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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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29 Comments:

At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great advice about the first paragraph of the synopsis, Jill. I've been working on that because writing the synopsis is so different from writing the MS, and writing the blurb is different yet again! Can I boil 250 pgs of MS down to 5? Then down to a paragraph or two? And keep the tone? It's a great, fun challenge, one that makes me rethink the whole story.

Margaret

 
At 9:04 AM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Jill, great post and thanks so much for using an example from my first published book!

I love reading contemporary series romance - there is something about that tight word limit that means every word has to count and makes for a fast paced read. And yet there's still action a plenty, emotional action, character action and I love a dash of plot action as well, so long as it works with the characters' conflicts and doesn't come across as contrived.

And there's something else I think works wonderfully well in all romances - short, punchy, first sentences. And it's a great hint if you're entering the GH (or any contest) because you're wanting to grab that judges attention from the very beginning.

Jill does openings so well. Here's her very first sentence from Never Naughty Enough - "She was stretching again."

Four short punchy words and we just know we have a guy practically foaming at the mouth. Lovely stuff!

And here's the first from Share the Darkness - "Ward Cassidy could think of better uses for an ice cube."

I love these openings!

I know we've already talked about openings in this series of blogs, but it really is so important that it's worth repeating, especially when it comes to contemporary series where word counts are limited. To my way of thinking, if an author can pin that first so important first line, they're halfway there. So make that first sentence count - and listen to Jill (she knows what she's talking about:-))

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Jill said: 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.

I don't think the category "Romantic Suspense" is quite the same as Contemporary Series: Suspense/Adventure and I hope Trish can tell us the difference.

I feel for the aspiring series writers (and the authors) in having to decide just where your entry belongs. Some seem easy. Intimate Moments seems Suspense/Adventure as does..Silhouette Romantic Suspense. I know my pal Karen Anders is writing a Blaze that fits this S/A category. I guess you must look to your story and see if it has these elements.

I'm of a different mind when it comes to synopses. I would not advise struggling to show your "voice" there. I think it is far more important to be clear about your characters' GMC's, and the important turning points of the plot. I think it is most important to focus on the romance.

I like the "back cover blurb" type opening paragraph, a concise statement of the story question or premise.

When we get to synopses I'll be sure to put my $.02 in!!

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

Good post, Jill.

And Diane, I'll mention the new series category for suspense and adventure in my RS post later on, but RS stories can fall in the new series category if they are RS written with a category line as the target. At least that's the intent. But there are a number of category authors who also write adventure stories (like the "jungle books") that could go in this new category. They're just very different in tone and content than stories for other category lines that focus mainly on the romance without a suspense or adventure plot interwoven with the romance.

With the new guidelines, we really wanted to leave it to the authors to decide where they think their stories best fit.

 
At 11:33 AM, Blogger Melanie Dickerson said...

A synopsis has to be the hardest thing in the whole world to write! Thanks for the advice.

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger Santa said...

I am frantically writing down notes on the print out I've made of this post. Thanks so much for the great advice on both contemporary series romances and the synopsis.

Funny, the first romances I picked up were contemporary series romances. Not that I realized it at the time and wouldn't you know, that's what I've written.

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm a great admirer of series romance! My friends Karen Anders, Darlene Gardner (Superromance) and Melissa James (Harlequin Romance) write series, as well as a bunch of Noodlers! (see all the bookcovers on the side of our blog) It sure isn't easy to hit the right tone for the line, have a unique voice and unique story ideas and do it all in a short word count.

 
At 2:24 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I love contemporary series romance too, which I guess is why I'm trying to write it. I love that I can get an emotionally packed, gripping story in a book that won't take scheduling huge chunks of my calendar to finish.

I look forward to Diane's thoughts on writing the synopsis. I'm guessing for series romance, it should be somewhere between five and eight pages? How much detail is too much? How do you know what to cut?

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Jill, great opening paragraph idea for the synopsis. It reminded me of the presentation Leslie Wainger (Silhouette editor) has given at the RWA National conference in the past.

