When we look at the question of why some manuscripts sell and others don't, we have to be pragmatic. Writers tend to think that it's publishers and editors who decide what gets published, and regard them as devils or gods as a consequence. In fact, it is _book buyers_ who hold our fate in their hands.
A particular work of fiction will sell to a publisher only if the publisher believes readers will want to buy it, thus giving the publisher a chance of covering costs and staying in business. This is why romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and westerns -- Popular Fiction -- are most of what is published in fiction. That is what people want to buy.
(Of course the real big seller these days is non-fiction, especially self-help books. We all seem to need help!)
However, in choosing to write popular fiction, we are choosing to write something for which there is huge demand among the buying public. But we are also choosing to write an unforgiving form of fiction. No grants, no subsidies. Deliver the goods -- reader satisfaction -- or starve.
People don't buy popular fiction because it's good for them, or because it's required reading, or to impress others. They buy it in the expectation of reading pleasure. Never forget that fact.
Popular fiction is the descendant of the ancient art of storytelling when people would sit around the fire in the cave, or in the baronial hall, while the storyteller used the magic of words to create heroes and heroines, villains and monsters, puzzles and mysteries, and in the end a triumphant, satisfying conclusion.
We modern-day storytellers should realize that we have been given a gift. It is easy for us to forget that just as not everyone can create music or paint a picture, not everyone can create worlds in their heads. When I talk to writers, I'm struck by how many say that even as children they lulled themselves to sleep spinning stories.
Many, many people cannot tell themselves stories, or not to their satisfaction. (Despite years of piano lessons and a liking still to fool around on the keyboard, if I had to rely on the music I can produce, I'd be in a bad way.) These people rely on us, the storytellers, to create imaginary worlds, to people them with interesting characters, and to lead the reader in to share the adventure. This experience is enriching and deeply valued and we should be grateful to be able to provide it.
We all know about this gift, for writers are readers, too. There are types of worlds we cannot create, so we turn with appreciation to those who can. This of your favorite author. Then think that one day (or perhaps already) you will give the same pleasure to others. This is not a trivial thing.
But there is more to storytelling than this creation of playgrounds for the mind. Underlying the spine-tingling tales of old, lay themes to do with the community's greatest fears and firmest beliefs. It is no different today.
Mystery novels address the reader's need to believe that justice will prevail. Science fiction supports the belief that there will always be new frontiers, new hope, for humanity; fantasy, that there are new wonders around and within us.
Romance, too, supports beliefs and helps conquer fears. It affirms the possibility of productive harmony between the sexes, and between individuals and society. It shows women in strong, active roles, facing challenges and overcoming them. It carries tremendous optimism, and that is why it is so popular. No matter what dark and tortured paths it wanders, the reader is always brought out safely to the light.
The point I'm coming to here is that a writer should know the readership she or he wants to sell to and know, consciously or unconsciously, what the reader is looking for in the book. The best way to do this is to sell to yourself. Write the book you want to read. What would you like to read that isn't already out there?
Not that long ago, someone, somewhere -- probably a woman -- said, "I'm tired of these male PIs. Wouldn't it be interesting to read about a female one?" Now, some of the hottest mysteries on the market are female PIs.
In SF&F, the male style of boldly going where no one has gone before, usually in phallic space ships, has been joined by books -- mostly by women -- about community and social problems on new worlds, or here on earth in the future.
In romance, someone tossed aside their How-To-Write-A-Romance book and decided they wanted to see the male point of view. Another writer decided she wanted a Regency with sex scenes. Another, that reality was restrictive; she wanted ghosts, vampires, time-travelers, aliens.
Not all these innovators found it easy, but in big ways and little, this is what drives writers -- creating worlds that don't already exist.
When I sat down to write my first published book, I was tired of Regency romances in which the hero and heroine were thrown together in a bizarre way. They met in a snow storm. He won her at cards. She ended up in his bedroom by mistake. I wanted to see a story that started with a boring, conventional engagement to marry, and I started it with the line: "It was the most talk-about and yet the most tedious betrothal of the year."
For a later book, EMILY AND THE DARK ANGEL, I'd grown tired of rakish heroes who were turned by love into repentant sober-sides. So the end of that book is that Verderan takes conventional Emily off for a life of monogamous raking.
Then I decided I wanted to write a Georgian. A real Georgian. Not a highwayman or pirate book, but a story set in mid-eighteenth century society, with the men in high-heeled shoes and silks and lace, and the ladies in wide-skirted gowns. A story seething with cynical amorality and the fizz of Enlightenment adventure. A story set to the music of Mozart, but to the rhythm of rapiers.
Again, no one was doing it, but once I opened the door to the world, many readers found it was a wonderful new place to explore. That book was _My Lady Notorious_ and the second book in the series, _Tempting Fortune_ will be out in March in North America. (That's the only shameless plug here, I promise!)
This bold approach is not only for the experienced author. Many now authors have broken in by offering something new and different. However, being new and different is not enough. The fact that the reading public is hungry for a vampire PI does not mean that they will accept a badly written one.
I'm not going to try to give a writing course, but I'll make a few points here. The first is that your best educational tool is books you enjoy. Take that copy of Jayne Anne Krentz, Julie Garwood, or Linda Howard and re-read it with a notepad and pencil in hand. Warning, you'll almost certainly find yourself sucked back into the story and forgetting to analyze, so make yourself stop after every double page to write down what you can detect about the writing there.
Did you feel emotion? What? Go back and see how the writer triggered that emotion.
Did you learn something you hadn't known -- a story fact? How was it given you?
Is something described so clearly you feel you're really there?
How was that done? How many senses were used?
