by Kathy Cottrell, Senior Editor, Last Rose of Summer
The High Concept
I spent a very long time trying to figure this one out, attending every editor/agent roundtable available, asking for examples. Nada. Until I heard agent Jessica Faust speak at the New England Romance Writers conference and a light bulb went off inside my brain: The high concept, in a very few sentences, sums up the crux of the story. Here are some 'ah ha' examples I have found at www.RTBookreviews.com:
Julia Knight's fantasy romance, Ilfayne's Bane, [Samhain Publishing, Ltd.]: “He destroyed a continent. Dethroned a god. Now she will destroy him.”
Monica Burns' historical erotic romance, Mirage, [also Samhain].: “An ancient prophecy. A sheikh's passion. One woman ignites the flame that fulfills them both.”
Irene Hannon's contemporary romantic suspense, Fatal Judgment, [Revell Books]: “Jake Taylor's assignment is straightforward. His relationship with Judge Liz Michaels isn't. They have a past. But if he fails, they may not have a future.”
As you can see; it doesn't give me any plot details, however it does tell me what I'll be getting myself into.
I am not only an editor, I am first a reader. If the first few lines don't grab me; or the last line of a scene or chapter fails to capture my interest and imagination, the story probably won't work for me. For some authors 'hooking' is as natural as breathing; others struggle, however, that's where a good editor comes into the picture. Here are some hooks which made me sit up and take notice:
Nora Roberts' beginning hook for Montana Sky: “Being dead didn't make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch.”
Rick Riordan's beginning hook for The Lost Hero: “Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day.”
Margo Hoornstra's end of scene hook for Glad Tidings: “What kind of woman buries her husband in the afternoon then sleeps with his best friend that night?”
Debra Webb's ending scene hook for Traceless: Note: hero Clint Austin has just been released from prison after serving time for murder. “There wouldn't be much in the way of financial assets waiting for him back home. But he would have full access to the one thing that he wanted nearly more than his next breath . . . .The people who had stolen his life.”
I read Leon Uris' Mila 18 when I was fourteen. Every couple years I go back to visit the entire cast of characters. The same goes for Kathleen Woodiweiss' Shanna and A Rose in Winter. These are the keeper books on my night stand. The secret to creating great characters is to give them a few warts. Then throw them into the deep end of the pool but make sure you put a few hidden traps beneath the surface of the water.
Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Georgia peach transplanted to LAPD in TNT's The Closer. She may be beautiful and built, but her subordinates choke on her thick southern drawl; she dresses out of Volunteers of America; and she's tenacious as Hong Kong flu.
Harry Potter, the wizard raised as a muggle with a weird looking scar on his forehead. JK Rowlings tossed him into the deep end of the pool known as Diagon Alley, later Hogwarts and the fun began.
Eve Dallas, [JD Robb's futuristic In Death series], the street smart homicide detective with the social skills of a rattlesnake confronts the prime murder suspect, a man with a one word name, more money than God, better looking than some lapsed Irish angel. Eventually he woos her with a rare steak and a sack of coffee beans.
It takes Parker Evans, [Sandra Brown's Envy], a wheelchair-bound hero twenty years to exact revenge on his college room-mate by deliberately seducing the roomie's unwitting wife. “Did I stutter?” still makes me laugh out loud. This story keeps the reader on the edge from start to finish.
Cash Boudreaux, [Sandra Brown's Slow Heat in Heaven] revels in the image of local bad boy, occasionally inciting violence, has good reason to want revenge against the richest family in town.
Just a smidge about secondary characters: they support the hero and heroine, often provide comic relief, occasionally serve as a red herring. Make each one different from each other as well as the hero or heroine. If they all sound the same why should I bother to read the book?
Must be as vivid as any of the main characters and, in my opinion, becomes a character of its own. Examples: Innocence, Mississippi [Nora Roberts' Carnal Innocence] if chock full of murder, depravity and humor; Nohmensville aka No Man's Land [Captain Marvelous] actually should have been named no woman's land due to it's apathy, bigotry and ignorance; Lunacy, Alaska [Nora Roberts' Northern Lights] features its own set of 'lunatics'. And let's not forget Hogwarts. Do you see how the names, while unique, describe the flavor and aura of the settings?
