Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Jessica Hart: You've Written a Romance - What Do You Do Now?

I'm joined by Jessica Hart, who's well-known for her 60+ Harlequin/Mills & Boon novels.  An expert in narrative plotting, character development and romance itself, she has recently turned her hand at helping others achieve their writerly dreams.  She talks about what to do once you've completed your manuscript:

T H E   E N D: the best two words you can ever type!  It’s a huge achievement to complete a novel and the temptation to rush your book out there so that everyone can read it is huge. 

But if you’re sensible, you’ll wait and let someone else read it before you go public.  Not your mum, or your best friend, or – God forbid – your partner, but someone who really understands about stories and how they work.

Mr (Not Quite) Perfect

You’re much too close to your story to see the flaws in it.  I’ve written 63 books now, and I still wouldn’t dream of letting anyone read any of them until an editor had cast an eye over it.  The occasions when they love it just as it is are rare indeed.  My 60th Mills & Boon romance, Mr (Not Quite) Perfect (find the CLAficionado review of it here - it's remarkable!!) did go through without any revisions (and oh, how happy I was about that!) but it’s much more usual that my editor will point out some areas that need tightening or a gaping hole in a character’s motivation.  And as soon as she has, I can see how glaringly obvious a mistake it is, and beat myself up for not seeing it myself.

Revisions taught me how to write.  When I started writing romance – over 20 years ago – I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  For my first attempt, I rattled off a story and sat back and waited for a cheque to drop through the door.  That didn’t happen (surprise!).  It took me two outright rejections before I thought to read a book on how to write romance, and the resulting third attempt got me out of the slush pile (thank you, Mary Wibberley) although I didn’t get a contract until my fourth submission, ASweeter Prejudice.  

I’d had a book published.  Hooray! I knew what I was doing now, right? Wrong.  Every manuscript I sent in came back with reams of revisions that I would read with growing dismay.  I used to allow myself a day or two to sulk, and then I’d go back and read the comments again, and I’d realise that every single one was right.  They meant that I would have to start at the beginning and rewrite the entire book, and it was always so much stronger as a result. 

I cringe to think about some of those manuscripts I submitted.  I thought I’d finished when I typed THE END, but I realise now that they were just first drafts, and pretty shitty ones at that.  I needed an experienced eye to identify the problems and help me develop what worked in my story.

It was only when I became a reader for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme that I was forced to think for myself about how and why stories work and what I was actually doing when I wrote.   I read decently-written manuscripts that were lacking a real conflict,  that became bogged down in banal dialogue or a sagging plot, or had erratic characters with no real motivation.  It wasn’t that the words weren’t put together well, it was a basic lack of understanding of how a romance is structured.   So how could I help the author put their story right?

Since then I’ve been fascinated by romance writing, and how and why it works, and I’ve taught a number of successful courses for the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York and at the Watermill at Posara, as well as various workshops. 

I was mentor to RITA®  nominated Leah Ashton, winner of Mills & Boon’s first New Voices competition, and Jessica Gilmore, now writing her fifth book for Harlequin Mills & Boon, was a student on my Slush Pile to the Shelves course. Jessica, whose Summer with the Millionaire is out now, says:  Pam was brilliant at explaining story structure, conflict and characterisation in fun, easy to understand and relevant ways, ensuring I had all the tools I needed to turn my ideas into workable, writeable plots.” (In case you’re wondering, Pam is my real name!)

Now I’m offering aspiring romance authors the chance to learn those tools too.  While professional editors can give valuable advice about the market, and point out weaknesses, I think only someone who’s been at the coalface of writing, as it were, understands how to go about putting those weaknesses right. 

As someone who knows just how hard it is to write a book, I’ll read your manuscript with a sympathetic but tough eye, and I’ll give you constructive feedback. I won’t just point out what’s wrong, but make suggestions about ways in which you could tighten your plot, make your characters engaging, and, most importantly of all, ensure that you have a strong emotional conflict at centre of your book. 

Maybe you’ll sulk the way I did when you get my report, but I hope you’ll also know that every suggestion is intended to make sure that whether you choose to submit to a publisher or publish yourself, your book is as good as you can possibly make it.

And maybe you won’t need to sulk at all! If I think the book is ready for submission, I can offer advice on that, and there will be a discounted rate for second reads of a manuscript and/or mentoring sessions by phone or in person.

For more details see my website or email me directly: jessica@jessicahart.co.uk

RITA® and RNA prize winner Jessica Hart has written 60 books for Mills & Boon and is an experienced writing tutor and editor.  Under her real name, Pamela Hartshorne, she also writes ‘time slip’ novels published by Pan Macmillan.  Her very first book, A Sweeter Prejudice, is part of the Jessica Hart Vintage Collection, now available to download on Amazon UK or Amazon US and visit her website for other e-readers.

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