Saturday, September 17, 2011

I'm Telling It Like It Is

Greetings and many thanks to Lynn for hosting me at Decadent Decisions on this fine fall Saturday! 

Lynn asked me here because an interesting shift recently occurred in my career. While writing is and will always be my first love, a few months back I landed the position of Senior Editor at Still Moments Publishing, a romance e-book publisher based in Nova Scotia, Canada. And yes, we’re actively seeking submissions, so head on over to our website and check out our guidelines. And yes, that was a plug.
Being the forward-thinking gal she is, Lynn asked if I would be interested in writing a blog about being on the receiving end of the submissions process–rather than the submitting end. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Not to share my personal experience (how boring is that?), but to hopefully shed some light on what romance editors and their respective publishers are looking for. What makes an editor reject or accept a manuscript? 
So, during this and my next few visits, I’m going to give you the cold, hard facts about what it takes to get published. No namby-pamby sugar coated instructions here. If you’re looking for that, find a nice critique partner who will tell you everything you write belongs on the NYTimes Bestseller list. 
You should also keep in mind these suggestions are mine. Not every single editor has the same opinion. I am also going to take a leap of faith and assume you already know your work should be free of grammatical errors. Misspelled words, repeated punctuation blunders, and glaring misuse of the English language are all huge no-no’s. No editor will read past the first paragraph if your manuscript is full of mistakes. 
That being said, got those pens ready? Okay, brace yourself.
The number one most important thing in prepping a submission is character development. This is the place where everyone bangs their foreheads against the keyboard and shouts, “We already KNOW this, AJ! If one more editor tells me they are looking for great character development, I swear, I’m going to pull my hair out!”   
Okay, fine. But the harsh truth is a lot more goes into developing characters than sitting down at the computer and describing their physical attributes. And if your characters end up being flimsy two-dimensional individuals who lay flat on the page, the story will get rejected. Boom. Start over. 
Whenever characters lack motivation or act contrary their previously developed personality, this misdirection raises several red flags for the editor. 
Let’s talk motivation for a second. Nothing irks this editor more than a hero and/or heroine who are running around inside a story without any forward momentum or direction. Time to face facts. If your heroine says, thinks, or does one thing, and then completely contradicts what she just said, thought, or did with her actions, she's going to appear as if she doesn't know what she wants. Consequently, neither will the reader. I refer to this as Spineless Twit Syndrome. It is IMPERATIVE that both the hero and heroine have a strong underlying motivation, because this motivating force ultimately initiates and influences their actions, verbiage, and attitude. If your characters don’t have a motivating force, y’all ain’t gotta story.  Sorry, the manuscript is rejected.
Contrary behavior, on the other hand, usually occurs during those moments when the author is hoping to create some sort of conflict or tension between their characters. While this can be difficult, certain steps must be followed or your characters will most certainly come off like psychopaths. The absolute worst thing an author can do is try to create tension by forcing their characters to act in a different or opposing manner than what they’ve already established. So, if you’re writing and you suddenly discover you need one of your characters to take a certain action that would otherwise seem contrary, go back and insert another level of development into their personality. Don’t cheat and have them do something that doesn’t make any sense, thinking it’ll work just because you wrote the words down. You need to explain WHY they are acting in such a strange manner.
Example:  If your historical romance contains a shy, mousy slip-of-a-heroine who avoids conflict like the plague, and she inexplicably marches up to the mountainous hero and slaps his face, the story gets rejected.
Example:  If the entire plot of your romantic suspense hinges on the fact that your heroine is terrified of heights, and then one day she suddenly decides to go skydiving because it’s a glorious day outside, I gotta reject.
I’ve GOT TO. I don’t mean to harp, but think about it. These characters would never do that. (And trust me, these examples are minor compared to some of the character inconsistencies I’ve seen.)
So, how does an author achieve original, motivated, three-dimensional characters, you ask? Great question!
First, KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS! And I don’t mean imagine what they look like and how they dress. These are important decisions, yes, but I’m not talking about physical characteristics. I mean KNOW WHO THEY ARE. Let them ramble around inside your head for a while so all of you become friends. Create a past for them, a family. Envision the house they grew up in and where they went to school. Ask yourself, what is their most painful memory? Who is the person they hate the most? What actions do they take to comfort themselves? Many things go into making up a personality besides hair and eye color.
Second, and only after you know your characters intimately, create a believable conflict that will follow them throughout the story, by using their motivation as the key.    
Hero:  Motivation is Money (security). He needs to make more money and save the family business so his feeble grandmother isn’t left homeless. 
Heroine:  Motivation is Nurture (to be needed). She moves in to care for said grandmother and soon becomes emotionally attached.
With just this little bit of character definition, we can already imagine several conflicts. Maybe the heroine doesn’t understand why the hero is constantly absent from his ailing grandmother’s side. The deeper her connection to the grandmother–the stronger her dislike toward the hero. She doesn’t realize his only reason for being gone is to ultimately SAVE his grandmother. She only sees his brutal business tactics, his cutthroat determination to make a buck regardless of who gets trampled in the process. 
Embarrassed he’s in such a precarious financial situation, the hero doesn’t appreciate being judged by the heroine. Her spit-fire attitude and quick defense of his last living family member cuts him to the quick. He prolongs telling her the truth, worried that if she finds out the real reason behind his desperation she’ll judge him a fool.
With clear, defined motivations, your characters will develop, the story will flow, verbiage basically writes itself, and the reader will have an easier time connecting with the story. 
Next week, I’m diving into emotional impact. Stay tuned! 