Goals, Motivation & Conflict
Every thing I know about GMC was learned at the knee of one of my heroes Debra Dixon who wrote the book [literally] on this topic. In short, the hero and heroine must have a goal [ie what do they want/need to accomplish?]. It needs to be logical and realistic. Likewise, their motivation for accomplishing these goals must be logical, realistic, and understandable to the reader—as in 'yeah, if that happened to me as a kid, I'd shoot for that goal, too.
The really good stories put the hero's goals in direct opposition to what the heroine wants and that's called CONFLICT.
Now . . . conflict comes in two forms, internal and external. External is usually pretty easy: it's an external force [such as the approaching hurricane in Eileen Dreyer's Sinners and Saints which hampers the heroine's search for her missing sister. In Captain Marvelous the hero is trying to identify the killers of immigrant women and bring them to justice. He is thwarted at every step by complacency, bigotry and apathy from the towns people and a less than sterling police department. External conflict is supposed to be a bitch for the hero and heroine. Thwarting bad guys, disease, pestilence, and the apocalypse is no easy feat. But . . . as Sister John Thomas used to say, 'adversity builds character'.
Internal conflict is what gets authors every time. This is the demon inside the hero and heroine which prevents them from accomplishing their goals AND should be directly tied to their motivation and goals. In My Name is Nell, the heroine is a woman working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous while managing a home and raising her children without much help from a toxic mother and sister. She meets, then falls in love with a widower. Neither was looking for romance; it just happened. Now take a guess as to the circumstances which caused the deaths of the hero's wife and child. Go on, take a guess. That's conflict with a capital C.
In Debra Webb's Traceless, Clint Austin served time in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Emily Wallace, the star witness against Clint has not been able to move past what happened to her best friend, and vows to make him pay for his crimes all over again.
Words to the wise: Conflict cannot be resolved with a five minute conversation between all interested parties. It is something so strong, so powerful, the reader must believe these two people will never ever stay together.
Common problems that come across my desk:
Failure to follow submission guidelines: after you pick the publishing house you want to submit to, commit their rules to memory AND FOLLOW THEM TO THE LETTER. This includes submitting a mystery to a publisher who only releases romance [or vice versa].
Errors in spelling, punctuation, formatting: Use spell check; take a basic technical English writing course and practice on your computer program to learn how to set margins, line spacing, and indents. Fancy fonts do not impress me, nor do quotations at the beginning of each chapter.
Point of View: some editors only accept two POVs. I personally don't mind more than the usual two, but I don't want to dislocate a cervical vertebrae while reading a manuscript.
Telling instead of showing: this takes some practice but it can be mastered. Don't tell me the hero's pissed at the heroine, show me.
Frothy, repetitious prose. As I have occasionally informed the authors involved with the Class of '85 series for TWRP, “Hauling out the hedge clippers makes me cranky.” Tell me what you want to say in simple declarative sentences. Learn the purpose, and proper use of, commas and semi-colons.
Too much sexual attraction too early: there is a reason why we call it sexual tension. Giving it all up by page 10 is not tension; it's risky and dangerous behavior, not to mention unhealthy. There is a reason why we keep our zippers in a locked, upright position. It makes readers keep turning pages. Note - there are certain types of romances where this rule would be broken such as in erotic romance. But for most of the romance subgenres sexual tension is what keeps the reader reading.
Editor bio: July 2004, in the middle of a bar at RWA Dallas, nurse/victim advocate/and insurance investigator Kathy Cottrell was handed her first published novel. The experience, similar to holding her first-born child in her arms, remains with her to this day. She uses the years spent maneuvering the twists and turns of Rejection Road, as well as her time as Senior Editor with The Wild Rose Press, to teach new, and not so new, authors as examples of what to do and not do, who to listen, and not listen to, in order to hold that new baby in their arms.
Kathy's current editor duties involve wrapping up the Class of '85, a reunion series for the Wild Rose Press. Ever wonder what happened to the prom queen? Or the guy voted most likely to spend time in a maximum security cage? Come to the twenty-fifth reunion of the Class of '85 and find out!