Leslie reads the opening paragraphs of synopses(I'm hoping that's how you spell the plural of synopsis) that were submitted to her ahead of time. But, she doesn't look at them until she reads them aloud during the presentation. That way, we are all privvy to her first thoughts about the synopses.

She really wants to be grabbed by the opening, and wants the opening to give you a good feel for the type of story right off the bat.

Your example from your Filty Rich book is wonderful! Thanks for the advice.

Pris

 
At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

I'm always trying to decide if an entry is a long contemporary or a single title. That distinction has never been entirely clear to me (and I've gotten judges who told me the category I'd entered wasn't right for both long contemporary and single title--with the same book). I'm looking forward to the single title explanation because I think that's where I belong.

 
At 4:35 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

Having read your stuff, Margaret, I agree you belong in ST.

 
At 4:37 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

TrishMi: Is a "jungle book" a story that's set in the jungle?

Patricia: I'm guessing your estimate for the length of a category snyopsis is dead on. I might shoot for six pages. Anyone else have an opinion on that?

I like a synopsis that starts with a back-cover-style blurb if it's a teeny overview of the plot. That helps me make sense of what's coming up. Some blurbs are more mood setters, and those I can live without in a synopsis.

 
At 5:29 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

I'm with Esri - if you can start your synopsis with a paragraph that encapsulates the plot, maybe sets up a problem and/or demonstrates the conflict between the characters effectively, then go for it.

I'd be tempted to get that synopsis down to four pages (double spaced) if it's a short contemporary we're talking. It's good practice, because editors want them short. M&B Richmond only want one page, single spaced. That's not a whole lot of length so you have to learn to concentrate on the development of the romance rather than what happens next. It's tough, but like I said, good practice.

If you can get your story down to one paragraph though, it should be a doddle:-)) And if you can get it down to one paragraph, get it down to a few short words - if you've seen any Presents titles lately, love 'em or hate 'em, they're a synopsis in a nutshell. Every word is a hook - and that's what you want - a hooky title, a hooky first line, a hooky synopsis, hooks at the end of chapters and scenes but definitely at the end of the partial. Hook those judges and reel them in!

 
At 5:41 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm not writing the synopsis blog, so I'm curious about what will be said, too.

I think short synopses are the best.

Margaret b, I think you have to forget the words "long contemporary." They are no longer relevant.

I'm no good at advising people whether their books are series books or ST. I never was able to figure out the series books, the differences between some of the lines. Other people do a masterful job of explaining this, but I'm just not one of them!

 
At 6:34 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

Glad you you enjoyed the post - I hope it was helpful. I've been gone all day with 18 1st thru 5th graders on a field trip, so I'm glad the discussion is still going on!

Looking forward to the synopsis discussion. There seems to be so much stress involved with those pages...

Whether a book is ST or category - it's getting harder to tell with the blurring of the lines. If you look at the guidelines on eharlequin.com - you'll spot many of the same desired elements in both series and ST.

I think the main thing is more. Obviously there is more page count in an ST, but if those pages aren't used to have more conflict, more plot points, more subplots, then maybe the author is missing the point.

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

Esri, a lot of the jungle books are set in jungles or other more exotic locales. In addition to having some suspense, there's this great sense of adventure and often the setting is a huge part of that, almost a character itself. Our our Mary has written some fabulous adventure romances.

 
At 9:11 PM, Blogger doglady said...

The synopsis tips are priceless! I would rather have a root canal without benefit of anesthesia than write one! While I write strictly historical, I love to read contemporary series just to get the rhythm they have - short sentences, quick action, to the point writing. It helps to give my writing a little variety. Does that make sense?

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Sara Lindsey said...

Synopsis tips rock!
Do you think any of the WetNoodlers would feel comfortable posting their GH synopses as examples? That would be awesome!

 
At 9:57 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

This is so off topic- but I have two questions. The first one is so off the wall, but here goes. I know we are supposed to submit everything on white paper, but does it matter if it is 20 or 24lb? Also- if I chose a name as my "w/a name" will it be a sure thing? Is there a chance an editor or agent will want me to use a different name?

