How to Write a Romance and Get it Published

by Elizabeth Thornton

The questions I’m most frequently asked by unpublished romance writers go something like this:

  • What writing tips or advice have you for a writer who is just starting out?
  • What about publishing my book once it’s finished?
  • Who should I send it to?
  • How much money can I expect to make?
  • What about agents — should I try to get one, or should I save myself the 15% commission?
  • For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say:

If you are an unpublished romance writer, you should lose no time in becoming a member of Romance Writers of America. This worthwhile association is made up of both published and unpublished writers. In the States, they have local chapters that give support to local members. Their monthly newsletter has articles on how to write, as well as the business aspect of writing, e.g. which publishers are looking for what kind of books and which editors you should send you manuscript to. You’ll also learn what to look for in a good agent and how to approach one.

Once a year, in July, RWA hosts a national conference with workshops for writers at all stages of their careers. You’ll meet other writers in the same boat as yourself. Many, many editors and agents attend these conferences and if you want to (and most unpublished writers do), you can have an appointment with them where you can try to sell your book and yourself.
Even if you can’t make it to the RWA conference, you can still order the audio tapes of the workshops and the best tapes to order, if you’re trying to sell a book, are the ones where the publishers tell you exactly what they are looking for and to whom you should send your manuscript.

So you see, it really is worthwhile to belong to RWA. Their address is:

Romance Writers of America
13700 Veterans Memorial, Suite 315,
Houston, TX 77014
Tel: (713)440-6885

I wish I had known about RWA when I was writing my first book, Bluestocking Bride. But I didn’t. I did everything the hard way. For me, it worked, and my first book sold almost right away. Here’s how I learned to write and here’s how I got published.
I read voraciously, and as I read, I analyzed why some romances appealed to me and others did not. I soon realized that there were two elements I liked in a romance (apart from appealing characters, which all writers strive for). I like humor and I like conflict, not small conflicts, but something shattering that will keep my “hero” and “heroine” apart to the very last page. Appealing characters, humor, heightened emotions, drama — that’s what I strive for. But other writers may strive for something quite different.

“Write what you like to read” is the best advice I can give you.

Once you know what appeals to you, you’ll know what you want to write. You’ll discover your favorite authors and you’ll find yourself saying — “This is good. I really like this. But if I were telling this story, I’d tell it in a different way.”

That’s how I found my “voice,” that indfinable something that makes a writer different from other writers.

When Bluestocking Bride was finished, I had the problem of deciding which publisher to send my manuscript to. There were, at that time, about half a dozen publishers publishing Regency Romances, but only two, Zebra and NAL, were publishing Regencies with explicit sensual passages in them. So, I sent my manuscript to Zebra and NAL, and one other. I didn’t have much hope of getting my “hot” Regency published with this last publisher, and I was right. Back came a rejection letter saying that they were looking for more “romantic” regencies. So that left Zebra and NAL.

I got back a form letter from NAL saying that they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I learned afterwards that my manuscript had ended up on the wrong desk. If I’d known which editor to send it to, at least it would have been read. If I’d been a member of RWA, I would have known the current editors’ names. But I didn’t know about RWA. I didn’t know any published authors. I was doing everything “blind.”

I shall always be grateful to Zebra Books for giving me my start. Wendy McCurdy was the editor who found my book at the bottom of the slush pile (those stacks of unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts that are piled on the floor of every editor’s office). Wendy moved to Bantam Books, and was my editor there for a number of years. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had an editor of her caliber. Wendy has since left Bantam, and my new editor is Shauna Summers.

Luck, as you’ll discover, plays a big part in the success of an author’s career. Being at the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world. So don’t give up. Don’t let rejections get your down. Your luck might change just around the corner.

Did I have an agent when I sold my first book? No. But I wish now that I’d had one. Contracts are tricky things to negotiate. Then there’s the problem of planning a career, step by step. The right agent can be a tremendous help if you know how to work with one to your advantage. My agent is Robyn Rue, and I thank my lucky stars that she accepted me as her client.

However, getting a good agent isn’t always easy when a writer is just starting out. Once you are published, you have a much better chance of being taken seriously. I know, I know, it’s a vicious circle. Many publishers won’t look at your manuscript unless you have an agent, and many agents won’t take on an author until she/he is published. This is where RWA can help. They know which agents are looking for new authors. They also publish a booklet on agents, with names and addresses, and with all kinds of useful information on them.

I wish I’d known all this when I was starting out.

And now on to money. How much can you expect to make with your first book? I have no idea. Writing isn’t like other careers where there is a minimum and maximum salary scale. RWA can help you here again. They put out a “Rate the Publisher” survey which shows average advances for the kind of book you may be writing. Agents have this information too. Without my agent, I wouldn’t know what I was worth. Of course, like any good agent, Robyn thinks I’m worth far more than I’m being paid!

I hope this is helpful. And I hope you have as much joy in your writing as I have in mine – not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears!

So, good luck and success in your writing career!