Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It Takes Focus - Why Writing For Harlequin Is So Tough

I always have to laugh at authors who make comments about writing for Harlequin. "Oh, you know, writing for category is just training for writing bigger stories." or  "Ah yes, Harlequin writes those little romance books."

At some level, these authors are right, but I think the perspective they have is a bit off. There is often an implied message here that says writing for Harlequin is really easy and writing those "single title" stories is where it really takes talent. Let's consider this from another angle today, shall we?

The key for writing at Harlequin, or I should also add any other publisher who has a category line is FOCUS! Writers have to keep their eyes on the main thesis of their story. What is the single goal they wish to accomplish by the time they finish that book. There can't be a ton of sub-plots and characters weaving in and out to add "spice" to the story. There has to be focus on that relationship and staying your course.

As many of you know, I also teach academic writing and I frequently speak to writers about knowing if the material you are adding to the piece we are writing supports the topic or it supports the thesis. In other words, the material you might want to add can be interesting, provide another angle and so forth, but in the end, is it relevant to your thesis. This can often be tough to write.

To add to the complexity of writing for Harlequin is finding that unique voice for the individual line while at the same time maintaining your own unique voice. Again, this is where a lot of non-category writers miss the mark. There is an assumption that if it is something for the Harlequin American line, then it is strictly about cowboys and small town situations. Nope.

According to the guidelines at Harlequin American:
American Romance Key Elements
  • Central romance is driven by the hero's or heroine's (or both) desire to be a part of a family or community
  • Stories showcase the comforts of home and a sense of place – particularly the charm of small-town America and the ruggedness of western locales
  • Must be set in the USA
  • Western heroes and heroines are very popular – cowboys (ranchers, rodeo riders), law enforcement (sheriffs, deputies, Texas Rangers), etc
  • All stories must feature strong family elements such as pregnancy, young children, blended families, etc
  • Warmhearted stories offer a range of tones, from light humor to drama
  • Level of sensuality is low to moderate
  • Word count of 55,000–60,000 means stories must be fast-paced and plot-driven
Now, first of all, you will notice the stories don't have to be about cowboys, although they use this simply as something to consider. The keys to this stem from the lines: showcase the comforts of home and a sense of place and All stories must feature strong family elements.

To add to this, you can't simply add great hot "50-Shades" scenes to the story. You need to demonstrate that same sexual tension without pushing the lines. Again, another tough challenge.

So, when we go back to the comments of those authors who thought writing for a category line or Harlequin is the equivalent of playing T-Ball...

Is this training? Dang straight it is. You have to have talent to write like this.
Is this a "little book"? Dang straight it is. You can really only accomplish a big story in a little space with focus and attention to your plot.

Honestly, I take my hat off to the authors at Harlequin and certainly the other category lines. You do show a command of focus and talent.

And, before people start getting all hot and bothered thinking I am slamming single title authors, let me point out that there is also a talent for writing these stories. These are different challenges but surprisingly, many of the skills the category writers used are also used for the larger books.

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