I attended the Mills & Boon New Voices writing workshop at Fulham library held by the fabulous Heidi Rice last night. After arriving a little flustered due to tube delays and my confusion over start time (I thought it started at 6.30pm but was actually 6pm, I should have got an earlier train!!), I sat down to listen to some great advice and honest opinions on writing for M&B from Heidi.
And here are some of my notes (that I have managed to decrypt), which I hope may be useful to some of you -
- When writing for M&B expect to write more books, on average the want 2 per year, so you need to have ideas. Heidi writes 2 per year, which she works around her other work, but is currently trying to writer 3.
- You should think in terms of your own likes and dislikes, as well as your own voice when deciding what to write and, more importantly, what line to target.
- Your "Writer's Voice" is what makes you and your story different.
- Don't try to copy other writers, but do think about what you do and don't like about other writers styles.
- You should always relate to things that you know. Heidi discussed how most of her heroines are London girls as that what she is and knows well, therefore this is what she likes writing.
- Different to other types of fiction, Romantic fiction is not plot driven. Instead it is character driven.
- The conflict of the story is what drives the plot forward. But don't pile in too much external conflict it needs to have well developed internal conflict.
- Internal conflict - this is what needs to be dealt with throughout the book.
- Remember that readers likes to be involved in the characters lives and internal conflict is what enables this.
- Writing for M&B will mean your books have a standard word limit of 50-55,000 words (up to around 70-75,000 words for some historical and paranormal lines) so this means you need to pack as much emotional punch as you can into a relatively short book.
- Well developed plot and characters are important in order to do this.
- The 3 most important parts of a romance are; HERO, HEROINE, INTERNAL CONFLICT.
- Always remember that readers want to step into a characters shoes (which is most often the heroine as it's mainly women readers).
- But male POV is also important as most readers now want to get involved in his life as well as the heroine's.
- Must always make your characters sympathetic, but they should not be perfect. Characters should grow as the story progresses.
- You should know your characters inside-out - think about their past, their motivations, their reactions etc.
- When writing your characters don't make them too self aware - this is another part of their journey in the book.
- Never make your characters do something without reason - always ask why they are doing this.
- When developing your characters think about the following questions;
- What does he/she do?
- Why is he/she good at what they do?
- One word to describe them?
- Why is he/she like that?
- What is it in his/her past that has made him/her like that?
- What is their fear or vulnerability?
- Your HERO must sweep the reader of her feet! The reader should be able to fall in love with him, and most likely as the writer you will fall in love with him too!
- Most M&B HERO'S are alpha males - this is part of the romantic fantasy. But he is an archetype alpha male, not a stereotype.
- Alpha males are usually aspirational characters, so remember that what ever they do (tycoon, lawyer, policeman, rancher, prince, military, etc) they are masters at it.
- Most HERO'S are written as 'The Unattainable Man', which is another important element of the romantic fantasy your creating. But this doesn't mean you can't write hero who is looking to settle down, but you always need to think about why he is doing that and how readers will respond to him.
- Your HEROINE is probably the most important character.
- She must be relatable, but not perfect.
- When thinking of the HEROINE'S attractiveness, don't be to tempted to make her seem like a complete stunner. She should be attractive in the sense that the hero is attracted to her, but also that she is not held back by her looks (or lack of). She must be a strong woman, but also flawed.
- Heidi said that your HEROINE must not need a man to rescue her, she must not be needy, the journey they take together is important, not just his/hers.
- Your internal conflict must be developed well.
- Always relate your internal conflict to your characters - what is going to make it difficult for them to be together?
- Every scene should include some reference to this, even if it is just a hint or a small thought.
- When using internal conflict think about the difference between men and women's thoughts, i.e. men don't usually talk openly about feelings etc.
- The subtext of the internal conflict will add to the tension and intrigue the readers.
- Heidi recommends using dialogue as a good way of bringing internal conflict to the surface. It also lifts the pace of the book.
- Avoid them!
- Heidi talked about how it is true that there are well used themes in the romance genre. Such as; secret baby, unplanned pregnancy, marriage of convenience, blackmail etc.
- These themes are well used as they have a really good conflict, but if you are going to use one of these themes then yours must be fresh and different.
- The reasons behind any conflict must be believable and not cliched.
- Always remember that the books (with the exception of the Historical line) are set in modern times, such things as marriage for the baby's sake, and unplanned pregnancies are harder to pull off these days.
- If using a theme that is common, try to do something different with it. Heidi mentioned a book where the marriage of convenience theme was used but it was the heroine that needed it and was wealthy, rather that the hero.
- As a new writer it is especially important to come up with something different.
- With an idea think about how you can make it new. I.e. different take, fresh characters, modern settings etc.
First Chapters - New Voices relevant
- Start right at point of change or a point of action. You need to hook the reader right in from the start.
- Have an exciting moment in the first chapter.
- Try not to info dump - don't give too much backstory at the start, this should be layered in gradually over the course of the whole book.
- Captivate the readers immediately and make them sympathise with your characters straight away.
- Get the characters together as soon as possible, this is especially important for New Voices as you only have the one chapter to make an impression on readers and editors.
- Establish your emotion and internal conflict - give hints about it, enough to engage the reader but not so much that there's no mystery left.
- The sexual tension and chemistry between the characters must be immediately apparent.
- Be careful of secondary characters - don't let them take over. Secondary characters add dimension to your story, but should have be a main focus. Heidi mentioned that as a general rule of thumb you shouldn't go into a secondary characters POV. And of course, if you find that you have a secondary character you love, you could always write them your own book!
- You should always stay focused on the central relationship.
- When plotting, start with a hook then immediately start thinking about your characters.
- Heidi said that when it comes to her writing/plotting style she is known as a "pantser", that is she flies by the seat of her pants when she writes. She lets the conflict and events develop as she writes. Whereas another writer may plan and plot meticulously.
- Sometimes things will not work and you may have to rethink or even rewrite parts, but that's part of the process.
- When it comes to sex, write what you feel comfortable with.
- Sex should not be a graphic description of the act. It is about emotion and intimacy between the characters. Use it as a way of making your characters emotionally vulnerable.
- When writing a synopsis remember this is a description of conflict not a description of plot.
- Be careful of using brands or celebrities in your books, and don't relate directly to real life.
It was a really informative session, and I enjoyed attending. There was a nice discussion with some great questions, although the question from one lady asking if it would be better being a "proper author" (not my words!) was, perhaps, not one of them!
It was also fabulous to meet Heidi, even though I had to rush off after only a brief chat to catch my train home.
Thanks to those at Fulham library and Mills & Boon for putting together the event, and of course thanks to Heidi.