The Last Word
And, in this category...
While cleaning out/up my writing shed last weekend, I came across a manuscript I'd written maybe 18 years ago. I'd forgotten all about it, relegating the 500 or so pages to the storage box of failed attempts. A mild curiosity started me reading and I was pleasantly surprised to find a not so bad first draft of a romance novel. Set in England, where historical romances seem typically to be set, the book takes place in the mid-1800s. There's a love triangle, a conniving female, two handsome males, one an illegitimate pretender to the title, an estate complete with tenants. In other words, everything I imagined a category romance novel required.
However, I failed to read the rulebook governing the genre. A category romance is a book that requires certain compulsory elements. It's sort of like ice skating. In competitive skating there are the singles, pairs, dance, and so on, and each division requiring certain elements in the performance - lutzs, salchows, triple dervishes. So too with category romance. There are the historical, the contemporary, the gothic, the paranormal and so on. Historicals must take place before World War I, Contemporaries post-WWII. All divisions require a couple embarking on a relationship, overcoming some odds, and happy endings are mandated - nail that quadruple tailspin. Categories are further defined as single-title or series. Nora Roberts, Barbara Cartland, and Jayne Ann Krentz are among the best-known writers of category fiction, Harlequin and Silhouette two of its best known publishers.
This one, the aborted attempt on my part to write an historical romance and create something marketable, came about when I was frustrated with trying to break into publishing with more mainstream stories. In my ignorance I thought that I could toss off a quick historical romance and get my foot in the publishing door. I mean, how hard can it be?
First of all, they're brief, 200 to 300 pages. Secondly, these authors pound out two or three of these things a year. Sounds like a lark. Yet, to my surprise, it's a lot harder than it looks. The criteria: beautiful people, often rich, an old manor house, lots of clothing changes with full description (which is where I failed miserably), sex (ditto) - doesn't seem that onerous, but I was out of my comfort zone and most of what I was writing didn't come from research but from watching Masterpiece Theatre. I went way beyond the prescribed number of pages as I added subplots and characters not required beyond boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl formula. The whole thing became amorphous and disjointed. Things got ugly. The book got put away.
What was interesting about revisiting this old manuscript was coming across pre-cursors to the way my writing style has evolved. Some of what I wrote back then isn't too bad. I can see broad hints of writing to come here and there in a turn of phrase that sounds a bit like the way I write now.
The fact is some manuscripts are just meant as an exercise. In every writer's drawer there should be a few of these practice runs, even if they weren't meant as practice, but as the great American novel. Even the most experienced of writers fumble from time to time - books that peter out after 300 pages or the characters that fail to compel. Buried in there is probably some good stuff, some nice descriptions, a decent character defect. Even if you're not skating in the Olympics, it's good to train. However, there is nothing that says a practice manuscript shouldn't be pulled out, dusted off and revised, if only to apply the lessons learned over the years.
So, if I should revisit this abandoned attempt to write a marketable single-title category historical romance, I now know better how to stick to a plot within the parameters of the formula, develop my characters with only a little back story, learn all about clothing styles in the 1800s and keep it to 200 pages. Oh, and I'll publish it under a pseudonym.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.