As they melted into each other's arms, she whispered...

28th August 1998 at 01:00
... wait! If you really want to write a successful romantic novel, hold back until you're ready to embrace the genre with a true passion. Hilary Wilce (above right) explains what it takes to set publishers' pulses racing.

If you had planned to write a romantic novel this summer, but haven't got past mulling over the story, don't worry. You could well be further down the road to success than the cynical wordsmith who has gone at it like a bull at a gate and now has 100,000 words of deathly prose to show for his or her efforts.

One of the most common mistakes would-be romance writers make is thinking they know what they are doing when they don't. These books are simple, so the reasoning goes, they're short, and we all know what they're about, so anyone should be able to knock one out without too much effort.

But one of the hardest tasks facing any author is breathing new life into an old format. Writing short is always twice as hard as writing long, and one of the best ways to go about writing a successful romantic novel is to forget writing for a while, and to read, read, read.

Read romances by the bucketful. Soak yourself in them. Gobble them down. You can, if you like (for the sake of your pride), call it research, but it's vital you enjoy it. And if you don't - if the stories seem too slight or sickly, abandon any effort to write such a book yourself - however hard you try to hide it, your cynicism will show.

And don't just read. Think about what you're reading, because despite the uniform packaging, these stories vary hugely. Some are well written, others are not. Some pile on emotional outbursts like frosting on a birthday cake, others rely on plot to keep the tension high. Some, like fairy tales, bear only a passing resemblance to life as we know it, others get right down to the realities of divorce and single parenthood. Some are as explicit as an anatomy textbook, while others prefer to dim the lights when the going gets steamy. Plots, characters and settings vary more widely than most people can imagine, while the differences between publishers' imprints must also be mastered. Some are racy, others old-fashioned. Some are historical while others confine themselves to medical matters.

After a time you will almost certainly find you are drawn to certain authors. Figure out what attracts you to their books, and look closely at how they do it. These are the signposts that point you in the direction you want to go.

The next step is to get the basics clear in your mind. Romances are, on the whole, formula fiction. They are a set length and follow definite guidelines. They are always about a man and a woman - both attractive, both essentially good - struggling to overcome emotional and other barriers in the search for true happiness. And the relationship between these two protagonists must always remain centre stage, whatever twists and turns the plot takes. So if you find yourself eager to dwell on the downside of human nature, or drag in a cast of thousands, or take long asides to explain the intricacies of cattle ranching in Queensland or oil drilling in Texas, you should be writing a different kind of book.

When it comes to the actual writing, a good rule is - don't. Hold back. Think hard about your characters and plot. It's surprisingly difficult to keep a man and a woman who are clearly meant for each other apart for hundreds of star-crossed pages - to have the basic scaffolding of problems, misunderstandings and antagonisms in place before you set off helps enormously when you do.

Also ask yourself if you've really made the best use of the material you have to hand. Teachers may well choose to write about teachers, but a tale of staffroom passion in an east Midlands comprehensive is unlikely to catch a publisher's eye, while if you take that same young teacher and have her flee the country to take up a position as private tutor to the withdrawn orphaned nephew of a wealthy but mysterious businessman who is spending the summer in a sumptuous but curiously empty villa in Barbados, you soon have any number of tensions, intrigues and questions with which to launch a story. What sets any story alight in the end, though, is the author's driving need to tell it. Romantic fiction handbooks often instruct authors to fall in love with their hero. Better still is to fall in love with the whole thing - hero and heroine, story and setting.

My first book, set in the world of aviation, was fuelled largely by my love of learning to fly. A later one took a turning through the African bush, propelled by nostalgia for a place I'd once lived. Less successful was a book set in a French ski resort, written to retrieve a disastrous skiing holiday. Readers, said my editor tartly, generally found snow too cold to engender real romance, and it's certainly true that those of my books that have sold best are the ones that feature white sands, turquoise sea and waving palms.

Once your story is ripe for the writing, set down a two-page synopsis. Pour your heart into a brief precis, outlining your characters and their fates, but making plain to even the most casual reader that this story will simply burst on to the page once you are given the encouragement to write it. This is your "pitch" for a publisher's interest - what they want to see ahead of any sample chapters or the manuscript itself. Then get hold of the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook and send your synopsis off to anywhere that looks hopeful.

At this stage there is bad news and good. Competition is certainly tough, but in this author's experience, romantic fiction publishers deal more honourably with would-be writers than their mainstream colleagues. All submissions receive a reply within a reasonable time, responses from editors tend to be kind and considered, and embryonic talent is spotted and encouraged.

There is no mystique to getting published. My first book was pulled from a tottering pile of in-basket submissions, and led to a decade of part-time romantic fiction writing before I fell out of love with the genre and moved on.

I never achieved a Barbara Cartland-style production line, or an income that would fuel the kind of lifestyle that sometimes featured in my books, but I managed to pad out the lean pickings of freelance journalism, had a huge amount of fun, and even today, wrestling with a different kind of fiction, still sometimes hear the siren call of those white sands and waving palms, and see the distant, beckoning hands of that gilded couple for whom everything, no matter what life throws their way, will always turn out all right in the end.

Hilary Wilce has written eight romantic fiction novels under the pseudonym Carol Gregor, has won prizes for her short stories, which have been published in the UK and the United States, and is just finishing her first non-romantic novel. Herlatest story, 'They Come When They Come', appears in the June issue of 'The New Writer'. She is a freelance education journalist and a columnist for 'The TES'

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