An Inside Look at Category Romance
By Guest Columnist Cathy Sova
Hello, fellow romance readers! Laurie Gold is taking a well-deserved break this issue, and she has graciously offered me her column space. We’re joined by three top category romance authors, who will give their thoughts on writing for the multi-million-selling category sub-genre. Our guests are:
Debra Dixon, the veteran author of eight Loveswept novels, as well as the author of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, a writer’s manual.
Jo Leigh, the author of three Silhouette Intimate Moments. She has recently moved to Harlequin, where she has two books finished for Harlequin American and three more under contract.
Tori Phillips, a relative newcomer to the world of category, but her first two novels made a big impact at Harlequin Historicals, and her third one will be published in early 1998.
Each author responded to some questions about category romances in general and how they handle writing them. As a category reader for over twenty-five years, I found their insights to be fascinating, and I hope you will, too!
Tell us about the guidelines for your line of romance.
Debra: Loveswept is a line that has no real guidelines. They are open to just about any story idea as long as the manuscript is well-written, meets their 60,000 word length, and is a contemporary romance in which the focus is on the romance. Sensuality level is high. Couples will consummate the relationship during the course of the book. Writers may push the envelope of category romance.
Jo: Since I write for several different lines, let me answer this in a slightly different way. Here are my personal guidelines for writing category romance: Do not underestimate the intelligence of the readers. Do not use the first story solution that pops in mind. Tell the truth about the characters. Take them to the limit, do not wimp out and make life easy for them. Make the reader wait. It’s okay to describe the hero or heroine giving and receiving oral sex in great detail, but do not use the word penis as a noun. Cock is strictly a male bird, and male birds are not usually recommended in any storyline.
Tori: Like all romances, Harlequin Historicals requires a happy ending – the heroine has GOT to get her man. Also, the word count must be between 90,000 and 100,000 words, which is longer than contemporary category romances. There must be strong internal and external conflicts, and the book must be character-driven, not plot-driven. The history in the book must be accurate – the editors at Harlequin are sticklers about this. No biological names for body parts, and The Act itself is described in vague terms. HH doesn’t do erotic or spicy scenes.
Tell us about the challenges you face in writing to tight guidelines.
Debra: The author must deliver a satisfying, riveting story. That’s the bottom line. Readers want to be challenged with fresh inventive plots. They want all the complexity, depth, and character development that you’d find in a single title book of 90,000 word. The catch is that series readers want that experience in a 60,000 word book. Each author finds their own way. Some cut subplots. Others keep secondary characters to a minimum. Others keep internal dialogue to a minimum. If you can think of a way to shave pages and not quality, I promise you a category romance author has used that trick more than once!
Jo: I know the length of the book, and I plot to that length. A great deal of my worrying is done before I begin actually writing the book. I plot in detail. I work out who needs to be there, why and what effect they’re going to have on the other characters before I start Chapter 1. I like to know where a story is going so there aren’t any ugly surprises. Part of the reason so many people buy category romances is that they like the boundaries and borders. I respect that, and don’t intend to try and take that element of comfort from my readers. I do, however, work as hard as I know how to write stories that matter, with real people in real situations dealing with real conflicts.
Tori: I learned an awful lot about writing a tighter book after my experience with my first book. FOOL’S PARADISE ran 140,000 words. I had to cut the extra 40,000 words – in just six weeks! Cutting was both horrendous and very instructive. I think that is why people say my second book is better. Also, I hate writing the middle part, between pages 200-300. This is when the story lag hits me. I seem to have my characters walking around, waiting for page 300 so we can begin the slide to the end. Pages 300-400 slide by.
How long does it take you, on average, to write a category romance?
Debra: It usually takes me from 4-6 months to write a 60,000 word book.
Jo: It takes me approximately three to four months to write a novel, from first concept to final draft. I use about two to four weeks for plotting, depending on the complexity of the story. Mysteries are the ones that take the longest. I write about eight pages a day, at least five days per week, and sometimes I write seven days per week, depending on scheduling. I like writing fast, and I’m working to write ten good pages per day. At my current pace, I find I can recall specific dialogue, characterizations, and bits without having to re-read the previous chapters. It makes for a much more integrated story.
Tori: I’m a fast write, and I’m also lucky that writing is my full-time career. I spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of the computer, and when I’m on a deadline, I’ll be there up to 12 hours. (Ghastly!) The first drafts of my books take me anywhere from three to six months to write.
Category romances are sometimes dismissed as “fluff” or “cookie-cutter” books. How do you respond to this kind of thinking?
Debra: The fluff and cookie-cutter battle is the one I fight one person at a time, one opinion at a time, one book at a time. I find the easiest way to change someone’s opinion is to give them the opportunity to make an informed judgment. I usually give them BAD TO THE BONE or DOC HOLIDAY, depending on what kind of book they like. In fact, I give away a lot of books, and not just my own. You’d be surprised how desperate people on jury duty can be. And you’d be surprised how fast their tune changes once they’ve read romance. Always, always, always take a stack of romance novels to jury duty.
