Brenda Novak on 5 ways to make your romance story stand out to editors and agents

Thanks again to novelist Brenda Novak for stopping by last week—and to you all for reading and commenting. Per that post, Martha W. and Kristan will each claim an autographed copy of one of Brenda’s books. (Martha and Kristan, can you shoot your addresses to me at writersdigest [at] fwmedia [dot] com so I can pass them along to Brenda?)

And while we’re on the topic of Brenda, we received an e-mail last week wondering about the key ingredients of solid romance stories. (Since I’m spectacularly unprepared to write romance how-tos based on my personal writing experience), here, from Brenda’s article in the new issue of WD about the current state of the genre and how to break in, are five of her insights about what can make your story stand out to agents and editors.

Happy Wednesday!


A strong hook or concept. Anything that helps a publisher promote you and your novel is a plus. If you have what’s called a “high concept” (like Dan Brown’s shocking secrets about the Catholic church, or Jodi Picoult’s issue-related stories) and can communicate it simply and clearly in your pitch, you’ll have a better shot at getting noticed. Popular “hooks” in romance novels currently include secret babies, amnesia, marriages of convenience and mistaken identities.

Sympathetic, motivated characters.
Be sure your protagonist always has something important and personal at stake. When choosing your point of view, tell the story from the viewpoint of the character (or characters) with the most to lose. In romance, readers typically prefer a strong heroine whose sole purpose isn’t to find a man. She is most often successful in her own right, at least on some level (even if she’s facing a difficult time), and this makes her the perfect complement to a strong hero. Paula Eykelhof of MIRA Books, who edits my work as well as Debbie Macomber’s, says, “Readers will care about what happens next only if they can care about your characters, connect with them in some way and feel interested in their personalities and their fates.”

High-stakes conflict. Any Happily Ever After is more enjoyable if it’s hard-won. Although many of the conflicts in romantic fiction may be internal (depending on the subgenre), plot needs to grow out of character. The greater the challenge keeping your characters apart, the more compelling the story will be. Make those challenges difficult but not impossible to overcome.

Unique voice.
To Jayne Ann Krentz, who also writes as Jayne Castle and Amanda Quick and has penned many New York Times bestsellers, voice is what sets one author’s books apart from all the rest. “Voice contains an author’s core values and worldviews and cannot be duplicated. Give one plot to 10 different authors and you’ll get 10 very different stories.”

Tight pacing. Today’s busy reader prefers a story that moves quickly and doesn’t rely too much on interior monologues. Avoid letting your story become static. Keep the reader in the action. Use non-cliché metaphors and similes, and evoke the five senses wherever possible. As in most good writing, avoid passive verbs.

(For more tips on the subject, including the core characteristics of the genre, check out the May/June WD.)

* * *


free to take the following prompt home or post your
response in the Comments section below.
If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail it to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

As Brenda quotes above, “Give one plot to 10 different authors and you’ll get 10 very different stories.” Choose a story from the news, and imagine two different writers witnessed the event—and then went home to write about it. Write their two unique takes on the subject—in a journal entry, a fiction piece inspired by the event, a poem, or any other form your characters desire.

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4 thoughts on “Brenda Novak on 5 ways to make your romance story stand out to editors and agents

  1. Martha W

    Zac & Brenda, Thank you so much! (And the article in WD Mag is a treasure trove of information for anyone wanting to write romance.)

    Mark, did you have a bad day?


    May 1, 2010 12:00pm Journal entry

    I’ve worked hard these past few years. To blend in, to earn enough to send home. To learn how to defeat the demon from the inside.

    But these last couple of days have been the hardest. Functioning amongst those I want to destroy. Knowing that in just a few short hours, I will be able to fulfull my purpose, to avenge my brothers.

    I wish for more than this small bomb, this crude bundle of propane and clock, but I am told that I will serve another purpose. Today is only a message.

    That we have not forgotten.

    May 2, 2010 8:00am Journal entry

    My daily confession: I am afraid right down to my soul. Small town girls shouldn’t have to worry about things like bombs and terrorists, but here I sit, downing a cup of coffee and thanking God my two-year-old little girl won’t grow up without a mother.

    Today a man took it upon himself to be judge, jury, and executioner. Of me. And others like me. Tourists in Times Square. All I wanted was a purse.

    Now all I want is a flight back home.

  2. Mark James

    Congrats Marth and Kristan!

    Journal Entry.
    Thursday, October 23
    I watched my brother die today. I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t know why he was lying on that table with a needle in his arm and poison flowing into his veins. All I know is, he was my little brother, and they carted him out of there in a box, like he wasn’t anything more than a wild mangy dog with scabies.

    The stories in the papers called him the “Snake Killer” because he always wore black snakeskin cowboy boots. I know what they say, that he slaughtered all those girls. That’s the word they used about my brother, “slaughtered”, and in the end that’s what they did to him. I can’t stand thinking about it.

    I wanted to get up, break that little glass window, and pull my brother out from under those straps. But I didn’t. God help me, I didn’t.

    What kind of doctor slides a needle into a man’s arm so he can die?

    I was mad at him; so mad I could have taken that needle and stuck it right through his eye all the way to his brain. But I didn’t do that either.

    Ten years between me and my brother. I remember the day he came home from the hospital. He was sleeping. When I watched him close his eyes, watched that tube between the needle in his arm and those machines behind him fill with poison, I told myself that’s all it was. He was just going to sleep.

    Article in the Daily Trail: “Snake Killer Brought to Justice”

    We never know when the monster walks among us; never know when he’ll strike and snatch away our children, our wives, our brothers, our sisters.

    Today in Texas, the law reached into the soul of a murderer and sent him straight to Hell. At 12:01 this morning James Bradington was put death by lethal injection. This reporter was present for the execution.

    When the curtain opened on the death chamber, the face of a brutal murderer was unveiled. He didn’t have the look of a man who had tortured twelve women, dismembered them and buried them in his own private Death Mound.

    Police say the burial site was hidden in the middle of Mr. Bradington’s three acre farm inside a barn. According to testimony of officers on the scene, the mound stood over eight feet high, and glittered with gold wedding rings, tarnished earrings, and silver bracelets, souvenirs of his heinous acts.

    After the trial, Mr. Bradington never spoke of his crimes, nor did he admit to any of the killings. In his cell prison officials found one last message scrawled on a yellow legal pad, and strangely, it was only two words, “Good night”.

    This morning, in the first minute of the day, the state of Texas avenged senseless death, and if there is a God who would take such a man to his bosom, may He have mercy on his damned soul.


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