Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Temptation Tuesday - How Not To Be Tempted By Common Writing Mistakes

This week at The Pink Heart Society the very, very lovely Kate Walker guides us throught the common mistakes you should do your absolute best to avoid when writing for Mills & Boon! Take note gang... and avoid those cliches we all fight every day!

As many of you already know, I am a reader for the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Scheme. Every year I receive manuscripts from would be romance writers and I read and assess them then write a critique of the submission, telling the authors what her strengths are, where her weaknesses lie and what she can do to work on her novel and hopefully make it more of what an editor is actually looking for. In the six years I have been doing this, I've notice that many - most - of the manuscripts I work on share a common set of mistakes, ones that are repeated over and over again. I sometimes feel that i don't really need to read the manuscript but just hand out a list of advice detailing the most common mistakes, the ones that if the writers made determined efforts to avoid, they would be several stages further along the path towards publication right from the start.

So when the PHS asked me to write about the most common mistakes beginner authors make, I had a list of examples right at my finger tips .

So - here you are - Best Avoided List - collected from painful experience. If I never see one of these mistakes again I'll be a very happy critiquer.

1. Don’t believe in the Formula
Or the rules or that story of the computer that is programmed to write all the romances, just changing the names and nationalities of the characters.
Don't read any romance before you start - you'd be amazed how many people say: I’ve never read one but ‘they’re all the same aren’t they?’
If you do read them then only read the ones you can buy second-hand – the ones that were written 5/10/20 years ago because ‘Romances never change do they?’
They most certainly do and if you submit a story that dates back to the sort of books that were published in the 19980s or 90s you'll soon get it back with the comment that it's 'not what we are buying now.'
And how have they changed? Well, the only way you'll ever find that out is to read, read, read...
Don't make assumptions about what the books are like - find out!

2 Don’t Write down to your reader
Never think ‘It’s ‘only’ a romance, nothing important. It's not 'literature'. And anyway, the readers just wolf them down
They are not at all critical, and they never remember one book from another.
You are writing to entertain and for your readers to enjoy the book – just because something is easy to read doesn’t mean that it’s easy to write.

3. Constant Conflict – or one long argument
So many would-be authors interpret the word 'conflict' as just constant bickering, with the characters arguing over nothing just to keep them at each other's throats until the very last chapter.
Don't have a conflict that is so unimportant it makes the H&h look stupid and immature for even letting it bother them. Conflict that just comes from the way he looks at her and the way she interprets it
Equally, don't make the conflict real trauma that is so OTT the character would be a basket case. Many writers seem to think that constant Trauma = Emotion
It isn’t external trauma that gives a book emotional punch - it’s the internal conflict that hooks the reader and holds her.

4. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood all rolled into one
Make your heroine a real person – not just the ‘romance’ heroine
Try to avoid writing the cliché romance heroine that non-romance readers think is the one that appears in every book – ie: -
Virgin heroines just waiting for HIM. The virgin heroine is a lot eaiser to write in a Historical romance but in a Contemporary Romance that is, obviously, set in the 21st century, it can be far harder to make a virgin heroine believable.
Pathetic heroines – just waiting to be rescued
Unemployed heroines – just waiting to be kept in the manor and manner to which they’d like to become accustomed
Heroines who believe ill of their hero on no evidence whatsoever, just because that’s what always happens in a romance.
Heroines who put up with every insult/abuse – and fall madly(madly being the word) in love
Heroines who put up with every insult/abuse – then get a brief apology and say ‘Oh, that’s all right then – because I love you.’

4. Prince Not At All Charming
Please, please, please get away from the idea that an Alpha hero = brute
Don’t have :
Heroes who do nothing but belittle and put down
Abusive heroes – there is a very definite line between being a strong and dominant hero and actual physical brutality
The ‘experienced’ hero – for experienced read promiscuous, no discrimination, a total womaniser – and probably infected with something nasty.
Heroes not even their mothers could love
Heroes who believe ill of their heroine on no evidence whatsoever - because that’s what always happens in a romance.
Heroines who offer their heroine every insult/abuse – then give a brief apology and say ‘But you know I love you.’

5 Characters With No Character
One dimensional
Have no past history before they appear on the page
Who let their author dictate to them - Characters should not be moved around like chess pieces to fit the plot the writer has decided on – the plot should flow from them and their personalities.
Who learn nothing
Who never develop, never change, never even seem loveable.
Who ‘are always like that’ in a romance