 
At 10:15 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Gaill, I can't help you on the paper weight thing but coming from Oz where we don't have letter size but A4, I know it makes not a shred of difference. I suspect weight is the same, but someone cleverer will know.

As for a pseudonym - the short answer to your question is no. You might be lucky enough to keep it, but the publisher may already have three writers on their list with your name or similar and may want to go for something slightly or even completely different. I went through a few iterations before I found my publishing name (Trish McMuffin had a certain appeal:-)) and I know a few others who've done the same. Then there's the authors who got their first choice. So nothing is a sure thing in publishing:-) Best to have a list and keep an open mind.

 
At 10:35 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

Thanks, Trish, for that insight, I really want to publish as Aurora Aorta or Ignastia Matters, but I have a feeling I'll get thumbs down on those choices!y

 
At 11:03 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gaill: Ignastia Matters?! Holy smokes!

20 lb. paper is fine. Regular copy paper (is that 18 lb?) is dandy. They don't want a thick stack of paper, and since you're only printing on one side, nothing's going to show through.

Sara: I'd be happy to post a synopsis, but there are a couple hitches. 1), if it's a book I haven't published (and that includes all but the one coming up), then I don't want to put an unused plot out there. 2)If I post the synopsis to the book being released in May, you won't want to go out and buy it! And 3), six-eight pages is a lot to put on a blog. I'll try to think of ways to get around these issues, because I actually like writing synopses.

Hmmm... I could post just a couple pages of a longer one.

Any ideas, fellow Noodlers?

 
At 11:36 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Maybe Trish Mo and I can post one of the one page synopses that Mills & Boon like us to write. Or maybe some of us can email our GH winning synopses.

Gaill, I think Esri's correct about paper. I've never heard anyone judging comment on paper.

Check the rules for the GH. I think you can use a pseudonym if you are a finalist. But I'd only do that if you had a reason you did not want your real name printed publicly. Otherwise you may just confuse matters with too many names.

I think the only time to pick a pseudonym is after you've sold. Believe me (as someone who has used two writing names) you don't want too many names "out there."

 
At 11:47 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Diane, can we set up a separate yahoo email address where noodlers can post their gh finaling synopses?

Wonderful informative post, Jill. Thanks!

 
At 12:03 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm not sure if email will take that much content, Theresa.

 
At 12:49 AM, Blogger janegeorge said...

Did somebody say synopsis?

URGH

I look forward to the synopsis blog day, and everybody's two cents. I can do a blurb, a one-page, and a query-letter no problem. But the longer synopsis usually sinks like cement.

URGH.

 
At 2:32 AM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Sara, re your request for noodler synopses - it's so long ago I'd forgotten what I'd written, so I just went and looked up my GH entry file for Date with Destiny (which became The Greek Boss's Demand) and lo, there's an opening para that sums up the book - here goes -
"Alexandra Hammond and Nick Santos shared a month together in the Cretan sun eight years ago. Now they’re about to share their working lives. But is Alex prepared to share the secret of their son?"

There you have it, the story in a nutshell. Straight away you know it's a reunion story, potentially an office or simlar romance, and it features a secret baby. Plus you get a brief intro to your characters and a hint that Nick is a mediterranean hero. I could have spelled all that out - a la

Date with Destiny is an office based reunion story featuring a secret baby/child and Mediterranean alpha hero, but I think that's more query letter style wording. I think the *blurb* approach works much better and really showcases yoor voice, before you plunge into the whys and wherefore's. That's my take anyhoos:-)) (And I really hate doing synopses!)

 
At 2:37 AM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Aurora Aorta or Ignastia Matters?

Trish McMuffin suddenly doesn't sound so off the wall:-))

For the record I like Aurora. Name often comes down to genre of course. I think Aurora would work wonderfully for paranormal, SF, fantasy. And of course, if it was heart-rending romance, that Aorta might go down a treat too.:-))

Like I said, keep your options open. It's great to have something different. It's also great to have something that you recognise as you when people say it.

 
At 6:44 PM, Anonymous Ami W. said...

This is excellent! I'm a couple days late here. Seeing as this is the catagory I'm entered in, it was very helpful. Thank you!

Ami

 

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