Romance FAQ

I participated in a chat on Romance today at the Hillsboro Public Library.  (And my thanks to the wonderful staff and volunteers who made the Local Authors’ Fair such a success!)

Here’s the FAQ that I put together for the Romance chat:

How much can I make writing romance novels?*

Where can I go to learn more about writing romance?

Recommended books on the craft of writing

Podcasts about writing in general

YouTube videos about writing

*Because that’s invariably the first question I’m asked.

How much money can you make writing romance novels?

“I’ve never been a millionaire, but I know I’d be darling at it.”
-Dorothy Parker

One question I’ve gotten lately is how much money a writer can make by writing romance novels.

“It depends” is not a satisfactory answer, but it’s the most honest one. How often you write, what type of romance you write, and let’s not forget how well you write. All these factors influence how much money you can earn.

Honestly, I’m not the person to ask. If you want specific numbers, Courtney Milan wrote a post comparing a royalty statement for a traditionally published novella and a self-published one. Cara McKenna described the years it took her to earn as much by writing as she had at her last full-time (non-writing) job.

Brenda Hiatt has a section on her website titled Show Me the Money, where she breaks down how much writers make on average from independently publishing and from various traditional publishers, including the different lines that Harlequin puts out. That’s a good starting place to get an idea of how much money you might make. Mind you, that’s before the IRS taps you on your shoulder and requests up to  half of it.

Don’t write a romance novel because you want to make quick money. Nor if you don’t enjoy reading them in the first place. Writing is a lot of work. If you don’t like romance novels, or you don’t like writing, you’re not going to make enough money to justify the time you spend writing the novel.

When a good description turns into bad writing

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation
I love reading the winning entries for the Bulwer Lytton contest. It’s a contest devoted to writing the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. Deliberately bad writing is not as easy as unconsciously bad writing, in my experience. I’m great at writing badly when I’m not paying attention. But reading deliberately bad writing is not only funny, it’s often useful.

Writers are told to include sensory detail. I’ve had a contest judge ding my writing because in one scene I only included sensory detail from three senses (sight, sound, touch) instead of all five. I don’t think the reader notices or cares whether you use all senses in describing a scene. Writers get so focused on including the sensory details that they miss the reason for including the details in the first place.

One day—though this was no average day, it was gloomy; uncharacteristically forecast for mid-July, yet not extraordinary considering the geographic location, on the northern coast of Germany, where drastic changes in weather are indeed quite common although not so common that they were expected yet common enough to leave no one shocked by the small gathering of clouds above their heads—Linda went on a walk down the street.
— Benjamin Matthes, Founex, Switzerland Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

I’ve read stories where the writers devote a page or more of meticulous description in precise detail, for example a clinical description of the taste, sound, scent of eating an apple. The problem with that? Clinical detail, by its very nature, is detached from all emotion. I don’t need to know what eating an apple is like. I need to know what this character feels about it.

Description is an elegant way to tell the reader how the character views their world. It slips information into the scene subtly, providing details in the background while the main action is going on.

She was the most desired object in the room, not unlike the last deviled egg at an Easter Day potluck.
— Christine Hamilton, Atlanta, Georgia
Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

Description is also a good way to set the tone. If you want your readers to know you’re writing a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an opening sentence like the following would definitely work.

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.
-Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
Winner, 2017 Bulwer Lytton contest

What do you do when the book stalls?

Kulikov Writer E.N.Chirikov 1904
I’m judging entries in the Golden Heart contest again this year. It’s like pulling out gifts from a grab bag; you never know if what you get is going to be something you like. So far I’ve read a couple stories that fell into the “well, it’s okay” category and one that absolutely made me sit up and want more.

I think the “it’s okay” stories might be published after some re-writing, but I’m curious to see what happens to the “Wow!” story. I’ve read stories in contests that were better than most published books that I’ve come across — and yet I never see the stories published. (I do look. These are stories that made it to the finals of their contests, so I could google the author’s name.) So either the author published under a different name and title or… they never published at all.

A lot of manuscripts are contest winners because the first few chapters are incredible, and the rest of the book goes downhill faster than a slalom run. But if these authors were that wonderful in their early chapters, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t polish the rest of the story as well, given time and persistence.

And that, I think, is the problem. Persistence. Especially when you’ve been listening to inner voices (or outer ones) that say you can’t finish. Or facing the fact that you’re simply not sure what to do to finish the book.

Napoleon Hill built a whole career writing books with titles such as “Think and Grow Rich.” His philosophy on how to succeed boils down to these steps:

  1. Try something.
  2. If it doesn’t work, analyze why.
  3. Try something different, based on what you learned in step 2.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you succeed.

That’s where I’m at right now with the manuscript I’m revising. One chapter is falling flat and I am analyzing why it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m trying different ways to write it to find a way to that works. Not exciting, but it’s still progress.

Writer’s Digest wrote a post on how to resurrect a stalled manuscript.

Indulging my inner drama queen

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (14 of 15)One good thing about entering writing contests is that I got really good at receiving criticism about my writing. I didn’t always agree with the criticism. Sometimes it was infuriating, especially when someone corrected my grammar but didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I found that in one respect, it didn’t matter. Unless the critic was unreservedly enthusiastic, a little part of me felt miffed. I call that part my Inner Diva. Its ego knows no limits, and even the slightest breath of criticism causes the same reaction:

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius???

(Inner Diva is rather fond of multiple punctuation marks.)

