Tonight I have a slight departure from my usual Friday Night Drinks post. Instead, I am delighted to welcome fellow RNA author and New Writers’ Scheme alumni, Helena Fairfax, to the blog with a guest post on ten things she learned from participation in the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.
So, let me hand over now to Helena:
Every year the Romantic Novelists’ Association offers an opportunity to 300 unpublished writers to have their work critiqued by an experienced romance author. I joined the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme ten years ago. I look back now on how much I’ve learned since posting off my first manuscript (yes, it was all done by post then!) and I continue to feel an enormous debt to my RNA reader for giving me a grounding in what makes a great romance novel.
I passed through the New Writers’ Scheme twice. The first year I sent off just the first three chapters and a synopsis of my novel. I knew the story was going astray, and I was right to have reservations. I received a four-page, detailed report highlighting where the reader felt the manuscript wasn’t quite right, along with some constructive suggestions on how to improve it.
So, back to the keyboard I went, to do what all successful writers do – rewrite. And this was the first lesson I learned:
- Writing is rewriting. Writers need to be able to look at their work dispassionately and not take a critique personally.
- My fictional characters are real. I take this for granted now, but I found it exciting and strangely alarming to have someone else talk about them as though they were actually living beings and not just creatures in my head.
- Because the characters are living and breathing people, they MUST have a clear motivation for their behaviour. What is it in a character’s past that has made her this way? As my reader advised, ‘Keep asking yourself why/why not?’ If you give your characters a solid past, they become well-rounded people your readers can believe in.
- A romance story revolves around conflict. My reader said, ‘It’s about why the hero and heroine, so obviously attracted to each other, not only won’t admit they have fallen in love, but feel that they can’t…Your hero and heroine should have goals that are in direct opposition to each other.’ The greater the emotional tension, the more the reader will want to keep turning the pages, desperate to know how these two will ever get together.
- There must be a situation which FORCES the hero and heroine together. If not, then why not just part on page four, if they are in opposition to one another?
- Romance novels are all about character. ‘When you’re structuring a romance, you should be thinking about the plot not so much as moving your characters from A to B, but as a series of situations that test their fears and bring their goals into conflict.’ Take it from me, this focus on character rather than plot makes it very difficult to sustain the tension necessary for a page-turning read. Anyone who thinks writing a romance is easy should try it for themselves!
- Romance novels aren’t about the perfect heroine. Readers don’t take to the heroine who is beautiful, successful, has lots of friends, and always does the right thing. We can relate to someone who has flaws. Lizzie Bennett, one of the most famous romantic heroines of all time, spends almost the entire book being prejudiced, but we all love her. (On the other hand, don’t make the heroine too silly, or readers will put the book down. Again, romance writing is a tricky business.)
- The synopsis needs to encompass all the above points: the characterisation, motivation, goals, source of conflict, how the hero and heroine are forced together, and how they overcome the demons that are keeping them apart.
- Handling rejection. Of course I was disappointed the story needed more work, but the letter that accompanied my critique stated: ‘Always bear in mind that most published authors have experience of rejection. All writers, published and unpublished, need to be tenacious and determined…Have faith in yourself!’
- And so back to the dreaded rewrite. I resubmitted the entire novel the next year. This taught me another valuable lesson – that if you want to write a book, the only way to get it done is to put your bum in the chair and type. I had a deadline, and I stuck to it.
Since receiving my first ever developmental edit, I’ve written a further four novels, contributed to and edited a best-selling anthology , and written a non-fiction history of women’s lives in Yorkshire. My first critique helped me to focus on the craft of writing. Two years ago I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. I’m now an intermediate member of the SfEP and an associate editor at the Betterwrite Literary Agency.
Nowadays I work with both new and established authors, and I find it a great pleasure passing on the lessons I learned from my own first critique from the RNA.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the New Writers’ Scheme with us, Helena. Despite not yet being published, I have already found it invaluable to my writing and would urge any aspiring author whose novel has a touch of romance to consider applying to the Scheme. Details of how to do it can be found here.
Applications for the Scheme in 2020 will open on 2 January.
About the Author
Helena Fairfax is a freelance editor and author. She was born in Uganda and came to England as a child. She’s grown used to the cold now, and these days she lives in an old Victorian mill town in the north of England, right next door to the windswept Yorkshire moors and the home of the Brontë sisters. She walks this romantic landscape every day with her rescue dog, finding it the perfect place to dream up her heroes and her happy endings.
Helena’s latest release is a non-fiction historical work called Struggle and Suffrage in Halifax: Women’s Lives and the Fight for Equality. Women’s voices are all too often missing from the history books. This book looks at some of the key events in the fascinating history of the mill town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, from the point of view of the women who shaped the town. It’s available on now from bookshops and retailers and from Pen & Sword Publishing and you can buy a copy here.
Connect with Helena:
Facebook: Helena Fairfax