Romantic serials

There is a truism among the self-publishing fraternity that the way to make money is to write a series of books, make the first one free, and watch the cash roll in. As a side note, this advice is useless to me, since I am congenitally incapable of writing series.

But there is a problem with series in romance. A romance has to have a focus on the central relationship AND an emotionally satisfying ending, whether that’s Happy Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN). So how do you write book 2, when you’ve already reached that ending in book 1? There are a number of solutions: use a different central couple in each book; write books in some other genre with a single romantic arc over the whole series (technically, these are probably novels with romantic elements, rather than romances); or write a series of books in which the same couple face different relationship challenges. This third option seems to be increasingly popular recently. Actually, I can’t think of any examples from more than about five years ago (please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong about this). Some authors who do this will end each book on a resolution, but others won’t even do that, keeping readers hanging until the next installment.

As the self-publishing forums will attest, these series are very popular. You hook the readers with the first (free) book and hope you can keep them through the whole series. I’ve read a few and been caught up in the need for the narrative conclusion. At four o’clock this morning I was ready to click buy on book 4 in the most recent series I’ve been reading, only stymied by the fact that it isn’t out yet. I needed to get to the end of the series, because the end of the book doesn’t feel like a real end. That’s the point, of course, because that’s what gets you to buy the next book. But as a reading experience, Book X of Y in a Series is completely different from Stand Alone Book.

Part of the reason I love reading romance is the promise of the happy ending. Whatever else happens in the book – whatever else is going on in the world – there is a promise that the central couple will end up together and happy. There’s a security in that ending which makes the reading experience safe for me. There’s a resolution to the narrative which leaves me satisfied as I put the Kindle down, turn the light off and go to sleep. That’s a really, really important part of the romance reading experience for me.

It’s also an important thing from a narrative point of view. A standalone romance tells a complete story: beginning, middle and end. It is the story of that couple. It’s not necessarily the story of their whole lives, but it is the story which defines their relationship. We know that whatever happened before was background, and whatever comes after will be the outworking of the events of the book. We might enjoy another glimpse of the characters if they appear in the first sort of series, as secondary characters in someone else’s story. We probably expect that they will have ups and downs in their relationship like everyone else. But we know that their story has been told.

What happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials is that the promise implicit in the ending is broken. I can’t leave the couple at the end of the book (even if it appears to be a happy ending) secure within those pages, because I know that more is coming. Whatever the ending is, it’s only going to be provisional. For me, that means it is unsatisfying. The book doesn’t give me the same reading experience as a romance novel, even if in every other respect it looks like it fits the definition of a romance novel.

The other thing that happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials, I think, is that the books inevitably take on a soap opera kind of character. Because there is no final resolution in most of the books, there’s always a forward drive. One storyline may appear to be resolved but another one will be left hanging. Or we’ll know that whatever resolution there appears to be, something will happen to threaten it in the future. So there’s never the same satisfaction in the resolutions, or the same fear in the black moments. Plots cycle round, dragging readers with them in a tumble dryer of emotional manipulation.

It’s addictive. You want to know what happens next. But ultimately for me, it’s never a satisfying reading experience. Even if the series is completed, I find that the repeated cycles of conflict and resolution leave me anxious and cynical. And sometimes bored. There was a huge outcry last year when Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series was extended from three to five books. I’d read the first two and been looking forward to the third, but when I heard that I didn’t buy it. Partly because I thought that was a cynical move on the part of Day and/or her publisher and partly because I’d already been through enough with that couple. I wanted resolution, not more dragging out of their story.

And, of course, that’s another danger with serials in progress – they may never be finished.

So I’m going to try to avoid serials from now on, and I’m going to hope that this trend will die a quiet death before too long.

