Monday, February 4, 2013

Looking Over My Shoulder

by Marsha Zinberg,
Executive Editor, Feature and Custom Publishing

Being more and more a believer that it is instructive to understand where you’ve been in order to know where it is you are going, I thought those of you who are newer to our Heartwarming bandwagon might want to learn a bit about how the Harlequin Heartwarming program actually came about.  It’s a feel-good story about listening to our readers and doing our best to understand where they’re coming from.
 It began with our direct-to-consumer customers, who are a pretty vocal bunch.  They write letters, participate in panels, fill out questionnaires, and tell us what they like…..and don’t like!  Though in recent years  Fifty Shades of Everything are everywhere, there are also, we learned, plenty of  romance readers whose preferences run 180 degrees to that trend.  They’ve told us that they prefer more “wholesome” fare in their reading, that they don’t appreciate profanity or violence, that they’d like to read about people like them, community-minded, family-oriented folks dealing with society’s typical challenges…. but still managing to meet and fall in love and eventually commit to each other.
Harlequin’s response? Let’s test the waters!  The Feature and Custom Publishing group was asked to put together a reissue program that would satisfy those readers’ preferences. 
Hm.  Just go find those books in our backlist?  Just go dig oranges out of a bushel of apples?  I was a bit skeptical.  After all, our authors had been writing to the then-current guidelines;  they were providing the level of sensuality that was expected and desired by readers of Superromance, or Silhouette Special Edition, or Romantic Suspense…whatever line they were writing for.  They were fulfilling those readers’ expectations.  And we were now trying to please different readers with different expectations.  How was this ever going to work?
 Fortunately, we’re blessed with an editorial staff long on memory, and  endowed with broad knowledge of our authors’ styles, so, armed with some editor’s  recommendations to augment our search,  members of my team and I  began digging…and reading. 
Eventually, we found the kinds of stories we were looking for, though of course, many contained elements that did not perfectly align with our new wholesome criteria.  We obtained permission from the authors of those books  to edit any elements that were a little out of whack with what we were trying to accomplish, and the authors were not only gracious, they were actually thrilled!  (Thanks for the new stories, Roz, Mary Anne, Mae, Cynthia, Patricia and Lynda….and you too Muriel!)
This exercise was really instructive for me, because what I noticed repeatedly was that those longer stories that were not heavily reliant on six or seven protracted love scenes in their stories (I’m not knocking it…the authors were writing to their readers’ expectations!) revealed plots that were more  intricately crafted. There needed to be more surprises, more  twists and turns to keep the reader engaged during that rising action/middle of the book area that is often prone to lethargy.  Sometimes the authors accomplished this by simply developing their characters in unexpected ways, but there was, one way or another, more story. And many of the authors I spoke to told me that when all was said and done, they actually preferred the edited version of their stories to the originals!
Flash forward.  It’s now been more than a year since the DTC marketers came to me with the news that the program was growing by the day, and they were keen for us to acquire original material for the line.  Music to our ears! We’re so excited to be able to apply these learnings to our new Heartwarming offerings. I still ponder the whole  romance/plot/characterization balance though.  The issue reminds me of a speech I wrote for a conference way back when I was senior editor of Superromance, and made a point that surprisingly seemed controversial.  I told potential authors that “in my opinion, the romance is not the plot.”  Structurally, I see the romance as a sort of symbiotic vine that weaves its way around and through the arc of the plot, enriching it, influencing it, and itself enriched and fed by the characterization. For my reading pleasure, the romance is not in and of itself the goal the hero and heroine are working toward.  I like something bigger to be going on.  But then again, I like Dickens, and John Irving, and Downton Abbey……
 Some authors (and editors) disagreed with me back then, and undoubtedly, some may disagree with me now.
What do you think?  Is the romance the plot? 


11 comments:

  1. Gosh, that's a good question, and a hard one. I've always considered myself a character driven writer. To me the plot is the arc the characters take throughout the story. Romance or mystery or fantasy is what carries the characters through their arcs. And that sounds convoluted. I think generational shifts in society has caused people/readers to look at romance differently. To my peers, romance isn't all about sex, but when I talk to some younger people in the dating game today, love and romance is mostly about sexual compatibility. I keep asking--when you peel that shell away, is there enough left to sustain the other ups and downs of a long-term relationship? Some say yes. For others that's a non-issue as they live in the moment. I'm thankful we still have readers who are interested in the lives of our characters and the roads they travel to reach a realization they have richer lives when they are together.

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    1. Hi Roz:
      I think we are saying basically the same thing but coming at it in different ways. I think you are right that younger people in the "dating game" they are thinking about sexual compatibility. But the audience for Heartwarming is by and large not "younger" people, but a little older with more life experience. I think that will make a difference, and that our stories will resonate with those readers!

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  2. Hi, Marsha! Yes - powerful question! I've always thought love is what supports us through our personal journey through life, and we navigate the journey differently - I mean, we are different - depending on how whom we love supports or betrays us on our search for self and fulfillment. A heroine with less love and support will probably be stronger but possibly cooler, more removed, than the heroine who is loved and protected through the tough times. To me, that's where all the significant character development lives. I've said before that I loved writing love scenes because I thought they found the heart of the hero and heroine and enriched their mutual struggle. I'm obviously learning my way through the Heartwarming approach - and I was never a brilliant plotter - but the man/woman relationship is so rich with possibilities that it doesn't need sex to light up the page.

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    1. Hi Muriel!
      It is a wonderful thing that so many of our current Heartwarming author consider themselves to be character-driven writers. I've always also said that I can forgive an awful lot in the plot (or lack thereof) if I am fully engaged in and empathic with the characters to the point that I just have to find out how they are going to end up. All the elements are so intertwined that it's hard to separate them out....and I do think I remember some pretty interesting plots you have come up with over the years, notwithstanding your claim that you were never a brilliant plotter! You made your stories work, and that's what matters!

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  3. Well, plot is the journey the characters take and romance is what they find along the way.

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  4. With Harlequin having so many different lines, a reader can certainly find the type of book they enjoy, whether it be suspense, romance, traditional, the list goes on. And of course the romance is intrinsic to the plot. If we take romance out? Still a good story when we create strong characters. So I agree with the post from Marcie, the story is the journey and romance is the added benefit the characters find along the way. That's why I love the Heartwarming line. Great stories, strong characters and romance to lift our hearts.

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  5. Great post. It sure filled in some of the details I'd wondered about. When I first started writing, Super was the line I targeted and read. When you say the program is growing, is that the number of readers joining the book club? Or are different purchase avenues countered in, like ebook purchasing? I've been promoting the line mostly via the bookclub. Truly, I love the post and it made me ponder.

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  6. Pamela:
    Hi there! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!
    When I referred to the program growing, I was referring basically to number of new DTC subscribers tot he program. I'm sure it is growing in other areas, but I don't have access to those numbers...at least not yet! We're still a very new line!

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  7. I agree with Marcie. The story is the journey that we take our characters (and thus, our readers) on but the romance may not be the destination they had in mind, but it certainly is found along the way.

    Great post! I'm glad that Heartwarming is here. The stories I want to tell fit right in to this line.

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  8. I'm a John Irving and Downton Abby fan too and agree that the finding that balance between romance and other- possibly bigger- plot lines is critical ! Terrific post.

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  9. I just wanted to say how thrilled I am about this new Heartwarming line. I've been hoping the literary pendulum would swing back to "wholesome," and I'm so glad Harlequin is leading the way. Bravo!

    (Can't wait to submit something to you!) :-)

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