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Jane Porter’s 10 Things Not to Do if You’re Trying to Sell to Harlequin in 10 Years or Less!
My first four books were all hard sells: in the first one, the hero was a baseball player, in the second, the setting was South Africa, in the third, the book was set in Austria, in the fourth, the hero was a senator. So to recap — avoid the stuff that makes Harlequin marketing cringe and that list includes — no athlete heroes, no rock star heroes, no overly artsy heroes; no setting that involves lots of conflict, war, or poverty; no setting (for Presents) that is too cold and alp-y as the hot Mediterranean climes seem most popular; no heroes or heroines that are politicians, no plot lines that involve politics, lobbyists, or controversial issues…
Summary — in general go for the fairly safe, popular hooks and themes in your targeted line. i.e., if you know Presents books set in Greece, Italy, etc do really well, I’d go for a setting like that, or choose an Italian or Greek or Sheikh hero. (Don’t you like how points 1-4 were all jammed together? That’s five years of experience right there! And these were all complete novels written, too!)
I took my first four books and sent them round-robin to the various editorial offices without really understanding why they were being rejected. I figured, okay, Richmond doesn’t like this but Toronto might, so the story would go back out the door and my hopes would start inching up. I should have tried to figure out what about the books didn’t work (no one back then would tell me straight out, “we don’t buy baseball heroes”, or “Austria isn’t a popular setting”, or “politicians don’t sell” so I kept trying to peddle books that weren’t going to really break down any doors.
Summary — when the rejection letter comes, try to figure out what ‘lacks emotional punch’ means. And if you get lots of these and are still scratching your head, maybe bite the bullet and enter some contests and get some honest input from folks that won’t hold back. It wasn’t until I started entering a couple contests did I learn that my heroes were my strength and my heroines tended to be unsympathetic. That info sometimes stung, but it also got me thinking.
I can’t believe I’m putting all this out there for everyone to read, but I’m hoping to prevent some of you from making my mistakes, so here’s a biggie: Don’t send chapters to Temptation if you don’t read Temptation, just as don’t send a partial to Presents if you don’t really love alpha heroes. Presents isn’t going to buy a beta hero. Temptation probably doesn’t buy lots of Greek tycoons who still live in Greece. Desire has a special tone of its own and Desire isn’t a little ‘shorter’ Temptation, or an American version of Presents. Know the authors that really sell well in a line. Read the books month in and month out. Read at least 4-6 months worth, lots of different titles, to get a feel for a line. Editors can tell if you know their line, and they appreciate and respect authors who don’t send them needless work — because even attaching a form rejection takes time and energy — and everything sent to Harlequin gets entered in a nice big fat database so save yourself postage and emotional energy by submitting to the right line, versus ‘any place that might possibly buy me’. (Because I used to do this…)
About 7 years into my struggle to sell I began to feel desperate. I really wanted to sell. I really felt trapped and frustrated and I was writing harder than ever. In an effort to gain someone’s attention (anyone’s!) I began to send out lots of queries, and frankly, I didn’t have the books ready — at least not strong contenders. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes it’s really important to sit on a manuscript for a couple weeks and get some perspective before you sent a partial or a complete out. Give yourself time to see your story’s strengths and weaknesses. Desperate girls don’t get dates. Desperate authors don’t get bought. Tell yourself you’re in this for the long haul — prepare yourself for a long hard road — and hang on to your courage and determination. Folks that stick with the writing, continue to grow and get feedback, will eventually succeed.
Okay, this is the opposite problem on points #1-4. I met a Harlequin editor a couple years ago (two years before I finally sold) and I had the chance to learn what would make her interested in a manuscript I was currently working on, and she said yes, love the opening conflict, no, hero’s occupation would concern me, yes small town would be appealing, no, California cattle ranches don’t do it for me, but Texas cattle ranches would…and so on. I was disappointed on one hand because the book was nearly finished and hero was a retired athlete (yep, I was back to writing a sports hero) and the setting was central California and heroine was a reporter. After discussion with editor I realized I could make the hero a retired rodeo rider, the setting could be shifted to Texas, and the heroine could become a bit more of a homemaker devoted to her son. Now for the first time I understood some of the Harlequin ‘hooks’. Texas was selling big, cowboys and rancher heroes were hot, heroine was appealing — reunion stories are popular…and this story eventually became my 1998 GH long contemporary series winner, All Around Cowboy.
This book never sold. It was too dark for some lines, too over the top dramatic for other lines, too small town for other lines…and so on. And I’ll never forget one editor telling me, “Frankly, it’s got too many hooks.” Summary — pick one or two hooks for your story, but be judicious. You don’t want your story too predictable.
Everyone’s heard the expression, “No use beating a dead horse”, well, revising a manuscript endlessly can be an exercise in emotional and physical futility. Some manuscripts will just never sell…and some can be revised to death. I did this very thing with my GH manuscript. All-Around Cowboy was rewritten 3-4 times, once for Special Edition, once for Superromance (and we know there’s a massive difference between the two! And I’d just started to rewrite it again for IM when I came to my senses…or was dragged there by my good friend, Barb Dunlop who writes for Temptation. She basically said, Move on. You have to move on.) And I finally did.
Summary — did All-Around Cowboy ever sell? No. But the opening chapters did become the inspiration for the opening chapter in my The Sheikh’s Wife. The first chapter is literally the same chapter from All-Around Cowboy, but my rodeo hero became a sheikh. So, the challenge then here from points # 8 & 9 is — know when to hold them, know when to fold them…you get the idea. And it took me a long time to learn these points. Actually another 3 years.
You’re never going to be able to make everyone happy, and please every critique group member, contest judge, editor, reader, family member. The more you second guess yourself, the more you try to write “for someone else”, the harder it will be to hear your own voice, to trust your own vision, and the tightrope gets shaky. Write for yourself. Penny Jordan said that to me two years ago in New Orleans and I haven’t forgotten it. She said you’ll never please every reader, so try to please yourself. And that’s how I got my first sale. I finally knew the ‘rules’, I understood the marketing perspective, I’d mastered much of the craft, so I gave up on the ‘dead horse manuscript’ and I started a brand new novel, and armed with what I knew sold well in Presents (Italian hero, marriage of convenience, secret baby) I wrote a story my way — and I just let it go. I wrote with as much emotion and passion and desire as I wanted. I didn’t hold back, I didn’t try to temper anything, I didn’t question anything being too much or too over the top. I trusted myself to write an interesting story and that was The Italian Groom.
Summary — you have to be yourself. Just like Kate Walker has said so many times, and so well, readers don’t want pale imitations of anyone else. They want the original.