Category, continuity and familiarity

At the RNA conference I talked to several authors who write for the Harlequin Kiss/M&B Modern Tempted line. Or at least, authors who used to write for that line, since it’s being pulled. It’s had a chequered history, further complicated by the way it’s been marketed differently in different geographical markets. In a twitter discussion earlier, I wondered where writers like Kelly Hunter would now find their niche and several people said that her books used to be published as Presents/Modern. I was surprised by that, so I did a little googling.

I think her career is illustrative of the problems that Harlequin/M&B have had with marketing these younger, less angsty, less fantasy romances, so I’m going to take a little time to outline it.* Hunter’s one of my favourite contemporary romance writers and her books have won many accolades. I don’t know why she’s had so many rebrands, re-titled books, and moves across line but it sucks. She’s not the only one, of course. All of that contributes to the confusion surrounding the different lines and none of it is the author’s fault.

(The dates are UK release. Sometimes this was before the US release, sometimes later.)

2006:
Wife For a Week/The Trouble With Valentine’s: Modern Extra/Presents
Priceless/Bedded for Diamonds: Modern Extra/Presents

2007:
Sleeping Partner/Trouble in a Pinstripe Suit: Modern Extra/Presents Extra

2008:
Taken by the Bad Boy/The Maverick’s Greek Island Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

2009:
Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate: Modern Heat/Presents
Revealed: A Prince and a Pregnancy: Modern Heat/Presents
Playboy Boss, Live In Mistress: Modern Heat/Presents

2010:
Untameable Rogue/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra
Red-Hot Renegade/Her Singapore Fling/Single Girl Abroad: Modern Heat/Presents Extra

2011:
The Man She Loves to Hate: RIVA/Presents Extra
Flirting With Intent: RIVA/Presents Extra

2012:
Cracking the Dating Code: RIVA/Presents Extra
With This Fling: RIVA/Presents Extra

2013
The One That Got Away: Modern/Kiss
What The Bride Didn’t Know: Modern Tempted/Kiss

40% (6/15) of her books have had more than one title. That’s tough to deal with when you’re trying to build a brand. Fortunately, the re-titling seems to have mostly stopped.

In the UK, she’s written for Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted. One of her most recent books, The One That Got Away, came out as a Modern. With that exception, all her books have actually come out in the same line here since Modern Extra, Modern Heat, RIVA and Modern Tempted are renamed, rebranded versions of more-or-less the same thing. At some points they have been branded to look very similar to the Modern line and at other times they have been branded completely differently. With the shift to RIVA, the line expanded to include some authors who had previously written for Romance, and thus had a lower heat level than the Modern Heat books. But the overall feel of the line was much the same. I’ve written before about the distinction between Modern and Modern Heat (and how it’s nothing to do with heat).

Four rebrands for that line in 8 years. That’s a LOT. No wonder readers are confused. There were periods when the line disappeared altogether. There were times when books with old and new covers were available simultaneously. You had to work hard to follow what was going on. And it seems, since the line is finally being pulled, that none of the re-launches had the desired effect of reaching a new (younger?) audience. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if they’d messed around with the branding less, but I can’t feel that the chopping and changing helped.

In the US, it is even more complicated. Several of Hunter’s books were Presents and several were Presents Extra. The One That Got Away was one of the launch titles for the Kiss line, which was somewhat unfortunate since it’s really much darker than most of Hunter’s books and didn’t suit the line at all. And was given a massively inappropriate cover.

The One That Got Away UK cover:
onethatgotawayuk

The One That Got Away US cover:
onethatgotawayus
There are no yellow balloons in that book.

Presents Extra was always a mix of some books that were M&B Modern and some that were Modern Extra/Heat/RIVA. I think that must have been incredibly frustrating and confusing, since the two lines really are quite different. Kelly Hunter’s books and Lynne Graham’s books, much as I love them both, have virtually nothing in common. If you’re hoping for something Graham-esque and you get something Hunter-esque, you have every right to be disappointed.

