Books on writing craft aren’t for everyone, which is totally fine. I happen to get a lot out of them, but my approach is to take what works and scrap the rest. When I read craft books, it’s with an eye toward finding the gems that will supplement and strengthen my existing process, then I promptly forget the parts that don’t resonate with me.
While drafting Dance All Night: A Dance Off Holiday Novella, I noticed I was using elements from a number of different sources in my process, and I was able to pinpoint which craft books had given me each of these tools. The thing was, I hadn’t really thought about this as I was doing it. As I’d read each book, I had filed away the parts that appealed to me in my mental writer’s toolbox. During the process of planning, drafting, and revising the novella before sending it to my editor, I had used these tools without thinking, “I should use that step from that method.” The tools were just there, right when I needed them.
In this post, I’ll walk through each step and link the book that gave it to me. My thanks to all of these wonderful writers for sharing their tips and knowledge!
According to Wikipedia, the maximum word count for a novella is 40,000 words*. By contrast, my full-length novels are over 90,000. That’s more than twice as many words! Some authors excel at writing novellas, but if you’re like me and used to writing long, how do you cram a full romance into a smaller package? Well, I do it with a little planning.
Here are three tricks I use to fit a an emotionally satisfying romance into a shorter word count.
Image credit: Romance Writers of America
If you’re an unpublished RWA member with a completed manuscript, you might want to consider entering the Golden Heart Contest.
The Golden Heart is an annual contest for unpublished authors run by the Romance Writers of America. You can find all the details and rules here. I was a Golden Heart finalist this year, and I definitely wasn’t aware of all the benefits before I entered. A few people have asked me about the experience, so I wanted to put everything in one place. If you’re looking for the chance to build community and get your work and your name known before you sign a deal, hopefully this post will help you decide if entering the Golden Heart is right for you.
But first, a few tips about entering.
(Originally posted in the RWA-NYC Keynotes April newsletter. Reposting here by popular demand.)
In mid-December, I decided to enter the Golden Heart® contest. The deadline was January 11th. On December 14th, I had a 100,000-word first draft and the holidays were approaching. If I was going to do this, I needed a plan.
One friend had recently shown me her bullet journal, and I knew of another author, C.L. Polk (author of Witchmark, coming 2018 from Tor.com), who uses journaling to develop new story ideas. My background is in art, so there’s always something appealing to me about working on paper. I wanted to try using a bullet journal to help me revise and edit my novel in four weeks. Inspired, I grabbed one of my many spare notebooks, a 24-pack of Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pens, and a ruler, and got to work.
Contests are something of a hot topic. Some writers don’t see the point of them, while others are hesitant to break out of the safety of the contest circuit. I think chapter contests can be useful if you’re clear on what you hope to get out of them. In the last year, I’ve submitted sixteen entries to twelve RWA chapter contests. For most, I had my eye on the final judges, who are often agents and editors. It worked—I received requests from a contest, which led to offers of representation and publication. For others, I wanted feedback, to see how the piece was received and if it fit the genre.
I read a blog post by Angi Morgan where she compiled the comments she’d received from various contests, and it made me curious about my own results. I’ve submitted opening pages from four unpublished manuscripts in different categories and tried to draw conclusions. Here are the stats:
Title: Take the Lead (formerly Feel the Rhythm)
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Contests entered: 6
Title: The Art of Loving a Duke
Genre: Historical Romance
Contests entered: 2
Title: Venus Rising (formerly Aphrodite’s Heart)
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Contests entered: 7 (3x as contemporary, 4x as paranormal)
Wins: (Winners announced end of August)
Title: Say Please
Genre: Sci-Fi Erotic Romance novella
Contests entered: 1
I like crunching data, and contests offer a lot to crunch. In the interest of time, I’ve compiled the scores, averages, entry lengths, and results. In each case where I finaled, I incorporated the first round feedback before submitting for the final round. Results are included at the end, in case you want to jump right to the conclusions and takeaways.
Fourteen months passed from the moment I decided my manuscript was ready to go out on query to when I signed with my agent and accepted an offer of publication (on a different manuscript). I don’t even want to speculate on how often I checked my email during that time, but it was a lot. Common wisdom suggests writing the next book while you wait, and I did. In fact, I completed a full-length novel, a novella, and a short story. (Not to mention all the other projects I outlined, plus two failed revisions.) But there’s more you can do.
If you’re seeking a traditional publishing path and lit agent representation, it can sometimes feel like everything is out of your control. You’re sending queries out into the void, hoping they’ll boomerang back with an offer attached. And in the meantime…you wait. But while you wait, there are a few things you can do to prep for representation and publication, and make yourself stand out as an ideal client.
1. Learn to write to deadline.
It’s invaluable to know how you write before you publish. Know what works for you and what doesn’t. Know how much you can comfortably write in a day, a week, a month. This will help you know which deadlines are feasible and which aren’t. (For example, before I signed, I said I didn’t want crazy deadlines. But then I took on some tight deadlines because the release date payoff would lead to great promo, and because I knew how quickly I could write a full first draft.) Know your output stats, and learn to write to a deadline. I offer some tips for writing fast and writing a lot in my previous post.
For the first time ever, I’m on deadline, so I’m putting everything I’ve learned about writing fast and writing a lot to the test. In June 2017, I wrote 22 days out of the month and added 62,298 words to the Project Roommates manuscript before hitting “The End” on June 30th. Since a few people have commented on my word counts, rather than blaming it on “desperation” and discounting all the research and work I’ve put into learning how to increase my output, I made a list of tools, suggestions, and resources to share.
As with all writing advice, take what works for you and junk the rest.
Know your best writing time
For me, that’s early mornings. It’s quiet. No emails. Noisy kids upstairs aren’t up yet. By hitting my word count first thing in the morning, I approach it fresh and rested, and it’s out of the way so I’m not worried about it for the rest of the day. Know what works for you and stick to that time. If early mornings are your thing, check out #5amwritersclub on Twitter. Bonus tip: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep!
Once upon a time, I used to sit down at a blank page and write whatever popped into my head. Other times, I toyed with an idea first, and once I had a loose premise, I started writing. I wrote about unexpected superheroes, teenage vampires, epic fantasy worlds, parallel dimensions, corrupt ghosts, possessed mermaids…and as fun as it was to play around with these stories, none of them went anywhere. Most of them were never even finished. And when I did get far enough to type “The End,” those manuscripts languished in Revision Purgatory, forever finessing, never finishing. Needless to say, this approach wasn’t going to get a manuscript polished, let alone published. I needed to change my pantser ways and embrace the art of planning.
Me as a pantser trying to revise a finished first draft.
I think I’m pretty funny. I don’t know if others would agree or not, but I think I am. Or at the very least, I’m silly, which is close enough. When writing, I try to imbue a light-hearted sense of fun into my stories, to balance out the deeper feelings that come up for the characters. The ability to infuse your writing with humor is all well and good, but alas, this is where killing your darlings comes in.
Continued on the RWchat blog >>
There’s something special about live theater, and especially musicals. The feeling of being in a space with hundreds of other people, watching supremely talented performers giving it their all on stage, lights me up. I love the singing and the dancing, probably because I’m not great at either, so I find it really impressive when people are triple threats.
After I finished writing Take the Lead, I realized I hadn’t been to a musical in nearly five months, and I was due for some creative well-filling. This year, I’m making an effort to see more shows. I’ve seen eight so far, so I’m splitting them into two posts. Here are the first four: Holiday Inn, School of Rock, Waitress, and Newsies Live.