main thing I want to share if you’re considering entering or judging the Young Adult category of the Golden Heart is that today’s YA is not yesterday’s YA. By that, I mean we can’t go into the current YA field with the Sweet Valley High mindset. Today’s YA offers a tremendous variety of stories from paranormal to chick lit to urban and edgy. It bushes boundaries and boldly goes where YA novels typically never went before.

One of the things it’s hard to get past as a YA judge and sometimes even as a current YA author is the feeling that a book targeted toward teens needs to only portray teens with a solid moral code, that we as authors have a moral obligation to only portray good and safe conduct. Society pressures us into thinking that our fictional teens can’t drink or have sex, or we’re putting our stamp of approval on such behavior. Um, has anyone read the Gossip Girl books or seen the CW television program based on the Gossip Girl series? They are wildly successful, and the teens in them are not pure as the driven snow. But that doesn’t make them totally without scruples. It just makes them teenagers fumbling their way through what is probably the most tumultuous, hormones-on-overload years of their lives. Today’s teenage readers are sophisticated readers. If you give them a story that’s a poorly veiled morality play, they’ll stop reading. But if you give them a story that they feel is authentic, they’ll stick with it – and perhaps learn some smidgen of goodness without even realizing it. Even within banned teen novels it’s not evil incarnate. Plus, my question is what good is an unbanned book deemed proper for teens if no one reads it?

I’m not saying that all YA has to be filled to the brim with vice. There’s plenty of room in the marketplace for lots of types of YA novels. Our own Stephie Davis has done well with sweet teen stories where they get nowhere near intercourse. As a reader, I was still just as engaged and rooting for the heroines of her stories. And based on the comments of teenage girls who read her “Boys” series, these stories rang true for them even though they were of the sweet variety. I mean, what girl hasn’t pined for a guy and worried that she didn’t have a chance with him? Stephenie Meyer’s fantastic series starting with Twilight has plenty of sexual tension, and that’s part of what makes them unputdownable. Bella and Edward have a fantastic love story, but it’s not yet been consummated because of their main difference – Edward is a vampire and Bella is still very much human.

To me, the best YA stories devote at least some portion of the books to teenage love. Yes, you can categorize them as romances, but know that this is not the same as the romance in the rest of the categories in the Golden Heart – even if there’s sex involved. How many people find the love of their life when they’re 16? But at the time, it sure feels like you have. You, as an author, have to convey that. The characters can believe with every fiber of their being that they have found their soulmate, their one and only. And for the purposes of fiction, maybe they have. Stephenie Meyer certainly makes me believe that Bella and Edward are destined to be together. I’m not sure how she’ll finally accomplish this, but for now I believe it and wish for it.

Also, it’s important to note that while YA can have (and should have for the purposes of the Golden Heart) a love story in it, it doesn’t have to take up as much of the story as it would in an adult romance. YA novels not only tackle love, but they deal with other day-to-day things teens face – homework, teachers they don’t like, what they want to do with their lives, cliques and other social structure issues, peer pressure, problems at home, and a whole host of other things that seem tremendously important when viewed from the teenager’s point of view. You remember how everything was life and death in high school, right?

If you’re not entering YA but think you might like to judge it, I’d suggest picking up and reading several different types of YA novels between now and when judging packets go out. Read Stephie Davis, Stephenie Meyer, Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Niki Burnham, Simone Elkeles, Lynda Sandoval, Gillian Summers. Spend an hour in the YA section of your local bookstore reading the back cover copy. If nothing else, I bet you find some new authors and stories you simply can’t put down.

If you have a YA story that can be completed by the GH entry deadline, I highly encourage you to enter. YA is often one of the smaller categories, so it’s very important to make sure the category reaches the minimum number of entries – 25. I can tell you from experience that it’s a huge thrill to win the Golden Heart for Young Adult. I wish all of you the best of luck.

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