So, I have no idea what the future is. It’s not obvious to me, from here in the UK, that Hunter would write for Modern, since she’s only had one Modern title before, and that was somewhat atypical of her style. I can see exactly why US readers might expect her to write for Presents, though, since her books have always been divided between Presents and Presents Extra. I’ve always thought of her voice as the epitome of the RIVA/Kiss/Extra line – it’s fun, it’s contemporary, it’s intelligent, it’s sexy but it’s not high-fantasy laden with dramatic emotional intensity. It’s not what I’m expecting when I buy a Modern.

And that’s the thing. Category romance is predicated on the idea of selling a consistent product. People want to know what they’re getting when they buy a Presents or a RIVA or a Modern Extra Hot Pepperoni. Rebranding and remixing the lines is ALWAYS going to have some negative fallout because it removes that confidence. When a category line is new – or looks new – it’s unfamiliar and it’s uncertain. So if you’re going to launch a new line, you’ve got to be sure the positive gains will outweigh that. You need – through your branding and your titles – to make it crystal clear what promise the line makes to its readers. And, I think, you have to give the new line enough time to settle in and become familiar.

I guess the decision will be different for all the Kiss authors. Maybe some will move back to Romance/Cherish. Others to the intensity of Modern/Presents. Maybe some will move to single title, or another publisher. A few have written Cosmo Red Hot Reads and I can see that being a natural home for some of these voices. I’ll read whatever Kelly Hunter writes next, but I’ll be a bit sad if there isn’t a home for books like hers in a Harlequin/M&B category line any more.

*I’m slightly worried that this post comes across as obsessively stalkerish and I don’t mean it to be! I thought it was helpful to talk about the category changes in terms of a single author’s career because it’s much easier to understand in concrete terms. And I picked Hunter because I’ve read all her books, I think she has a very distinctive voice, and she’s gone through a lot of the changes I wanted to talk about. It’s not really meant to be a post about Kelly Hunter. I’m sure she understands her own career better than I do! Also, because it’s a post about Harlequin/M&B, I haven’t included the details of her other books.

RNA Conference day 2

Up with the lark and over to the college in good time for my editor appointment. I re-read my chapter and synopsis and made some notes of things I thought I might want to emphasise that didn’t really come out in the synopsis. And tried not to panic.

Reader, I babbled. I babbled about cows and piglets. I babbled about my previous publishing career. I babbled about the book. Eventually I remembered to stop talking and let her say something. She said she liked it! She liked my writing. She thought it was exciting and hooked her from the first page. She pointed out that most of the conflict in the first chapter is external, and she felt that the hero in particular needed more backstory to beef up his emotional conflict. And she wants me to email her three chapters. So hooray!

After a cup of tea, during which I managed not to break any cups, I went to Jessica Hart/Pamela Hartshorne’s session on writing in two genres. She doesn’t write in two genres of romance, she writes in romance and non-romance historical time-slip. It was fascinating to hear about her career. She started writing category romance to fund her PhD… She’s written 60 M&B’s and 2 mainstream novels, and she was very honest about the differences between the two, including some of her assumptions about writing mainstream books that turned out not quite to be the case. I waited to talk to her at the end and she kindly signed the book I’d brought to send to Miss Bates.

We walked over to the plenary session on ‘The Future of Romantic Fiction’ featuring a panel which included the presidents of the RNA (Pia Fenton), RWAus (Nikki Logan) and the Historical Novel Society (Richard Lee). Also Katie Fforde. Mostly this was a Q&A session. Mostly it was a bit disappointing and discouraging, with quite an overtone of defeatism. The person who was really impressive was Nikki Logan. Australia, you are lucky to have her!

After lunch, I spent an hour wandering round the site to find someone who could tell me the security code for the swimming pool, during which time the sun disappeared behind black clouds. Eventually I did get the code and I did swim and it was nice, but not quite the warm, sunny time I had hoped for.