What is the viewpoint -- which means, through which character's eyes and mind are you perceiving things? Try to imagine what those two pages would be like through the eyes of another character.
Are the sentences long or short? Are the paragraphs long or short? Do they vary, and if so, why?
What sort of tags (he said, she saids) wore used in dialogue, and where were they placed?
With these sorts of questions you will learn from the experts.
However, you will only truly learn by writing. As with most new endeavors, you will probably have to write a lot of training-wheel stuff before you finally get rolling. Be critical and demanding of yourself, and find other writers to criticize your work.
Here are a few points about good storytelling that might help you.
Be focussed. Decide what your story is about and keep your eye on the main line. When your heroine is fleeing through the bog, it is probably not a good time to tell all you know about the flora and fauna. It might be interesting and well-written but it will be irrelevant. Unless you can make it part of the plot, it will probably be irrelevant for the whole of the book.
The storyteller's gift is to be invisible. The reader is with the characters and their situation, not with the storyteller who creates those things for her. Elaborately clever language and description is nearly always intrusive rather than appreciated.
Nearly all first time writers start their story too soon. By this I mean that the writers starts by telling us about the letter from Grandma complaining about strange noises in the night, and the train ride (wherein our hero thinks back over his life and his recent employment as an undercover drug cop....), and the arrival at grandmother's house, perhaps with a stop to talk to a neighbor on the way about eccentric old Jenny.
But you have to ask, why would a reader be interested in all this. You've given her no reason to care. When does the _story_ start?
It could start with the letter as a kind of prologue. The letter is interesting. But then it could go straight to when the hero walking toward Grandma's cottage, which looks peaceful and normal in the warm sunlight. He knocks. No answer. He goes in and finds grandma's rocking chair empty but still rocking.
Now you've got your reader's attention. She, too, wants to know what happened to Grandma. In time, you can reveal things about the hero's relationship with her, and about his undercover work, and all the other relevant backstory, but not until you've caught the reader's attention. Otherwise it's like getting stuck on a plane next to someone who wants to tell you their life story.
Give your characters strong goals. Stories work best when people desperately want something, and it's generally possession, escape, or revenge. If the character could walk away from the problem, it won't work as well. If the hero in my above example had just come across that rocking chair by accident, with no personal involvement, it wouldn't be nearly as powerful. And let's thing what he could want. he could want to "re-possess" Grandma. He could also want something that's disappeared with Grandma. He could need to escape the drug lords who have taken her. He could need to revenge her death. _She_ could be a druglord and he could need to revenge the death of his partner, but someone may have beaten him to it!
Now, despite my recommendation to write for yourself, to be bold, to be innovative, there are some aspects to storytelling that make it more likely that your romance manuscript will sell; ingredients that maximize the chance that your love story will please many people, including editors.
What are they? The early meet, togetherness, and the happy ending. The early meet. A romance is about the relationship between hero and heroine. Therefore it is logical that they should meet as close to page one as possible. The shorter the book, the closer to page one it should be, but no book ever suffered from a page one, line one meeting.
There are variations, however. The meeting can be delayed, but it is important that both hero and heroine are "present" in the book in some way. If the book opens with heroine's horrendous first day as the new head keeper of the zoo, there should be some awareness of the "Snake Man" who is going to come into her life very soon.
Since it's common to use both viewpoints, the author could intertwine scenes in the viewpoint of both hero and heroine, revealing that they are on a collision path, even though they do not know it.
Togetherness. One having met, the hero and heroine should be together for as much of the book as possible. If at any point in your book the hero and heroine are not together, consider carefully whether they can be. If not, does that scene needs to be shown at all? If it does, have you created a plot unsuited for romance in that it is causing the hero and heroine to be apart? Of course, just about every romance has some scenes in which they are apart, but there shouldn't be too many of them. Scenes with neither the hero nor heroine present need to be particularly scrutinized. At the very least the characters who are present should be focussed on the hero and heroine.
If this sort of focus on the hero and heroine and their developing relationship seems impossible in your book, it does not mean that there is anything wrong with it, just that it may not be a romance. It may be an historical novel, a mystery, a fantasy, or mainstream women's fiction with a romance sub-plot.
The happy ending. Yes, presumably you know enough to make sure girl gets boy in a romance, but more than that is needed. There should be the sort of ending that predicts happiness for the next sixty years. This in achieved only if it is clear that the problems that started the book have been conclusively settled.
It does not have to be "happy ever after" since the reader knows that life isn't like that. She knows that even the most well-suited and loving couple will have troubles. What she needs is to feel that this couple can handle the bad times as well as the good -- sickness, poverty, colicky babies, aging.
In many ways, the process of a romance novel is to show, test, and prove that the hero and heroine do have the personal strength and the loving bond to survive anything life throws at them.
An ending is made even better if others are touched to happiness, no matter how grudging, by the depth of the hero and heroine's loving commitment.
Ideally, you want your reader to close the book and wander around with a soppy smile on her face for at least an hour saying, "I just read such a wonderful book...!"
These three things -- the early meet, togetherness, and the happy ending -- you leave out of your book at your peril. Don't be easy on yourself. If you aren't maximizing these three aspects you can't say, `It's just the way the story is...' That's never good enough in fiction because everything you write is your choice.
If you feel strongly that you have to weaken one of these aspects, think carefully about it. Imagine you are trying to sell this break in these rules to an extremely reluctant customer. Who is that customer? It's an editor with a stack of manuscripts to read, each just as tidy and competent as yours. That editor's career depends in part on her buying novels that will please the romance reader. Now, tell her why you want to write a romance with the hero and heroine on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Explain it to her very carefully....