Happy Friday, my writer friends! As promised, today’s interview is with the wonderful Victoria Curran, editor at Harlequin Heartwarming. Victoria will be taking pitches at the 2014 ANWA Writer’s Conference, next week! For more information on the Conference click, ANWACon.
Victoria Curran has been with Harlequin for ten years. Before Harlequin, she was primarily a magazine journalist (trade and consumer press, writer and editor) with some corporate communications contracts publishing newsletters. During her romance editing career she’s worked with Series authors on Harlequin Superromance, Harlequin American, our inspirational Love Inspired romances, our action/adventure fiction, and now Harlequin Heartwarming.
TSB: What are you looking for right now?
VC: We’re looking for clean, character-driven contemporary romances where the romance is the most exciting part of the book and where a motivated hero and heroine sweep readers along on their unpredictable, roller-coaster journey to reach a happy ending.
And can I just clarify the term “clean” for a moment? I use the term “clean” to convey that our books focus on deeply emotional attraction rather than physical passion and that there’s no sex in the current story between unmarried characters—and we’re also careful of language.
I try to avoid the term “sweet” romance, which is recognized in the industry as a romance without sex, but in practice, often propels authors toward a story with a more sugary, polite journey to a happy ending, which is predictable…and a little dull, if I can be frank! That’s definitely not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for stories where readers will wonder how on earth the pair will ever end up together. Clean stories need to be just as exciting as the edgier sexy ones.
TSB: What do you expect from your authors? And what should they expect from you?
VC: Interesting question… I guess I want authors to know that when we acquire their first book, we’re hoping we’re committing to a longer relationship, and that we can help build the author’s career by getting their books out there to our readers. After we get through the first book’s line edits, we hope the author will then submit a new proposal for one or more books for our series. We want this, even if the author has a hybrid career, where he or she is also self-publishing or has a relationship with another publisher. In our one series, we publish four books a month, which is 48 books a year. We need to build a stable of authors we can rely on to continue to recommit to us.
We buy the first book when we’re satisfied the full manuscript is close to where we need it to be (and may ask for a revision under contract). But subsequent books, once an author has become a Heartwarming author, we only need to see three chapters and a synopsis. And if it’s a multi-book proposal—whether the stories are connected or not—we only need to see a full proposal on the first one and short synopses on the rest to be able to work toward a new contract.
Authors should expect us to be their advocates, within Harlequin and also within the industry and with the readers, as best we can. We will try to represent their story to the marketing and art team to create strong covers because we are committed to successful books, which is obviously a win/win for Harlequin and for the author.
TSB: What are the top three things that turn you off to a query letter, and top three that get you excited?
VC: In the Toronto office of Harlequin, our series don’t require the preliminary step of a query letter. We welcome a proposal from authors: cover letter, synopsis and the first three chapters of the book. So I’m going to talk about proposals rather than query letters. What excites me most?
- Above average writing as demonstrated in the opening chapters, and it’s usually obvious immediately…and makes me sit up. What makes writing stand out: specific details that are fresh and often surprising; a confidence that readers will get the point that’s being made on much, much less (showing something without explaining in internalization what it meant or opening in the middle of characters’ lives without explaining everything that has led up to this moment, for instance); a reasonable balance between action, dialogue, internalization and description.
- I get excited when I read a synopsis that shows me how the lead characters, strongly motivated before the story opens, act based on those motives. These fleshed out characters don’t put aside who they are and what they want to act in mysterious ways/say mysterious things they’ve never acted in/said before because of love. That is a predictable romance cliché I see all the time. If the story stays true to the characterization, the characters will drive the story and I probably won’t be able to predict each step. Yay!
- This is part of the first and second points, for sure, but it’s an exciting proposal when I can see that each of the main characters has an inner, personal obstacle to love—something they risk losing by falling in love. When I can see what they have to lose (unpredictable path to happy ending), rather than that they have everything to gain through love (predictable path to ending).
- Traditional romance storytelling where the only obstacle to romance is an external threat to one of the lead characters and the other has to rescue them. They are victims of the action rather than being independent and driven and taking actions that lead to repercussions they have to then deal with, which is more contemporary storytelling.
- Fleshed out characters who become wooden as they feel immediate attraction and from that moment on are driven only by the attraction, not by what they wanted before the story began.
- The life and death crisis at the end of the story that makes lead characters realize love is more important than anything. Don’t get me wrong, it can work. Is it unexpected? No. So it’s just one of those things that’s a red flag to an editor. Does it feel woven into the character development or an easy resolution? It bears further scrutiny.
TSB: In this changing industry, specifically with self publishing on the rise, what benefits does traditional publishing offer the author that self publishing cannot?
VC: Well, with a series romance like Harlequin Heartwarming, our books are sold based on the series name. We have subscribers through our direct-to-consumer division, our book club, who want every clean romance we publish in a month. It always has been and still is a safer way to hone your craft while your books are selling. A few of our authors have come to us after already having put their first books out through self-publishing or small presses. While I can’t say what their sales stats were in their previous experiences, I know they see Harlequin as an opportunity and a support. Plus, our community of authors is quite a wonderful sisterhood (plus one brother!). They’ve launched a Heartwarming authors blog and the editors join them there when we can to help build an online fan base—which they’re also doing on goodreads. There’s strength in numbers and we’re a tight-knit team with a lot of good ideas.
TSB: If you have rejected a work, but the author has made significant revisions, can the author resubmit?
VC: Absolutely. Sometimes there are clues in the rejection letter that the story is so clearly not right for a series that the editor doesn’t believe revision can make it work. In which case, maybe you’ll see a line “best of luck finding the right home for your story” or something like that. Even then, though, my favourite surprise is when an author not only nails a revision but surpasses what I could imagine capable.
TSB: How important is the first line and first chapter of a manuscript?
VC: The first chapter is critical. If the writing is middle of the road, an editor may not read past that first chapter. First line? I’ve heard some agents and editors say that’s all they need to see to know. Me, I’m not that good!
TSB: Thank you, Victoria, for helping us to get to know you and the world of publishing a little better!
Along with taking pitches a ANWACon, Victoria will be teaching two fabulous classes: Sweet Doesn’t Mean Syrupy and Wholesome Isn’t All Tea Parties and Blind Dates, and How Do You Build High Stakes into Your Romance When Sensuality and Religion Aren’t Part of the Story?
Here are a few titles Harlequin Heartwarming has published:
Monday, I will be interviewing our last (but certainly not least) agent coming to ANWACon, the lovely Taylor Martindale from Full Circle Literary Agency.
Remember, you can’t revise an empty page, so keep writing.