Jo: I’m a heretic on this one. I do consider some category books fluff and cookie cutter fiction. I don’t believe the standards for category romance are stringent enough. I’m a very critical reader, and I hate it when I see stereotypes, lazy writing, easy solutions and pat endings. I live in fear that I do all those things, but I sure try not to. When category fiction is done well, it’s marvelous. It’s intriguing, passionate, funny, hot, suspenseful, dramatic and satisfying. When it’s not done well, it’s boring and stupid. Exactly the same thing can be said for mysteries, thrillers, adventures, women’s fiction, historicals, and main-stream fiction. Good writers write good books. Bad writers write bad books. I don’t care whether they’re numbered and sold at Wal-Mart, or numbered on the NY Times bestseller list.
I also don’t care very much when people make fun of the genre. They’re going to no matter what, just like people make fun of soap operas, television that isn’t PBS, or basically any other form of entertainment. The people who like them find them. I don’t know of anyone who loves category romance who’s stopped reading them because of something Howard Stern said.
Tori: I have several answers to this type of thinking:
a) My books have plot, narration, internal and external conflicts, motivation, primary and secondary characters, sub-plots, character development, dialogue, description, mood, setting, rising and falling action. Climax, and denouement. So what is a REAL book?
b) Why don’t you write a book of fluff, then ask me that again? (I say this only if I’m in REALLY bad mood)
c) This quotation is from a publisher, speaking of books he publishes: “…works of this light nature…be things which need an apology for being written at all…spangle and glitter for a time, but thoroughly tinsel.” This was written in 1639, and refers to the works of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare. Same old song!
Explain to our readers the process involved in getting a romance published and marketed, once it’s been accepted.
Debra: Once I’ve turned in an acceptable manuscript, the work is then edited by a line-editor and a copy editor. The copy editor is responsible for checking grammar, consistency, and facts. I receive a “page proof” which is essentially a copy of what the book will look like when printed, but it’s not in book form. This is a stack of copied pages. Page Proofs are my last chance to correct anything before it goes to print. Usually I’ll see my cover a few months or so before publication. The process from acceptable manuscript to seeing the book on the stands can take 6-18 months. My very first book took 15 months from point of sale to publication. As to promotion–most category lines do very little promotion among booksellers, librarians, distributors, or readers. The authors themselves have widely varying opinions on whether they should do promotion, what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Jo: After the book has been accepted, I spend as much time as I can working on the Art Fact Sheet. This is a tool used by Harlequin/Silhouette to synopsis the book for foreign marketers, give the marketing people a handle for selling the book, writing the back cover copy, and cover selection. I don’t do any promotion other than to send my book out for reviews. Eventually, when I have a body of work or something special to promote, I will, but mostly I don’t see the value of spending money on a book that’s on the shelf for one month. My best promotional tool is trying to write consistently good books that category romance fans will like. A name, good word of mouth, and frequent books are the keys, I believe, to success as a category writer.
Tori: I spent about $5000 on book promotion for EACH book. This includes: attending one national convention; a full-page ad in RT; 1500 fliers; 1000 postcards; stationery, business cards, postage; 7-8 bookstore signings, including one overnight trip; 5 copies of galleys to reviewers at $34 each, etc. (The etc.s have a way of mounting up!) This was not a requirement of Harlequin, by the way.
Is being published once a guarantee that we’ll see more works by that author?
Debra: Thank you for the opportunity to correct a couple of misconceptions at once. All mass market commercial fiction (including series romance) has a limited shelf life. New books are coming out each month. The average life of a category romance is no more than 6 weeks. The average life of a single title is slightly longer. Somewhere around the 8-10 week mark, I believe. (We’re not talking about the Stephen Kings of this world.) Publishers reprint a title only if there is significant demand for that book. Book chains don’t routinely reorder most titles. So, alas, the average author won’t see reprints. And so, is not guaranteed of being in print forever.
The second myth is that once an author gets published she has nothing to fear, that her career is set. Not even remotely true. I know far too many authors that have sold one book and never the second. I know many more authors who hit dry spells after #2, #3, #4, etc. The best thing readers can do for a new author, or any author they love, is write the publisher. Tell the bookseller. Recommend the book to a friend. Sales make a difference in an author’s career. Good retail sales are the only guarantee you’ll see more of an author.
Jo: Category romance is competitive as hell. There are lots and lots of people waiting in the wings, hoping you’ll suddenly remember your great love of bee-keeping and leave them a slot. Basically, if you want to write category, you’d better be prepared to write consistently, reasonably quickly, and learn your craft. Never forget who you’re writing for. This is not a job for sissies. You have to write torrid love scenes when you have a miserable cold. You have to get the books in on time, each time. You have to get your name out there, so the readers can find you. I hear it takes seven books before name-recognition sets in. Those seven books should not be published over seven years. If you don’t have a stock of stories waiting in the wings, get some. Have a backup plan. Everyone gets rejected at one time or another.