6. Non-Sex scenes – or How Wasn’t It for You?
Lovemaking scenes that mean nothing but are there because ‘They always have a sex scene in a Presents/Mod X etc romance’
Don’t have sex scenes that:
Go nowhere – sex always changes things – the build up to a sex scene is important but so is the vital ‘afterwards’ – when your characters see each other in a totally different way because they have been so intimate
Fade to black – if you can’t bring yourself to write one that don’t just cop out with ‘and then everything became hazy .. .’ Write what you are comfortable with and don’t try and dodge the issue
Have no emotion
Change nothing
‘She just couldn’t help herself’ – please make your heroine a realistic woman with realistic feelings and a sense of self-preservation and her own worth.
Sex scenes in impossible or at least uncomfortable places – on a beach? In the back of a car – while someone else is driving?? Are these erotic or just plain uncomfortable – and what if someone else was to appear? Or the driver looked in his rear-view mirror?
Ecstatic sex – again make it likely that it would be that way – not just instant ecstasy with no real feeling.
Don’t put in too many sighs and groans in one go – vary the language

7. Unsafe Sex and Secret Babies
This is the 21st century and you are writing about adults so don’t make them behave like children
Don’t have:
Heroes who never take responsibility
Heroines who don’t protest at the above
Heroines who never take responsibility
Heroes who never protest at the above
Heroes and heroines who take risks no one with any sense would ever take
The instant baby – virgin/one sexual experience/one baby scenario is so over used.

8 . Dialogue that says nothing
Make the dialogue say something - make it further the relationship/the conflict/ the resolution – not just talking that goes nowhere
Not just talking heads – have your characters doing something so that the reader can ‘see’ them as well as ‘hear’ their dialogue.
Avoid circular arguments that always come back to ‘I don’t believe you’!!

9.Scenes that ‘are always in a romance’ aren’t they?
The angry meeting
Being ‘undressed by his eyes’
The other woman in his life
The forced seduction
The humiliation at some social gathering
The belittling boss
Readers know that romances are all similar – but they don’t want to keep reading the same type of scene over and over again.

10. Travelogues – or ‘I’ve been here you know
Background detail should always stay in the background
The romance novel is not a travelogue, or a history lesson
Don’t use novel as polemic – to preach a cause you believe in, however deeply.
It’s a romance – the story of a relationship

11. The unbelievable Other Woman
If your heroine believes the hero has another woman, give her good reasons for doing so – not just because :
She sees them together for one moment
They were together in the past – but she will need evidence in the present
The other woman says she is
Seeing them together when he said he was somewhere else
Other people say she is
Because she’s icily beautiful and a bitch – does this man have no taste ?

12 Too much
Too much trauma trying to mean emotion
Too much of scenes with friends/mothers/aunts/ etc
Too much narrative
Too much description – food, clothing etc
Trying to use every hook all at once

13. The Incredible Disappearing Hero
Long sections with the hero and heroine apart
The hero who never explains where he’s been
The husband/lover/one night stand who wasn’t there the next day – but we don’t know why - and of course she’s pregnant

14. Watch your language
Don’t write the sorts of clichés that mocking critics like to pick up and declare are easily found in romance novels – avoid things like :
Heaving bosoms
Fainting heroines
Heroes who say ‘You silly little thing’
And when you’re writing a sex scene - watch for clumsy euphemisms – I’ve seen all of these in actual mss.
His throbbing thighs
His pulsing/throbbing/ anything manhood
Rosy tipped peaks
His surging man root

Kate's invaluable 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance is available from Amazon & Central Books in the UK - Amazon & Barnes & Noble & Transatlantic Publications in the US - and from Footprint online & Dymocks, Angus and Robertson or any good bookstore in Australia.

Kate has a new release in the Modern Line in March! Sicilian Husband, Blackmailed Bride is available from the Mills & Boon website and Amazon and will be released in the US in April!!!

And don't forget to look out for Kate's week long Q&A with our Pink Heart Society Yahoo loop at the start of March!!! Thanks Kate!


  1. I love this! And thanks to this I realise that my hero in my ms has no history. Grrr, back I go again.
    Thanks again though

  2. Kate, Great list! I confess that my very first manuscript had a few of those mistakes in it...I wonder if I had seen your guide if I might have shaved some time off my ten years to publication...then again, sometimes we just have to work things out ourselves and learn from our mistakes.

  3. Great list--thank you! Something that has helped me is to take an overused plot/conflict like the secret baby and figure out how I can put a spin on it--and then figure out, with the characters I have, how that spin got there... I'm still struggling with the writing sex scenes, though...

  4. Hey Kate

    Thanks for taking the time to fill us in on 'What Not To Do!' I read all your points, thinking about my current mss, and you've high lighted quite a few things that need work. Thanks... oh and thanks for your book from the January Hamper pack!! Great read as usual.

  5. Dear Kate,
    I shouldn't snigger, I haven't earned the right, but 'man root'?!
    That's going to keep me smirking all day.
    Rach (the other one)

  6. Fabulous, Kate, as always. The indisputable voice of reason, common sense and splendid advice. As I keep saying (!!) your 12 Point Guide should be every prospective romance writer's bible.


  7. Hi everyone

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Bronwen - I'm so glad that that comment caught you before you went any further - you'll find your hero a whole lot easier to work with when he has a history. The 12 Point book has several pages of Character Questionnaire to sort out this sort of thing. Good luck!