Jezebel’s Wish Blurb:

Haunted by nightmares, tormented by guilt, Jezebel came to Redemption Ranch to escape the past—except now she's stuck in the middle of nowhere with no redemption in sight. When her mother pushes her into riding lessons with local veterinarian Matthias Saunders, Jezebel balks. Sure, the doctor is gorgeous, but he’s completely obnoxious and knows how to push every one of her buttons.

Only her deep connection with The Reverend, a gentle stallion who guards her darkest secrets, has her agreeing to spend any more time with Dr. Saunders. Caring for the stallion is the first bright spot in her life in months, and if being around the horse means she has to deal with Matthias Saunders, then so be it. Surely a city girl like her can handle one country vet—even one with disturbing blue eyes. Can't she?

AJ Nuest lives in northwest Indiana with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is the author of two contemporary romance novels.

Visit her on the web at:

Facebook: Tattered Pages

Jezebel’s Wish Buy Links:
The Wild Rose Press:


wlynnchantale said...

Hello AJ. My chef heard I had editors coming over and tried to go home. When I told him it was you, he grudgingly agreed to bake something special. I to threaten him with my cane just so he'd get straight to work. Although my he seemed a little more excited about defying me than usual. Must be wants to hang out with you. He's shopping a murder mystery and keeps getting rejected.

So after much cajoling my special sticky buns are on the buffet along with many other tasty treats and the full bar is open. I know who needs a triple martini THIS early in the morning?

Characterization has been the bane of my existence lately. Whenever I see that I grab my cheat sheet (character sketch) and get to work. The characters are much clearer and more "real" to me.

AJ Nuest said...

Good Morning Lynne! Thank you so much for hosting me today! I'm still on my first cup of coffee, but I could possibly be convinced to add a splash of Kaluha...and your chef's buns look delicisions. Oh, look! He made cinnamon rolls too! *wink* Characterization sheets are definitely a great tool to use when trying to keep those keey players in focus. Especially with series writing, because you'll be able to go back and reference your notes!

Sarah Grimm said...


I love, love, love this post! I wish someone like you was around when I was just starting out because man o man I would have LOVED to get to scoop back then. Thanks for sharing.

AJ Nuest said...

Thanks, Sarah! You know what? ME TOO! The straight talk is always a little harder to digest, but in the end, it can make or break an author. Thanks for stopping by!

AJ Nuest said...

Okay, just read my comment from above. Being the editor I am, I can't stand it. I meant, DELICIOUS, not delicisions. OY! Is that even a WORD?? Bugging me...

Mona Risk said...

What a great post, AJ. When I finish reading a book I enjoyed, I always take a moment to remember the characters. They will stay in my mind after I forget the title of the book.

Vonnie Davis said...

I don't know who to be more excited for: the publishing company for landing YOU or you for progressing to editor. Yay, you!! Yay, Still Moments.

I agree so much for what you've written. I was into chapter 5 of Storm's Interlude when it hit me this purely Alpha male I'd created was also the caretaker for the family. Why? Because of his "points of pain" -- a phrase I've coined to explain past hurts that influence how a character acts and reacts to things. In Storm's case, his point of pain was the abandonment by his mother. In response, he started taking care of everyone to keep them close to him. When I realized that, I went back through earlier chapters adding elements to support that behavior pattern.

Can't wait to read your next post!!! Again, whoo-hooo to you for the new job.

Calisa Rhose said...

Delicisions= The trial and error of making difficult choices about pleasurable treats or actions. :-P

Congrats AJ! I love characterization. It's my strong point. Motivation, emotional baggage? Mmm not so much. Conflict- even less that motivation. This is a print and post blog! Thanks Lynn, for bringing a wonderful editor to 'show' us how to get it right, rather than 'telling' us how not to. Now I need a piece of your sticky buns. :)

AJ Nuest said...

Hey Miss Mona! Yep, the characters are what keep us coming back for more -- either for the next stallment or another book by the same author. In my opinion, determine the strength of a story, regardless of what happens. Those character reactions are key! Thanks for stopping by!