Tori: Once published always published? No way. In between each of my accepted books, I had several others rejected. At one point, I had come to the conclusion that I was a one-book author. This business requires a very thick skin, overwhelming optimism, perseverance, and a LOT of paper. I am presuming that there is also talent, but talent alone will NOT get you published.
Is it unusual for category authors to write for several lines at once? Do you?
Debra: No, I write only for Bantam Loveswept but know quite a few authors who have written for more than one line. Maris Soule, a Loveswept chum, also writes for Silhouette Romance. Most authors try to avoid direct competition with themselves and choose lines that are dissimilar, such as Superromance and Desire.
Jo: I think writing for several lines is imperative if you’re trying to make a living as a category author. I support myself totally on my writing income (plus some classes) and I have to write a lot of books and keep the contracts coming. My publishers do not consider my career as their number one priority, (darn it) so I have to have irons in the fire at all times. Writing for one line simply won’t do the trick. If that’s not a primary concern, then writing for one line is great. I don’t think it hurts the writer either way. Again, it comes down to the work. If it’s good, consistently good, you’ll be fine.
Tori: Most of the authors I know want to be diversified. I don’t think it’s at all unusual for category authors to try writing for other lines. Most of us would like to have that big “Breakthrough Book”.
Category romance is sometimes seen as a “stepping-stone” to the midlist. What lures authors in that direction?
Debra: Category authors migrate to single title for a number of reasons. Some stories just can’t be told in a 60,000 or 75,000 word format. After an author has written a number of category books, she has a good feel for whether or not she can work with a particular plot line in category without having to “crunch” too much of the story’s heart. If paring the story down is impossible, she may put the project aside to work on as a single title. Other authors are so prolific their category publisher can’t give them enough slots, so they need another outlet for their writing.
Most people are surprised to find that single title books quite often have a much smaller print run than a category romance. By publishing a number of category books, an author can build a reputation that will help her fuel sales for single title books. Still other authors want to try something that ISN’T a romance. Maybe straight science fiction, a mystery, whatever. To do that they have to look to other publishers. And the most compelling reason for branching into single title is that a category romance has never made the NY Times Bestseller list.
Jo: I think category writers are drawn to mid-list because people like to color outside the lines from time to time. It’s fun not to have to be concerned with a category line’s structure. There’s also that dream of hitting the big time, which, I’m afraid, is not very likely. But I write in many genres – non fiction, screenplays, articles, short stories. I do that because I love the challenge and because I think it makes me a better writer. I imagine I will write “big books” and I look forward to that. It will be scary, but worth it, I think. I found out early on that my greatest joy is tackling something that scares me. I didn’t know if I could write a mystery. So I wrote one. I didn’t know if I could write a two-person book. Or romantic comedy. So I wrote them. When it’s not a challenge any more, I’ll look elsewhere.
Tori: Authors like to explore other areas of romance, or even go outside the genre into sci-fi, mainstream, mystery. It allows us to shake off the hard and fast rules of category writing, and to bring something fresh into our work. There are, of course, problems. First of all, breaking into a new form or a new house is just as hard for the published authors as the unpublished. Secondly, editors in other houses/genres have to be sold on the idea that a category author CAN write something different. Finally, there are the readers. Sometimes readers get upset when they find that their favorite author is writing something totally different. This is called a “name brand” mindset.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Debra: Right now I’m finishing up my ninth Loveswept for Bantam and plan to start work on a single title suspense after that. Late 1996 also saw the publication of my first nonfiction book–GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. It’s a how-to writing text published by Gryphon Books for Writers. (GryphonBks@aol.com)
Jo: I’ve got several books coming out from Harlequin beginning in September, 1997 with QUICK, FIND A RING, book two of the THREE WEDDINGS AND A HURRICANE trilogy. This is my debut in romantic comedy, and of course I’m nervous about that. I’ve been known before this for gritty suspense novels, which I don’t intend to abandon. But before I do them again, I’ve got a trilogy of my own for HA – FLIRTING 101, LOVE 101 and MARRIAGE 101 which will be out in 1998. I’m doing another trilogy with my partners on THREE WEDDINGS AND A HURRICANE that will be out in 1998. I’m also just beginning a working relationship with Harlequin Temptation, which should be great fun.
Tori: The sequel to SILENT KNIGHT will be released in 1998. It’s titled MIDSUMMER’S KNIGHT and is Brandon’s story. Meanwhile, I am attempting a “breakout” with a contemporary Scottish ghost story which is making the rounds of publishers at this moment, and another proposal to Harlequin for a “prequel” of the KNIGHT books. I also have a proposal for a non-fiction Civil War study making the rounds, as well as several ideas for a children’s book and a pirate historical. So we’ll see!
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