    Hi Fiona - well, I speak from experience too - I'm not admitting to how many of these mistakes I made in my first ms. And you're right - we all take our own time to reach the point where everything 'gells' - it's a bit like driving - suddenly we see why we have to do this - or that - and how to put it all together.

    Katherine - Congratulations on your sale! I do that too - talke a tried and true plot (maybe overly tried) and try to turn it upside down - some of my most successful plots have come up that way.

    Rachael - you're welcome and I'm glad that the points have made you look at your own ms. Recognising why something isn't working is the major step on the way to putting it right.

    The Other Rach - snigger away! I did! Definitely man root - in fact I'm not sure it wasn;'t hyphenated - man-root! - and it was definitely surging! It keeps making me laugh ever since i read it - and that's precisely NOT the effect you want on your reader. There are other examples, believe me, thopugh perhaps none worse than that.

    Mags, what can I say but thank you. I am always thrilled and honoured when writers like you say that the 12 POint Guide played some part in their road to success. I can never give anyone the *talent* - you have to have that for yourself, as you do. But if the book - or something like this article - helps prevent one of the more basic mistakes then that's what they were written for.
    And I love it when I help people get there


  8. PS I've just been discussing things with Trish and to let you know that I've agreed to do the week long Q&A from Monday March 11th - just keep your fingers crossed that I'm closer to getting this Spanish hero on my ed's desk instead of on mine by then.

    So get your questions ready!


  9. Root? That one made me really LOL. Even typing it made me chuckle.

    If the instant baby is so overdone, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is, then why do I keep seeing new releases with this theme? I just read one, which wasn't too bad, but there were a handful more with this same theme to choose from in the bookstore.

  10. Hi Patricia

    >>why do I keep seeing new releases with this theme?

    Probably because a lot of people - specially new writers see this one as a popular and easy option. It's a theme that's always there, so the assumption is that it sells and it's pretty simple to start with a conflict because of that 'secret baby' theme - and then maintain the conflict throughout.

    This is one of those times when it's not a 'rule' that the instant baby/secret baby shouldn't ever be done but a warning that because it has been done so many times a writer really needs to work on it to make it that bit different - with interesting characters or a twist that lifts it from cliché to plot that works. For example, if the conflict is simply that she had his baby, now he's back and he wants into the baby's life then that's the overdone bit. Add in something more, make the conflict between the two people as individuals not just about the baby and the 'secret baby' becomes the trigger to the story not the whole story.

    It could be quite interesting to look at that handful of books and see how each author dealt with this theme individually - not that I have time to do that!

    I'm not saying I'll never use the instant baby theme ever again - only that if I do I'll work hard on it to make sure there are more topics to add to the interest in it.

    And I know - that 'root' gets me everytime! ;-)


  11. Kate,

    Thanks so much for your helpful tips for writers. I can see where you'd want to tear out your hair reading submissions that are do all the wrong things. Another addition to #8 dialogue - Every once in a while, I still see stilted dialogue that turns me off - authors having men say things you would never hear in real life....childish arguments between the H and H.

    I do have a question for you regarding the titles of many of the HM&B books. Since the writing is updated and fresh, why do the editors choose titles that are still stuck in the '80's? I started picking up many of the Harlequin stories because of cruising the Pink Heart Society and reading their excerpts, but as an intelligent 47 year old woman, I cringe when throwing my book on the check out counter with titles that have the words Virgin & Mistress in them. Come on - the stories are wonderful, multi-layered and well written. Gives us titles that don't have us hanging our heads in shame at the check-out counter!

  12. Nina - first of all thank you for this

    >the stories are wonderful, multi-layered and well written.

    You've put your finger on a problem with the perception of HMB books - there's the titles and the cover art saying one thing and the content of the books saying another.

    Why? Well all I can say is that Editorial and Marketing tell us that those titles sell- they say they're like a shorthand way of letting the reader know exactly what's inside the book fast. So that a busy woman out shopping can tell at a glance, by the use of all those buzzwords, just what type of story they're looking at and so helping them decide if they want to buy a 'Revenge' plot or a'Secret Baby'plot or a 'Virgin Mistress' plot ;-)
    I have much the same response as you when I see them/buy them - and when people say 'And what's your new book called?' I have no way of knowing if it really is the title that helps them sell - everywhere I see people making the same comments are you but the books sell hugely. And then I wonder what we'd put in their place if we didn't use these 'buzzwords' style of titling. I have a collection of old M&B books and I'll admit that with some of their very different titles, it's very hard to begin to guess what the story is about.

    Would sales be better if they changed the way the books are titled? To be honest I don't know. I do know that many of the authors feel the way that you do - but that there is no sign of the style of titles changing for the foreseeable future. So I just grit my teeth and write - and hope that readers buy my books because of my name on them and not the title!