Saturday, August 17, 2013

Industry Insider: The five most common mistakes that Romance Authors make (and how to avoid them)

Legendary former Harlequin senior executive editor, Tessa Shapcott gives the lowdown on the five most common mistakes Romance author make and how to avoid them.

Let me introduce myself: I’ve been in the book publishing industry for over thirty years, twenty-five of which were spent with Harlequin Mills & Boon, editing their wonderful romances.  Recently, I forged out on my own, offering freelance editing services and specialising in working with writers, published and aspiring, who want to self-publish (yes, you do need an editor!) in the romance and fiction genres.  I guess I’ve seen thousands of manuscripts in my time and know that romance writers do tend to make common mistakes.  I’d like to share my experience and offer some help and advice on how to avoid the most repeated.

Have you fastened your seat-belt?

I think it’s advisable to wear one, because writing romantic fiction is a lot like driving a car: you’ll want to know where you’re going, will need a map and enough petrol to reach your destination; be able to steer around bends, up and down hills and through bad weather without skidding; know when to put your foot on the accelerator, when to change gear and when to slow down…and do the odd emergency stop.

For the next couple of minutes, look on me as your driving instructor and allow me to guide you on your writing journey.  I promise I don’t wear creepy leather driving gloves, won’t grip the dashboard when you go too fast, or pick my nose (all of which my actual instructor did when I learned to drive many moons ago, bless his heart).

Mistake #1:  not mapping out your story! 

A few lucky authors are able to reach their happy ending just by using instinct.  But, for most writers, it’s much more effective to set out with a synopsis of your plot, thumbnail sketches of your main characters and a strategy for how the conflict in your story is going to play out.  Doing it this way doesn’t mean that you can’t take a detour from your original plan, but it does ensure that you’ve set your own sat-nav and can pause to take a pit-stop and make sure you’re on the right road, and—most importantly—you can direct your energies into generating lots of emotion and excitement.

Mistake #2: not having enough gas in your tank!

Your story needs fuel to sustain it and this is where generating emotional conflict is so important.  Divide your emotional conflict into two: internal and external.  Inner conflict arises between the main characters within their relationship, or from their own inner struggles, and is key to drawing your reader into the narrative; external conflict comes from events in the plot or the actions of secondary characters and can be used to add an unexpected twist.  You’ll probably have guessed that, in a romantic novel, inner conflict is premium diesel; look on external conflict as an oil-change.  To avoid seeing the red warning light on your dashboard, make sure that you have a series of conflicts with which to challenge your characters and solutions that push them towards a satisfying resolution and the end of their trip.

Mistake # 3: not varying your speed!

Like a crowded motorway, a good romance has varying speed limits that keeps the traffic flowing and the reader feeling she is having the emotional journey of her life.  Too many manuscripts don’t make it out of the Slush Pile because their writers were on cruise control and their characters falling asleep at the wheel.   Make it your business to change gear—upwards and downwards—in time with your characters’ varying emotional reactions.  If there’s going to be some sexy action on the back seat, take your characters through those gear changes to build up tension, before you put your foot down hard on the accelerator! 

Mistake #4: enjoying the scenery!

The best romances have emotional intensity that is borne mostly from focusing on the hero and heroine and their relationship.  Like good drivers, successful romance writers keep their eyes on the road and don’t let themselves get distracted by minor characters or loads of background detail.  Some writers end up crashing because they get too interested in the heroine’s best friend, or they feel they have to set the scene by devoting the first chapter to the backstory.  Concentrate and be concentrated; keep your characters and their front-story moving, with only occasional glances out of the window to the landscape beyond.

Mistake # 5: failing to use your indicators!

The UK’s Highway Code puts the mantra, Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre, at its heart.  When you’re writing your novel, this mantra can be useful.  Keeping your characters and their motivations consistent is a must.  Use your mirror to keep looking behind you at how they’ve evolved so far and reassure yourself that what you’re about to have them do is in keeping with their characterisation.  Don’t forget to signal to the reader that they’re about to have an emotional moment or drop a bombshell: dialogue, body language and actions are your tools here.  Then make your move with your characters confidently and clearly.

There’s one rule that you may want to break, however: don’t drink and drive.  Personally, I think a nice glass of wine or even a stiff gin and tonic can sometimes oil the wheels if you’ve got to a sticky patch of road in your novel…

Tessa Shapcott is a freelance editor, who specialises in all types of romantic fiction and helping writers to self-publish.  You can contact her via her website:  Or email her at


  1. This was a great article, thank-you for your help. I saved your web-site address and might contact you when I get my car (manuscript) up and running. :)

  2. That's great advice, Tessa - best of luck with the freelancing!

  3. Great advice, Tessa. Thanks for sharing your insight. Caroline xx

  4. Thank you for a great article. Best of wishes with your new venture.

  5. Welcome Tessa - and thank you for such a great article. But then you do have so much editing experience to share with us. Wishing you every success with your new venture.