I made it back in time for a session on ‘The Future of Bookselling’. Apparently the panel were expecting this to be a Q&A session, though there was nothing to indicate that on the programme. No one was chairing the panel and as a result, the discussion was a mess. There were some great questions from the floor which the panel sometimes were unable to answer and at other times appeared not even to understand. If the future of bookselling really were in the hands of people like this, I would be worried. Oh, wait. The panel consisted of an agent, a Big Five editor, a small press publisher, and a major bricks and mortar UK retailer. Terrific. I was quite shocked, actually. I can get personal anecdata about reading an ebook and then going out to buy it in print anywhere. I was hoping for a bit more actual data from industry professionals. I don’t expect everyone to have precise numbers at their fingertips, but some ballpark understanding of the market would have been nice. The insightful comments mostly came from the floor – selling through subscription, through Blinkbox, bundling ebooks and paperbooks, and so on.

Anyway.

I caught up with a couple of people over tea and finally got an answer to a question I’ve been asking on and off for ages: why should I become a member of the RNA? Apparently, you get good discounts on rooms at the In and Out Club in London. That’s worth knowing. Also, they’d all been to much better sessions while I was swimming. Ah, well.

So, I’m glad I made the decision to go to the conference. I think two days is plenty for this introvert and I’m glad to be home in the quiet of my shed tonight. I met some great people I’d previously only known online and had some fun and very useful conversations. I had a good outcome from my editor appointment. I learned things from several of the sessions I attended.

I admit, I am still not really sure whether the RNA is worth joining. If I thought they had a vision and strategy for where the organisation is going, I would be more inclined to support them in that. I know it’s run by volunteers, but I don’t think that means it has to be amateurish. But as it is, money is tight and that £50 could be well-spent on other things, and I think I’ll be happy to pay the non-member supplement if I want to go to the conference again.

So Predictable

Another little short story from the archives. Short, sweet, romantic.

Kerry-Anna cast a practiced eye over the small heap on the conveyor belt. She didn’t need to look at the customer to know that the frozen lasagne for one, the bottle of cheap white wine and the expensive tub of cookie dough ice cream belonged to a thirty-something woman with hair all done up and make-up like the Queen. Kerry-Anna didn’t know where they’d all got this idea that they’d meet their future husbands at the checkout queue but she certainly recognised the desperate type when she saw it. Kerry-Anna wouldn’t want the kind of feller you’d find in Waitrose, anyway. She’d met her Wayne down the Roxy two Fridays ago. He knew how to show a girl a good time and it didn’t involve taking her to the supermarket.

“Thirteen pounds forty-three,” Kerry-Anna read from the screen, watching while the woman struggled to open one of the plastic bags. This one had obviously eaten too many lasagne and icecream dinners, judging by the bulge above her waistband. Her roots needed doing too. She scrabbled around in her handbag and pulled out a tatty-looking purse.

“Sorry, how much did you say?”

Kerry-Anna nodded towards the screen. “Thirteen forty-three,” she repeated slowly and elaborately, rolling her eyes.

“Oh. I… Hold on.”

Kerry-Anna sighed loudly and began to examine her fingernails. Pink with green stars. They were all right but they wouldn’t go with her orange top she wanted to wear on Saturday for Gary and Maeve’s party. They’d had some dead gorgeous yellow ones with orange sunrises on. She’d make an appointment tomorrow and surprise Wayne.

“Here.” Lasagne Lady was holding out a tenner. Kerry-Anna could see she had a pile of change in her other hand. Kerry-Anna pouted. She’d always hated maths. And that Christine who was in charge of the tills made a right fuss if they was out, even if it was only a few pence.

Kerry-Anna dumped the change on the counter. “Eleven… twelve… twelve-fifty…seventy…eighty…ninety…thirteen…twenty…five…thirty…three. You’re ten pence short,” she announced, not without a certain smug satisfaction.

“Oh, right. Um, hold on.” The woman began searching in the bottom of her handbag again.

