Today I finished judging the romance contest entries.
I hope the writers who submitted their work learn half as much from my comments as I have learned from reading their pieces. Here are some more reflections:
1. You have to have a sympathetic protagonist. Sorry, but a perfect woman will not make me want to keep reading. Want to hear the single biggest compliment readers send me about Kiki Lowenstein? Stand back...
They like her.
They like that she's slightly overweight. They like that her mother-in-law doesn't like her. They like that she's struggling with self-esteem. They really, really like the jams she gets into.
You can't have a likable heroine who is physically flawless, who drives a fancy car, and who cares about nothing but her job. Sorry! I just won't care about HER.
Instead, humanize her. Let her have trouble parallel parking. Give her a bad hair day. Make her a sucker for candy like Brenda is on The Closer. Make her a klutz like Bella is in Twilight. Or a self-centered brat like Scarlett O'Hara. But don't make her perfect.
2. You can't dump a lot of people in the story all at once. Unless you plan on writing a Russian novel, spare me. Also, go easy with the nicknames. In one entry, the lead was called by three different names! Argh. Especially at the start, give the poor reader a break.
3. You can't tell me all your backstory in one fell swoop. Three anecdotes about the male lead are two too many. Especially if it's written in expository form. Instead, let a part of the backstory come out in dialogue. Make the character tell a story to another character. Here's an example...
Ron's boss didn't want him to take time off for the funeral.
"She wasn't blood kin," grumbled Police Chief Dickens. "Just some old lady from your neighborhood."
A twitch began along Ron's jawline. He fought to stay calm. Dickens was right, technically. But Miss Lena had been more to him than a neighbor. She'd been his personal angel, the woman who taught him right from wrong after his mother died and his father hit the sauce, big time. Ron forced himself to count to ten in Latin--after all, Miss Lena was a devout Catholic--and said slowly, "Call it a vacation day. I've got two months racked up."
Police Chief Dickens rocked back in his leather desk chair. "Tell you what. You explain how come she matters to you, and I'll consider it. Tell me why a tough guy like you is all broken up about an old neighbor. Why I saw you staring off into space yesterday like your pet dog died." With that, the chief gestured to the chair across his wide polished oak desk.
Ron folded himself into the small chair, which he suspected was uncomfortable for a reason. Dickens didn't want anyone to hang around his office too long. Not that Ron wanted to hang around. He wanted to get on the road. He checked the weather forecast: Not good. If he was going to make it to the services on time, he needed to hop a plane.
Well, he'd make this short and sweet, "She fed me. She...she...bailed me out of jail when my own dad wouldn't even make the trip downtown to see what I'd done."
Dickens gave a low whistle. "Tell me more..."
And Ron did.
See? You learn a lot about Ron, our male protagonist, and a whole lot more about Miss Lena, don't you?