AJ Nuest said...

BRAVO, Vonnie! THAT is what makes a good story! And why Storm's Interlude is so fantastic. As a panster myself, I often have to go back and make sure those actions, verbiage and thoughts all stream from the same point of motivation for my characters. Thanks for the congrats, hun! It's going to be an interesting year! Hugs!

AJ Nuest said...

LOLOLOL Calisa! I'm USING THAT! You crack me up! Thanks for fixing my delicisions flub into something usable.

Conflict can be difficult to create, that's for sure. Sometimes I write down my character's motivation and hang it on the wall next to where I write. If I get stuck, I usually step away from the laptop for a bit, mulling over exactly how that character would react to a certain situation based on their motivation. Although I love this part of writing, it can be tough, no doubt. Because more often than not, the character doesn't react how I would at all -- different motivations. Thanks for visiting! Love ya!

Calisa Rhose said...

Use away AJ! I think I'll submit it to Webster's! lol

Thanks for the tip on conflict. I get so anxious to get it all 'on paper' that I usually forget I can step away. I need to at times, but I don't. *uses Lynn's stress reducer to bang head*

wlynnchantale said...

I forget too and end up banging my head on that stress reducer. I was so bad the other day my kids OFFERED to pour me a glass of whiskey. :-)

Jannine Gallant said...

All good info, AJ. It's a balancing act to keep your character growing and changing without jumping the line and acting contrary to their personality. Neatly summerized!

Caroline Clemmons said...

AJ, congratulations on the new position. Great post for all writers to absorb.

AJ Nuest said...

LOL! Calisa and Lynne, you ladies are CRACKING ME UP! Bang, bang, bang...been there, and the sad part is usually nobody answers. Did someone say whiskey? *sniff, sniff* Where? Set 'em up!

AJ Nuest said...

Hi Jannine! Thanks soooo much for stopping in. Yes, there is such a fine line between keeping the conflict, sexual tension and action rolling at a heady pace, without making the characters out to be complete whack jobs. When the author does this, and does it well, though... Ah...nothing better.

wlynnchantale said...

LOL! My table has quite a dent in it. Yep. Gotcha covered AJ. The bar's gotcha covered. I'll have a glass of wine myself.

AJ Nuest said...

Hi Caroline! Thanks so much for popping in to join us! Glad you liked the read. Hugs, my friend!

Sarah Grimm said...

Whiskey? Wine? Who's bartending? I'll take white zin.

Cathie Dunn said...

Great, informative post, AJ. Thanks for sharing. Oh, and many congrats on your new job. How exciting! :-)

LaVerne Clark said...

Oooo - whiskey...make mine a Jameson's please! ; )

Congratulations AJ!! That is fantastic news about your new job - wow! I'm going to go have a squizz at Still Moments after posting this comment. And I hear you about characters doing things their personalities don't support. I've read a few submissions for TWRP now that have this problem and it grates me every time. Lots of eye-rolling - and then embarrassment when I realize I've done the same in my current WIP. Oops!

I'm saving this to my favourites (not a sp. error - just Kiwi-speak)

By the way - I hope you'll still have time to write another fabulous story or two!

Anonymous said...

Loved your blog so much, I'll just have to come back next week..a great insight into an editor's job. Just wonderd what a person in that position would do if a frend's manuscript came across their desk!!!
Congrats on the new job...

AJ Nuest said...

Excuse me, Garcon? White Zin for my friend, Sarah, please!

AJ Nuest said...

Hi Cathie! Thanks for taking a read and for the congrats on the new job. Should be quite the balancing act, switching gears between author and editor!

AJ Nuest said...

Hello my friend, LaVerne from down under! Hope this day is finding you well! I'm secretly chuckling about the eye-rolling. I do that a lot, and I KNOW for a fact that my editor does too! I think it comes with the territory! Hope you like the SMP website! I would just LOVE to see something from you cross my desk! Cheers, mate! OH! And since SMP is based in Canada, I see favourite a LOT! *wink*

AJ Nuest said...

MIMI! I'm so happy to see you here! Is that a hint that you may submit to SMP?? Oh! Don't get me all excited and then dash my hopes! Super big hugs to you and I certainly do hope to see you next week!!

Amie said...

Having been on the receiving end of AJ's editing--even in a non-official capacity--I can tell you that she doesn't let friendship get in the way of editing. Ahem...not that say that she's mean (which is how she described herself to me) but let's go with 'tough'. And what does that mean for potential manuscripts? It means they come out clean and succinct. Much more so than this spot! LOL Gotta go get some more coffee. Love ya, AJ!!

Carol L. said...

What a great post for writers AJ.
Congrats on your new job. You are so dedicated and it shows in your post. Glad to have met you here.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com