“Let me.” Kerry-Anna looked up in surprise. The man who was waiting in line was holding out a coin towards the woman and smiling. Kerry-Anna checked. Six pack of Carling. Packet of chocolate digestives. Tin of dog food. Oh, and… Kerry-Anna’s eyebrows rose… a frozen curry. For one.

Lasagne Lady looked startled. Then Kerry-Anna watched her lips twitch into the beginnings of a smile and her cheeks turn the faintest of pink.

“It’s only ten pence,” Curry Guy pointed out, smiling back. Not bad-looking, Kerry-Anna decided, considering him critically. Old bloke, of course. At least forty, she’d say, but still fit if you liked that sort of thing. It looked like he had his own hair and all that.

“Thank you.” The woman held out her hand and he put the coin carefully onto her palm, closing her fingers tightly around it.

“You’re welcome.”

Kerry-Anna tutted loudly, holding out her own hand for the money.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Here you are.” Lasagne Lady turned a darker pink and began to pick up her carrier bag clumsily. Her eyes kept flicking back to where Curry Guy was waiting patiently for her to move out of the way.

“D’you want your receipt?” Kerry-Anna asked, holding it out to her.

“Yes, right. Thanks. And thank you,” she said again to the man.

Kerry-Anna raised her eyebrows. Couldn’t the idiot see what a fool she was making of herself? If she was really interested, why didn’t she just ask the guy out? That’s what Kerry-Anna did when she saw a bloke she fancied. She’d seen Wayne dancing with some other bird and decided she liked the way his hips rolled, so she’d just gone over and cut in. He hadn’t seemed to mind. He’d been snogging her by the end of the first song.

“My pleasure.” The poor bloke was embarrassed now. He was probably worrying that he’d got himself a stalker. She looked like she could be that type.

Kerry-Anna scanned his shopping and swiped his card. “Check the amount and put your number in.”

“There you go.”

“Your card and your receipt.”

He pushed them into his back pocket and lifted his bag. That woman was still hanging around. God, look at them both waiting for the other one to go first. He didn’t seem to know how to open his mouth and she couldn’t even walk in a straight line without running into a trolley. Unless that was the plan, ’cause he was pushing the trolley out of the way now and asking if she was okay.

Kerry-Anna had her mobile phone out and was texting Wayne. “Where r u?”

She watched the stupid woman nodding and saying she was fine. Then the guy put his hand on her elbow and turned away slightly so that Kerry-Anna couldn’t see what he was saying now.

“Wnt 2 come ovr 2nite?” she wrote.

The woman was laughing. They’d stopped right in the middle of the aisle so all the other customers were having to walk round them to get out.

“Letz gt drunk & gt laid. U up 4 it?”

She noticed the man shifting his shopping into his other hand. The woman paused, then did the same.

Wayne never held Kerry-Anna’s hand. He said that kind of thing was soft. Kerry-Anna looked at the couple, smiling nervously at each other and supposed that one day, when she was old like them, she might enjoy it too.

Another customer started unloading her basket. Kerry-Anna quickly pressed Send, then looked to see what was coming. A small bottle of Baileys, a bag of salad and a Chicken Kiev. So predictable.

From holiday to story

Last summer some lovely friends took me with them on their family holiday to Scotland. From the first day as we drove up through the mountains and past the lochs, I knew I wanted to write a story set in the Highlands. I thought it was going to be about a male artist and a female gallery owner.

Where we stayed:
Eilean Donan Castle
Not really. That’s Eilean Donan Castle and it is stunning. Really well worth a visit even on a sunny August day when it is full of tourists. There was a lovely lady doing spinning demonstrations who let me have a go. In my story I talk about the Mediterranean blue of the sea. My editor commented that she didn’t quite believe this until she looked it up and checked that, in fact, the sea in Scotland can be as blue as you like on the right day. This was the only properly sunny day of our two week holiday, and you can see how bright it is.