So I’ve learned to allow for that reaction. Whenever I get feedback, I read it, write a thank you (the critic is trying to help me, after all) and then I set it aside and get on with something else. If the criticism was especially harsh, I have to clean something or go outside and pull weeds. Something that involves setting the world to rights.

Then I go back after a couple days and re-read the feedback. Often, on a second reading, the words on the page have magically rearranged themselves so that the critic is much less harsh and much more balanced and reasonable. Sometimes I have to go out on and pull a few more weeds, but usually I can take in their comments and move on with writing.

Feedback is helpful. Feedback is your friend. Feedback is not always right — it’s your story, not theirs — but it really can improve your story.

Just pat your Inner Diva on the head and get on with it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts about Rejection. Rejection is a form of feedback, even a ‘Not for us’ note.

Do you have any special tips for dealing with feedback?

Don’t be rude to idea fish

When you write a novel, there’s always a point in the story where your brilliant, golden story idea is now lying there on the page looking like a sorry piece of dross.

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (4 of 15)At this point, Bright Shiny Ideas invariably come swimming into your mind like a school of idea fish, all calling to you to go write them instead.

Common wisdom says ignore those ideas and finish what you’re working on.

I feel this is rude and will offend those ideas. They might swim away and find someone more sympathetic. So I do not ignore stray ideas. I welcome them in, sit them down with a cup of tea and listen while they tell me how wonderful they are. I scribble down notes as quickly as I can, then thank them for their time, and show them to the door promising to call as soon as I can.
Then I go back to the current story.

Like Days This

Juan Gris - Portrait of Pablo Picasso - Google Art Project

“The one ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning.” – Anne Tyler

This like days?
Like this days?
Days like this?

Words on the page in the right order


You cannot get.

This is those days one of.

When I have trouble putting words on the page in the right order… I still write something.

There are days when it feels like every word I write is the most pedestrian pablum ever put paper. Gustave Courbet - Le Désespéré

Sometimes, alas, that’s true.

Even so, I write on those days.

Because there are times when I come back the next day, and the words on the page are perfectly fine. Either elves came in the middle of the night and took out my bad words, replacing them with shiny new ones instead, or what I wrote wasn’t that bad. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is write my daily stint and then…

Wait for it…

Let it go.Alphonse Mucha - Job Cigarettes 1

Walk away from the keyboard. No, playing bubble shooter does not count as a break. Back off.

Go pull a weed.

Clean the kitchen.

Go out to dinner with a friend.

Take a walk in a forest.

Let my hair down

Writer’s Block: Tips and Tricks

“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”
-Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I haven’t had writer’s block for a while now.

I really, really hope that I didn’t just jinx things by writing that. Looks nervously over her shoulder to make sure the muse is still occupied playing bubble shooter. Types faster.

writers_blockNote: I define writer’s block as a state of mind where I really want to write, but I look at the blank screen and the words aren’t there in my mind. I stare at the screen and can’t think of anything to write. I may not end up writing as many words as I want on a day like that, but it doesn’t stop me writing. In order, these are the things I try.

First thing: I back away from the keyboard and pick up the pen. I like love my fine-nib Lamy fountain pen. I used to suffer from tendinitis and played around with different pens to see if that helped. With a good fountain pen, the ink flows easily, without having to press down or use any force, and I love using them. But more than that, my brain is old enough to remember life before computers. Heck, when I was growing up, not only did we walk to school up hill both ways, a typewriter was something you didn’t tackle until you were in middle school. So I learned to write with a pen in my hand, and somehow going back to that can make it easier to write when I’m staring at a blank screen and the blinking cursor taunts me with my futility.

Second thing: If I’m still having problems, I look at the scene immediately before the one I’m stuck on. (I’m assuming you’re not having writer’s block in the opening scene. If you are, either a)try writing a later scene or b) try writing a different story. Don’t bang your head against that particular wall.)

Most of the time, if I have problems with the current scene, it’s because of how I ended the one before it. I usually get back into writing the current scene if I change how the previous one ends. Or I add a transition sentence to get me into the new scene. Usually, I change how it ends. If you get off course a little bit, it’s easy to correct. But if you don’t correct your course, the story can veer off into a direction that leads nowhere.

Did I mention all of this is advice that applies to me? Your mileage may vary. Try it. If it doesn’t work, aim an opprobrious epithet in my direction and try something else.

Third thing: If revising the previous scene doesn’t work, then I pick up my toys and go home. Or, if I’m at home, I go to the library. Or the park. Somewhere that’s not where I was when I was stuck. Sometimes, I’ve written great scenes in a busy sports bar with twelve different televisions blasting out different games. Sometimes, I need to write in the quietest corner of the quiet room at my local library. Changing my location can shake something loose if I’m stuck.

Fourth thing: Change the POV. Instead of writing the scene from the heroine’s point of view, try writing it from the hero’s. Or the antagonist’s. Often writer’s block can strike when the middle of the story starts to sag. Hilari Bell wrote a great blog post about villains, and how their arc affects the middle of the story.

Fifth thing: I write one sentence. Hemingway’s advice when stuck was to “write the truest sentence you know.” I often find that what I’m blocked about is not the next sentence I have to write, it’s something that happens farther on in the scene and I’m proactively stressing about it. I usually can write one single dratted sentence. And then I can write another one. They add up.

TL;DR, all of the above boils down to this: if you’re stuck, change something. If that doesn’t work, change something else. Lather, rinse, repeat. If something sparks the writing to flow again, you’re set. If not, then at least you made some use of your time by learning what tricks don’t work for you, so you can avoid trying them next time. It beats looking at a blank screen.