Scottish loch on a sunny day
This was taken from Eilean Donan. I used this (or possibly one of the other ones taken from this spot, not sure) for the background of the cover of Island Fling.

One day we all drove out to Arisaig and took the little ferry to the Isle of Muck. As soon as we arrived on the tiny island, I knew that I wanted to set my story there, not in the Highlands after all. And it wouldn’t be a male artist who lived here, it would be a woman. And the gallery owner would have to come and see her, taking the train up from Edinburgh and then getting seasick on the ferry. I was not actually sick, but I admit that the outward journey did leave me a little queasy. Going back to the mainland is much easier because you’re travelling with the waves, not against them.

small concrete jetty and grey sea
This is the ferry ‘terminal’ on Muck. There’s a little hut and the tip Household Recycling Centre. And then a few minutes walk along the only path you find a little, unmanned shop, where you can buy vegetables, postcards, arts and crafts, and a few yards beyond that is the tea room. They serve very delicious cake in the tea room. They also sell knitting wool and various things for tourists. It was a grey, damp day when we were there so there was no one in the garden. Except the sheep.

picnic tables with sheep

Muck is TINY. We were only there for a couple of hours, but that’s plenty of time to walk over to the other side of the island. I didn’t, but some of my friends did. Visitors aren’t generally allowed to bring cars onto the island, though there is a car ferry a couple of times a week, and islanders do have vehicles. The ferry we took is mostly for tourists. On the way back, we passed a basking shark and the ferry stopped for a few minutes to let us all have a good look at it. They are huge, ugly creatures but rather glorious.

As we left Muck, a lady in bright orange work trousers and a fleece was saying goodbye to someone. I guessed he was her son. She got out her bagpipes and played as he left. I loved that it wasn’t done with any ceremony. It was just the way that was right for her to mark his departure, and for him to leave with the sound of the pipes in his ears. I couldn’t help but include that little scene in my story.

dim outline of an island blurred by seaspray
Looking back at Muck from the ferry.

There were several times where my editor wanted more detailed description. Almost every one was about something real that I’d seen and remembered from this trip. Because it was vivid in my head, apparently I forgot to make it so on the page! Hopefully in the final version, the real things are as vivid to the reader as the made up ones!

Typos and mistakes

I have been irritated in several of my reading choices lately. These are good books, written by better authors than me. And yet, they are full of mistakes that drive me crazy.

Not typos. I’ll forgive anyone a typo or five. Too many gets annoying, but in a work of many thousands of words I don’t think it’s all that surprising that a slip of the fingers happens and, even with good proofreading, can slip through. No, I’m talking about actual mistakes.

Here’s the difference (in my mind): a typo is an error of the fingers, a mistake is an error of the brain.

Here’s an example: in something I wrote for church last week, I put ‘starts’ when I meant ‘stars’. I do not actually think that ‘stars’ is spelled ‘starts’. But my fingers were going fast and that’s what they typed. The next time the word came up, I typed it correctly.

Here’s another example: in one of the books I read recently, the heroine repeatedly wears ‘sheathe’ dresses. Because this happened so frequently, I am pretty convinced the author thinks that is correct. Her fingers typed what her brain intended. Or, in a different book, some women are showing their ‘mid-drifts’. That’s not a typo for ‘midriffs’, it’s a mistake.

Too many mistakes, and I can’t help it, I will start to think your book is amateurish. I will wonder why you did not hire a decent proofreader. I will start to resent having paid money for it.

I see a fair number of typos in both trad and self-published books these days. In my experience, the majority of mistakes are in self-published books. I wish that weren’t the case, especially in the really good ones, but it is. I wish those authors would make their products as professionally finished as their writing deserves.

And yes, I know I’m opening myself to nitpicking criticism of my own books. I’m not claiming they are perfect. I wish they were. I’m grateful to have editors and copyeditors and proofreaders who help to get them close. But if you spot typos or mistakes, please let me know.

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